The Basics of Wine Tasting for Passionate Drinkers

Wine tasting is a complex process. Practiced tasters assess wines on many different levels, including color and clarity, aromas, flavors and finishes.

First look at the wine visually – examine its color and watch for clear liquid running down the sides of the glass (legs).

Sniff the wine, taking short whiffs followed by larger inhales. Note any aromas of fruit, flowers, or wood.

  1. Color and Clarity

Wine tasting can feel intimidating at first. Many people think of it as some sort of test, but in reality there are no right or wrong answers. The only rule is to enjoy yourself! When you first taste a wine, you should begin with observing its color and clarity. Color gives clues about a wine’s grape variety, aging, and potential flavors. Clarity can indicate the wine’s alcohol content, as well as its viscosity (as observed by the “legs” that run down the inside of the glass after swirling).

Next, you should sniff the wine, concentrating on the intensity and complexity of aromas. Try to identify any fruity, floral, or spicy scents. Your sense of smell is very subjective, so remember that your associations will be unique to you!

Once you have a firm grasp of the wine’s color and clarity, you can then observe the mouthfeel (the way that a wine feels on your tongue). Pay attention to whether the wine is light and crisp, or full and creamy. You should also consider the length of the finish, which reveals a wine’s depth and quality.

  1. Aromas

Wine aromas are the first thing you notice when smelling a glass of wine. They can be subtle and complex or more pungent and intense. They can tell you a lot about the grape variety, the soil, the fermentation and even the age of the wine.

A good rule of thumb is that darker fruit aromas indicate a riper wine while lighter fruit aromas mean a younger wine. In addition, some wines can have secondary aromas from the process of making them. These can sometimes smell like sourdough, old beer or cheese rind.

Another important aspect of aromas is acidity. This is usually measured by the pH of the wine and it determines how tart or zippy a wine will taste. The higher the pH, the more sour a wine will be. Acidity also helps to balance a wines flavors by stimulating your taste buds.

  1. Flavors

The first step of wine tasting is to take a small sip and smell the wine. You want to sniff the wine without burying your nose in the glass as this can contaminate your taste. Rather, hover over the glass like you are surveying rush hour traffic.

This part of the process is called retronasal olfaction and can be tricky for new wine tasters. Almost any smell can be associated with wine as thousands of chemical amalgams merge during fermentation and aging. Some of these smells are specific (like apples and grapefruit), others are more general (like flowers, licorice, and tobacco) and others are unique to each bottle of wine (like eucalyptus and gooseberry).

A lot of the flavor comes from the type of fruit used to make the wine as well as the terroir. For example, Pinot Noir from Burgundy tends to have a touch of eucalyptus, while Pinot Noir from Chile may express strawberry and bubblegum flavors. Other wines are influenced by the use of oak and can impart flavors like vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

  1. Body

Body is the wine’s weight or how heavy it feels in your mouth. It can be determined by a combination of tannins, extract, alcohol, glycerol and acidity. You’ll usually hear wines referred to as light-, medium- or full-bodied. A simple comparison is to compare a light-bodied wine to skim milk, a medium-bodied wine to 2% milk, and a full-bodied wine to whole milk or cream.

You can easily assess the body of a wine by swirling it before sipping it. This does two things – releases the aromas and helps to aerate the wine. As you swirl, pay attention to how the liquid moves over the surface of your tongue – a heavier body will take longer to move off the tongue than a lighter one.

During your tasting, remember that you’re there to learn and develop an appreciation of wine, not pass a test. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff questions and don’t hesitate to spit samples. Be sure to bring a designated driver or make arrangements for a ride home, and always drink responsibly.

  1. Finish

The finish is what really sets apart a good wine from the humdrum. A good wine will linger in the mouth for eight to ten seconds to provide a full tasting experience.

When you taste a new wine, start by gently swirling it in the glass and then sip a small amount into your mouth. Keep the wine on your tongue for a few seconds and then gently roll it over your teeth, cheeks and upper gums. While you are doing this, breathe steadily through your nose to activate your sense of smell.

Swirling the wine warms it up, opens up the aromas and allows you to smell the wine more deeply. A good wine will have a nice soft finish that lingers in the mouth.

When you are done, spit the wine into the spit bucket. The point of the wine tasting is not to get drunk, but to try new wines and learn about them. If you like a wine, you can purchase it by the bottle or ask for a sampler to take home.

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