WINE TASTING: A systematic approach

At some point, you saw somebody swirling their glass of wine and wondered what on earth they're doing. Well now, we are going to walk through why and how we taste wine properly.


ANALYTICAL WINE TASTING

When you are wine tasting you go through three basic steps: You look at the wine, you smell the wine, and then you taste the wine. We have expanded and organized these simple steps into an analytical tasting sheet. The purpose of this exercise is to concentrate on what is in the glass and write it down. This will help to reinforce the impression of style and grape variety. When describing the wine’s attributes try to use objective words rather than subjective words. The sheet is designed to enable you to quickly finish the evaluation of the wine within 2-4 minutes. Keep the sheet (at the bottom of this article) for future reference.


Before you start, keep in mind that the best temperature of tasting wine is between 16°C and 18°C (slightly chilled - but not too cold). Although enjoying a wine (particularly white and rosé) is best at chilled temperature - tasting on the other hand at a warmer, yet slightly chilled temperature so you can experience the full flavor and bouquet of a wine.


1. APPEARANCE:

To start, you have to look at the wine. To do that properly you will have to lean the glass behind a white piece of paper (or any white background) so you can see the wine clearly and accurately. Lastly, when looking at your glass, focus on the rim (see below)

  • Clarity – is there anything floating in it (e.g. sediments or sugar crystals)? This is not a bad thing, in fact it can give you clues about the winemaking techniques used to create this wine.

  • Brightness – how does the surface of the wine reflect light? The brighter the wine the lower the alcohol, which we know is determined by climate.

  • Color – Saturation / Intensity: A white fading to green or a red fading to pink on the rim indicate youth. Either fading to brown or orange usually means the wine is older.

  • Rim Variation – The “rim” is the surface of the wine where it meets the inside of the glass. The “variation” is the difference in color from the edge to the center. The thicker the watery white on the rim, the more alcohol is in the wine – once again a climate clue.

  • Viscosity – Legs/Tears: Does the wine cling to glass as it drops down the side? Is the wine developing tears or legs on the glass? You’re looking for their thickness, their speed, and whether they have color. Well defined slow-moving tears usually gives you a clue of the high levels of alcohol and or sugar.


2. NOSE:

Before smelling the wine, make sure to swirl the glass first. Why? Remember that the wine has been stuck in the bottle for years without exposure to oxygen; swirling exposes the wine to oxygen, which brings out all the aromas in the wine.

  • Faults – Does it smell like vinegar, rotten eggs, or wet cardboard? If so, throw it away - the wine is corked/faulty.

  • Fruit – What jumps out at you? After your initial impression, look for fruit. Be as specific as you can. There is no wrong answer. Try to identify at least three fruit characteristics on the nose.

  • Earth – Floral, animal aromas, organic earth, and inorganic earth – anything that you smell. Be specific! Attempt to isolate at least three earth components.

  • Wood – Is there vanilla, coconut, dill, butterscotch, barnyard, toast or baking spices? Those flavors gives you an indication that the wine has been aged in oak before bottling.

  • Remember - When smelling a wine always remember that we can't smell: sweet, salty, bitter, acidic. A common mistake is smelling sweetness; and that usually happens because we smell something that our brain associates with sweet (for example, smelling honey may make you think the wine smells sweet)


3. PALATE:

Before tasting the wine, familiarize yourself with how your tongue works and map out your palate. It may sound ridiculous, but knowing which part of your tongue detects sweetness, acidity and bitterness makes you focus more when tasting a wine.
  • Sweet / Dry – The levels are from driest to sweetest. Is there residual sugar in the wine, or an impression of sweetness due to forward fruit? Remember, a common mistake is thinking a fruity wine is sweet because your brain associates that taste with something sweet. If you're not sure if the wine is sweet or just fruity, put the wine only on the tip of your tongue.

  • Fruit – You want to try to confirm the characteristics found on the nose. Mention anything different (if any). Try to identify three fruit flavors. There is still no wrong answer.

  • Earth - Be as specific as you can. Try to write down three earth components in the taste.

  • Wood – look for the wood flavors you found on the nose. Now you can also look for the texture of the wood on your palate.

  • Acidity – Does the wine make your mouth water? You feel acid on the sides of your mouth, high acid means cool climate. Again, if you're not sure swirl the wine in your mouth touching the sides of your tongue - if that makes you salivate and water a lot more frequently, it's because the wine is acidic.

  • Alcohol – Usually is inversely proportionate to acidity. It has a direct effect on the body of the wine (low alcohol = light body).

  • Body - What is the weight of the wine on your tongue? Full body feels like whipping cream and light feels like skim milk. Remember that full body means high alcohol indicating a warm climate.

  • Balance – Are all the elements working together? A quality wine will sing in perfect harmony.

  • Tannins (red wines only) - When drinking the wine, do you feel your mouth dried up? That's from tannins. It's just like forgetting a tea bag in your cup of tea for too long, that makes your tea dark and dries your mouth - that's the effect from tannins.

  • Finish – How long do you taste the wine after it leaves your mouth? A long finish indicates a quality wine.


4. CONCLUSION:

Now that you looked, smelled, and tasted the wine, you can make a conclusion on the wine without even looking at the label.


  • Old World or New World - Do you think the wine’s base profile is earth driven, or fruit driven? Old World wines tend to be more earthy and mineralic, whereas New World wines tend to be more fruity.

  • Country - Where is this style of wine produced? Remember that it should coincide with your decision of Old or New world.

  • Climate - What are the indicators of a cool climate? What would the acid/alcohol profile be in a warm climate?

  • Wine Profile - Is the wine a typical representation of what it is supposed to be? Give your overall impression of the wine that you can classify in your mind and recall as needed.

  • Country/Region/Sub-district/Vineyard - Be as specific as the wine label states. This is what will distinguish most quality indicators that are on the label

  • Grape - Is it 100% of one grape variety? Is it a blend? If it is a blend, what are the percentages of each grape?

  • Vintage - The label will list the vintage of most wines. Variations in quality in regards to the vintage are more relevant in Old World wine.

  • Quality Level - This can be a simple low/medium/high personal evaluation, or a legal distinction on the label between a Premier Cru and a Grand Cru, if applicable.


Now that you have gone through the process, next time you open a bottle of wine you will be able to know more and feel closer to the wine you're drinking. I am including (below) a tasting sheet that I have from WSET (Wines & Spirits Educational Trust), summarizing the above. I always use this systematic approach and so should you when you are wine tasting.


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