When I started drinking wine, I could not differentiate one variety from another. My journey with wine has been an incredibly interesting and educational one. I will not pretend that I am an all-knowing, glass-swirling sommelier, but I have picked up a few techniques along the way from wine tasting events, which make me feel like I’m not a complete wine ignoramus.
It can be very overwhelming when people start rambling about tannins, percentages of such and such, palates, barrel this and French oak that. Why is there wood in the wine? Nuts? What? Then they start with the swirling and say things like how there is a distinct flavor of the dust on the leaves of the rose bushes which grew next to the vineyard. This is when most people tap out because all they see, smell and taste is wine. Fear not!
This article will help you tap into your inner sommelier for the next wine tasting events!
When it comes to wine tasting, it’s all about building a database. The more wines you try the better, and perhaps the most important starting point is to focus. Focus your attention on each individual aspect of the wine. The questions you should ask yourself with each wine you taste, are: What do you see? What do you smell? What do you taste? Once you can confidently identify characteristics specific to different varieties, you will start realising how wines can differ within each variety.
Wine tasting is as infinite a process as it is an educational one.
You will soon see that you will be able to differentiate between a good wine and a bad one. But perhaps more importantly, you will be able to tell a good wine of a variety you do not even like, purely based on your wine database. I once made an English teacher flip a switch when I told her I didn’t like the Shakespeare sonnet we were discussing. I acknowledged that I thought it was very good, but was under no obligation to like it. We are entitled to not like certain wines, but I find it is better to make an educated judgement when it comes to classifying it as good or bad. Without much further ado…
Here are some questions you should ask yourself when attending wine tasting events:
What do you see?
Hold the glass up to eye level. Pay attention to the color and shade of the wine. Is it light red, dark red, or so dark it looks almost purple? Then look at the density. How much can you see when you look through the glass. With certain varieties, you can see straight through the glass, and other varieties will be so dense and dark that you can see nothing but wine. Generally, the darker the wine, the heavier it will be. Viscosity (the way that the wine runs down the glass when you tilt it) will tell you a lot about alcohol levels in the wine. In wine talk, they speak of “legs” that run down the side of the glass. More “legs” means more alcohol. More alcohol means more body!
What do you smell?
The first step here is to give the glass a swirl. This swirl aerates the wine, or lets it “breathe”. It will also release a whole bunch of aromas from the wine, which is imperative to the smelling process. Now, I highly recommend practicing this step at home. There are articles and videos dedicated specifically to educate people on this. I know not everyone is as clumsy as I am, but you will most certainly not look like a pro when you try to swirl the glass looking nonchalant and the wine ends up everywhere but in your glass. Swirling technique aside, don’t lose hope when all you smell is “wine”. Think of the smelling as if you were looking (or smelling) for Waldo. You’re not sure where he is, but you keep smelling until you find him. There will hopefully not be a little man in the bottom of your glass, but you will surely begin to pick up on certain aromas such as fruit, herbs or spices.
What do you taste?
Take a sip and swirl it around your mouth. Our tongues are designed to differentiate between bitter, sour, salty and sweet, so think about what you taste, and how that taste fits into the variety of the wine. Is the wine sharp and acidic? Or is it smooth and feels like it melts over your tongue. Do you taste any of the aromas you smelled before? Add all of these notes to your mental database for future reference.
One of the important things to know about the tasting step is that the taste changes. The three stages are the beginning, mid-palate, and finish. Do not just sip and swallow and think that’s that step done. With a great wine, the taste will linger and the flavors will keep changing for a long while!
Also, don’t get too caught up in trying to taste the flavors that have been offered for a wine. Maybe you taste the cassis, but maybe you taste the salted caramel popcorn your Grandfather used to buy you in the school holidays when you were a child, and that is perfectly acceptable (if not encouraged!)
Wrapping it up
The most important thing when it comes to wine tasting events is to not take it too seriously. It should be an enjoyable and educational activity. Listen and ask questions, and don’t be too eager to fling about vernacular when you’re not 100% sure what it means. Wine people can pick out a fraudster from a mile away so it’s always best to stay humble and let the (real) pros do the talking!
Share your own experiences at wine tasting events in the comments below!