First things first – tasting conditions are very crucial to the taste testing experience of a recently uncorked bottle of wine. You need to be in an environment where there are almost no outside conditions (ie food cooking, perfume, or any outside smells) that could alter your senses. Unexpected things like dish washer soap or having an incorrect glass can also change the scent of a wine so ensure that you properly clean your glass prior to beginning. To ensure that you are using the correct type of wine glass be sure to review the Glassware & Serving page on Have Fine Wine.
It is possible access the quality of the wine just by observing it! Tilting your wine glass from side to side and against light you can observe several factors of the wine. Use the following suggested procedures to make these assessments:
Straight Angle View – By looking straight down in the wine glass you can observe the full color range of the wine. With the proper lighting you can get a good sense of the density and saturation of the wine. A trained eye will even be able to identify the variety of grape just by the shade or scent.
Side View – By looking at the glass from the side in bright lighting, you can determine how clear the wine is. If a wine is not clear it could be evidence of a chemical or fermentation problem. In most cases the clearer the wine the better the quality.
Tilted View – By tilting the wine glass so that the wine approaches the rim can help determine the wines’ age and weight. If the wine appears pale or watery near the edge it could mean that the wine is possibly dull or flat. If it appears brown (white wine) or orange (red wine) it could be an older wine or a wine that is past its prime.
The Swirl – The famous wine swirl is an excellent way to determine whether the wine “has legs.” When a glass is swirled the wine that runs down the sides of the glass are the “legs” or “tears.” The more legs a wine has it usually means there is more alcohol and glycerin content, which indicates that the grapes used were bigger, riper and more dense than those that don’t.
To be able to determine the type of wine by smell is a skill that has to be developed over many years. After you have given your glass a nice swirl, take a sniff of the wine just above the rim of the glass. As a novice you can start to develop these skills by figuring out the following: Wine Flaws, Fruit Aromas, Flower Aromas, and Wine Barrel Aromas.
Wine Flaws – Identifying whether a wine is past its prime is fairly easy to determine. It will exude a musty smell that will be very noticeable. If a wine smells like vinegar it could suggest volatile acidity and if it smells like nail polish it could indicate ethyl acetate.
Fruit Aromas – A wine should generally smell like fresh fruit unless it is very old, very sweet, or very cold.
Earthy Aromas – A few wines have a “floral” smell to them usually corresponding with cool climate white wines. “Earthy” aromas are typically associated with the use of mushrooms, damp earth, leather, and rocks which are all added to red wines. These aromas are built into these wines to assist in giving them a complex aroma.
Wine Barrel Aromas – The use of oak barrels to ferment the wine gives the winemakers a chance to add complexity to their wine. The following aromas are commonly associated with oak barrels: Toast, Smoke, Vanilla, Chocolate, Eslresso, Roasted Nuts, and Caramel.
After your hard work of observing the wine by sight and smell it’s time to take a taste. In a perfect world the taste will be a continuation of the aromas you just experienced which makes tasting wine an enjoyable experience! If the wine is of high quality it will be well balanced, harmonious and complex. When wine has these three features it is considered a complete wine which is the goal of every wine producer!
Well Balanced – Our taste buds detect sweet (fruit sugars), sour (acidity), salty and bitter. Usually sweet and sour are the main components in a well-balanced wine, but bitter can be detected when tannins are used in the wine. For dry wines the tannins, acids, and alcohol are features that cannot be detected by scent which when fermented correctly builds up to the perfect wine drinking experience.
Harmonious – A harmonious wine is one that all of its flavors are seamlessly integrated. This is very difficult to do in young wines as it takes time for each flavor to settle in and not stick out.
Complex – A complex wine will mean different things to different wine drinkers. Based on how your palate has been developed each drinker will notice different aspects of each wine. Usually a complex wine will seem to “dance in your mouth.” This can mean that the wines’ aroma and flavor is changing as you are enjoying each sip of the wine. This is why if you find a well-balanced wine that it is crucial to enjoy each sip as you may be missing out on the dance that entails!
Now that you understand how to taste and evaluate wine the next step is to go out and find the wine that you like! Check out the Red Wine or White Wine Sections of HaveFineWine.com to find the best deals from the most prominent online wine retailers!
Enjoy this taste testing video from the Carton House:
Additional Photo Credit: Final tasting – courtesy of © stokkete – Fotolia.com
About the author: Bryan Kesler is a CPA who worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers for several years. As an auditor Bryan travelled the world trying the finest wines and has been a wine enthusiast ever since. You can join his wine community at Have Fine Wine.