A bottle of wine is like a message whispered by the winemaker into the ears of the taster about the varietal and the terroir of its origin. In Millesima Tips #1 (Vine Cycle) and #2 (Varietals), we discussed the basis of that message and, in the two articles that followed, how the winemaker conveys it in the creation of a wine. In the most recent episodes of our series, we have taken a look at how best to hear and understand that message by removing any obstacles that would interfere in its perception. Ageing and/or decanting some wines allows them to reach the peak of their expressiveness. A clean ejection of the cork and removal of settled sediment prevents foreign particles from clouding the message. Serving at the right temperature and in the right glass amplifies the message, helping the taster to better hear it. And when the wine is finally in the glass – at the right temperature, in the right glass, without sediment or bits of cork, at the right age – it is time for the taster to finally take a listen and pay attention to the meaning of that message. In this episode we offer some tips on how best to fully experience a wine.
The Four-Step Wine Tasting
We have all, no doubt, heard about the four steps of a classic wine tasting – look, smell (swirl, smell again), taste (swirl, taste again) and conclude. These steps recreate the natural way we taste almost everything, including food. Outlining them is meant to give weight to each individual process. Let’s go through these four steps, each one corresponding to a different sense, and discuss what to pay attention to during each one.
A visual assessment typically begins the classic wine tasting. To start, look straight down into your glass to observe the depth of colour, an indicator of density. The latter will help identify possible varietals in the wine. A deep, dark purple colour might suggest Syrah or Zinfandel, while a paler red might indicate Pinot Noir. Tilt the wine to allow it to move to and thin out at the rim in order to observe its edges. A light and diluted edge will tell you that the wine is rather thin, while an orange-brick colour (on a red wine) announces old age or possible oxidation. Looking through the wine from the side will reveal its clarity or lack thereof. This is a good way to detect possible sediment. Finally, watching the “legs” running down the side of the glass after swirling will indicate alcohol and glycerine content. Wines with “good legs” will have a rounder, ampler mouthfeel.
Next, lift the glass to your nose and take a series of quick, short sniffs. Try to detect off-aromas to first make sure the wine is not spoiled. The smell of mould or wet newspaper will indicate the presence of TCA (cork taint), while a burnt or rotten odour will announce the addition of too much sulphur to the bottle. A vinegar smell means volatile acidity, while a pungent nail polish smell indicated ethyl acetate. If none of these smells are present in the wine, continue.
Primary aromas are those which come from the grape itself and are largely shaped by the terroir of the wine’s origin. These include fruits (such as green apple in fresh, young white wines and plum in Cabernet Sauvignon), florals (rose in Nebbiolo, violet in Merlot), vegetables (grass in Sauvignon Blanc and green bell pepper in Cabernet Franc), spices (the black pepper of Syrah), herbs (mint in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon).
The bouquet of the wine refers to the secondary and tertiary aromas of a wine, which result from the fermentation and maturation processes. Secondary aromas are associated with the yeast introduced during the winemaking process, which lends notes of dairy, sourdough or mushroom to the wine. Tertiary aromas result from a wine’s exposure over time to limited amounts of oxygen and its contact with oak. These aromas often include vanilla, butterscotch, hazelnut, roasted almond, smoke and tobacco.
After taking a sip, it is important to pay attention to how the wine interacts with your mouth. The two ways in which it does are taste and mouthfeel. Taste has to do with how the wine is perceived by receptors on your tongue (taste buds). The taste may include the same fruits, florals, vegetables, spices, herbs and minerals as the nose, or they may be very different. The Torrontes wines of Argentina’s Salta region, for example, smell sweet but taste surprisingly dry on the palate. Together taste and aromas are often referred to as creating the flavour profile of a wine. When these two are not consistent, however, it’s important to note the differences. The mouthfeel of a wine is detected by nerve endings in the mouth and they include fermentation, ripeness, viscosity (body), tannins, length, structure and texture.
After perceiving the wine through the senses of sight, smell and taste, the message gets delivered to your brain. It is now time to formulate a response to the winemaker’s message. Did you enjoy the wine? What do you think of the varietals and terroirs expressed in the wine? What aromas and tastes did you most enjoy, and which ones could you do without? Was the wine light and smooth or tannic and coarse? Would you buy this wine again? If not, what would you change?
Tasting is a skill that, as any other, can be developed with practice. The more wine an individual tastes, the more abundant their repertoire of aroma and flavour descriptors. The more wine tasting experience someone has, the more clearly and quickly he or she decodes that unique locked inside each bottle of wine.