Even if you’re exploring wine for the first time, we encourage you to develop the “mental habit” of tasting wine. Not that every sip of wine that enters your mouth has to be analyzed and commented on, but you will collect lots of data if you take a few minutes to objectively taste a wine before deciding whether you subjectively enjoy it. At the very least, you will get used to the idea that you can taste a wine in a restaurant and confidently accept it, or reject it if you feel it is not right.
All wine books will tell you that there are separate stages to tasting wine—look at it, smell it, taste it. That is true, but you will find the whole exercise easier once you understand that there are connections from one step to the next.
We look at wine in the glass mostly to get an idea about the “strength” of the wine. A red or white wine that is relatively pale and translucent will probably be light in all of its characteristics—more delicate aroma, light flavor, an easy presence in the mouth. In contrast, a white wine that shows deeper gold hues or a red wine with deep purple, opaque notes will have a stronger, more assertive aroma and flavor and a tenacious, more powerful presence in the mouth. These are the essential differences between a light-bodied wine and a full-bodied one.
In smelling a wine, there are three main aspects to consider: intensity of smell, simplicity versus complexity, and types of smell. Lighter, more delicate aromas usually follow from the visual conclusion that the wine is pale, and will help you to conclude that the wine is light-bodied. A more assertive, more powerful aroma will lead you in the direction of a fuller-bodied wine.
You will also find that there is generally an association between lighter wines, such Riesling or Gamay, and a simpler, more one-dimensional aroma, where fruit is the primary noticeable smell. In contrast, fuller-bodied wines such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon are often accompanied by more complex aromas, where fruit is complemented by wood and mineral, earthy smells.
There are thousands of aromas that you might find in wines, but don’t let that worry you. If you are new to this, the easiest way to proceed is to think of categories of smell, rather than specific smells. Is there a floral aroma? Or is it primarily fruit? Or are there vegetal or herbal notes? Those are great starting places, and from there you will find it is not hard to progress at your own speed to breaking those broad categories into smaller ones if you want to. Remember, you don’t have to. If you are the adventurous type, you might consider whether the floral aroma is light and fleeting or heady and perfumed—you can guess where those two different conclusions would lead you. Or you might distinguish between the smell of green, acidic fruits, such as limes, as compared to the rich ripeness of dark cherries and dark plums.
Most of all, aromas in wines should be pleasant; if you detect any unpleasantness when smelling a wine, do not hesitate to send it back in a restaurant or take it back to a wine store. The most objectionable of all smells in wine comes from wines that have been in contact with a tainted cork. Those wines are described as “corked” or “corky,” and they smell of a dank, damp basement or wet, rotting cardboard. Once you come across it, you will never forget it, and you should store that smell away in your memory for future reference and action.
Much of the action of looking at and smelling wine is about impressions, pleasant or otherwise. It is when you place the wine in your mouth that you can make physical conclusions about the taste of the wine. We encourage you to recognize that anybody can taste, since we all have taste buds, and it will help you to remember that taste is a narrow concept. The Western world has traditionally accepted four tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty—and tasting wine becomes much easier when you realize that only three of these are present in wine to any appreciable degree (wine is not really salty).
Sweet, sour, and bitter often show up in wine, singly or in combination, and are the result of components in the wine that came from the grapes. Sugars alert our taste buds. The sweet effect is a light, fleeting, but pleasant sensation, similar to the initial impact of ice cream or a soda.
Acids set our tongue all a-tingle and will also cause one set of salivary glands at the top of the cheeks to jump to attention. Many people appreciate this bracing sensation as it cleans and refreshes; it is exactly what is meant by “palate cleansing.” Phenols, which are bitter compounds, affect on the taste buds like the wickedly pleasant thrill of good dark chocolate. The most common bitter component in wine is tannin, the same component found in black tea. It also has a drying, astringent effect on the tongue.
Indeed, many of our preferences in tastes can be predicted by the way we drink tea or coffee. If you add cream and sugar, you will probably prefer sweeter tastes and smoother textures in fresh, fruity wines. Espresso drinkers who take their coffee strong and black are more likely to appreciate bitter tastes and the drying effect found in powerful red wines. You can test this out for yourself by experimenting with sugar water, lemon juice, and strong tea to represent sweet, sour, and bitter. You can even see what happens when more than one taste is present by adding some of the lemon juice and then the sugar water to the tea. The tea will become less bitter with the addition of lemon and sugar and will take on the complexity of all three tastes, just as wine will.
We believe it is useful to recognize the presence or absence of sweet, sour, or bitter tastes. It is different from the highly complex world of attributing perceived “flavors” to wine, such as strawberry, apple, chocolate, or vanilla. Those have much to do with the aromas that were detected at the smelling stage. Initially concentrating on the three tastes is much more useful than pondering whether you detect apple or pear. Determining the sweetness or lack of sweetness in a wine is very helpful in figuring out how you might use that wine with food. An absence of sugar sweetness in wine means that all the sugars from the grapes have been converted to alcohol, and the wine is described as “dry.”
The level of acidity in the wine will impact our perception of what is called its “texture.” Wines with high levels of acidity seem to be crisp or sharp, like biting into a Granny Smith apple, whereas wines with lower acidity appear to be softer and smoother, like milk. That perception of texture will also affect our use of the wine and what foods work well with it. Appreciable levels of bitterness in a wine can be an important factor in determining whether we actually like the wine, since the bitter taste is the last one noticed, at the back of the tongue, and stays with us longest.
Once you have mastered the three tastes, it is important to enjoy and savor what the wine offers, and even to see how the wine changes with time. You might even find it is fun to consider and describe the flavors of wines, launching into poetic and flowery descriptions. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you are sincere, and as long as you are enjoying the wine.
Like you, we have used many different vessels in our years of exploring wine, and would never deny that circumstances may sometimes dictate that a simple tumbler is the appropriate glass (or even a jelly glass, if that’s the only container available). But our experience tells us again and again that a good glass is often invaluable. Our recommendation is for a stemmed glass with a thin lip, as thin as the practical consideration of washing will allow. Try it—it makes a difference.
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