Over the years, and as a result of a multitude of wine tastings, I have learned quite a bit about wine (particularly what I like and don’t like). I didn’t realize quite how much information was stored in my brain on this particular topic until I sat down to create some notes on the basics of wine tastings. Using notes from many tastings, from Baltimore to Napa, I put together three documents to give the members of my wine group, The Swirlistas:
- 3 Big Steps (or 9 Small Steps) to the Perfect Wine Tasting
- What do you see, smell and taste?
- Wine Tasting Definitions
I have included those documents below. Hopefully they will help you either host your own wine tasting or, at the very least, will help you participate in a wine tasting in a more-educated fashion. Either way, have fun with it!
(Taken from Michael Schuster’s Wine Tasting Uncorked Card series)
- With the glass vertical, on a white background, view the wine directly from above.
- Note the clarity, brightness, and depth of color. Check for CO2 bubbles or sediment.
- With the glass tilted, view the wine at an angle, against a white background.
- Note the primary hue, found at the core of the wine, any color nuances, and difference in hue at the rim.
- Holding the glass at eye level, look horizontally across the wine.
- Note possible CO2 bubbles, bubbles sitting under the surface, and after swirling, the viscosity.
- Smell the wine without swirling it, either on the table or by picking it up.
- Note the cleanness, intensity, varietal characteristics, oak quality, finesse and persistence of the bouquet.
- Give the wine a good swirl, smell immediately. Continue to do so as it settles.
- Note the differences from the motionless state, weightier smells, a possible progressive of scents as the wine subsides and overall quality. What specific things do you smell?
- Agitate the wine violently, possibly covering the rim of the glass with your hand.
- This is only necessary to encourage a “dumb” nose to open up or to confirm a suspected fruit.
- Take a sip, about the size of a large teaspoonful, and work the wine all around mouth. Consider. Swallow the wine tasting or spit it out (like the professionals do!).
- Concentrate on the overall dimensions of the wine, making a rapid a summary of the balance of alcohol, acid, tannin (mostly in reds), and concentration of flavor.
- Alternate between working the wine gently around your palate, aerating it and swallowing a little, for as long as the wine continues to hold your interest.
- Concentrate this time on noting actual flavors, qualities and lengths. Look for the individual tastes, their intensity, variety, and fruit versus aromatic characters. Consider quality of texture and the way in which the wine develops and holds up in the mouth. Finally, note the finish, its balance of scent and fruit and how long it persists.
- Purse your lips and compress the wine out with your tongue so as to produce a thin, accurate aim into the spit bucket, with no dribbles! Seriously, if you were tasting professionally, you would be trained to spit the wine out.
(Taken from Michael Schuster’s Wine Tasting Uncorked Card series)
Describing the Appearance of Wine
- Clarity: clear, muddy, murky, cloudy, hazy
- Brightness: radiant, lustrous, luminous, vivid, lively, bright, lackluster, dull, flat
- Depth: opaque, deep, dark, dense, pale, light, weak, watery
The Appearance of White Wines
- What matters most is clarity, brightness and degree of color for the varietal and vintage (age).
- Whites become darker in color as they age.
- Whites are often described in the following ways:
- Pale yellow
The Appearance of Red & Rosé Wines
- Look for the principal color at the core of the red wine as well as the different tint at the rim.
- Reds look purple in young wines and turn increasingly brick-hued with age.
- Reds lighten in colors as they age following this progression:
- Rosé wine colors:
- Pale red
- For Rosés, color is not necessarily an indication of age, but rather reflects the variety and the period of time the wine is in contact with the skins.
Terms for Describing Aromas
- Floral: Rose, violet, acacia, jasmine, lime
- Vegetal: Grassy, green pepper, pine, resin, leaves, tea, mint, truffle, hay, olives, barnyard
- Fruity: Orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, tangerine, pear, peach, apricot, melon, apple, quince, gooseberry, cherry, currant, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, mulberry, cassis, lychee, pineapple, mango, passion fruit
- Mineral: Earthy, chalky, volcanic slate, stony, gravelly, wax
- Animal: Venison, gamey, damp fur, wet wool, leather, musk
- Spicy: Black pepper, clove, cedar, licorice, aniseed, cinnamon, vanilla
- Dried Fruit: Nutty, hazelnut, walnut, almond, fig, prune, raisin, jam
- Burnt: Tar, coffee, toast, butter, caramel, chocolate, honey, smoky, tobacco
Three Primary Tastes
- Perceived primarily on the top of the tongue. Rear sides of tongue are also sensitive to it.
- In wine tasting, dry is the opposite of sweet. Dry is the absence of a sugary impression. Sweetness counterbalances acidity and bitterness.
- Descriptions of sweetness/dryness:
- Intensely sweet
- The sharpness of acidity is clearly perceived on the upper sides of the tongue.
- Acidity shapes flavors in wine and is especially important for white wines in the absence of tannins.
- Contributes structure.
- Descriptions of acidity (from insufficient to moderate):
- Excessively flat
- Descriptions of acidity (excessive):
- Bitterness is clearly perceived at the rear (base) of the tongue, sometimes reaching to the back of the throat.
- It is sometimes confused with tannin, but bitterness is a taste and tannin is a tactile sensation.
- Plays no crucial role in a wine’s structure.
- Descriptions of intensity of bitterness:
- Slightly bitter
Acetic: Smelling and tasting of acetic acid (vinegar). Gives wine a thin and sharp taste.
Acidity: Mouth moisture feel. One of the essential elements in both grapes and finished wines. Balance of acidity and sweetness is desired.
Aroma/Nose: The smell of the wine. Also referred to as bouquet, though some use bouquet to refer to the fresh, fruit-based impressions of young wines.
Balanced: The relationship between alcohol, acid, fruit and tannins. A wine is well-balanced if no element appears to be lacking or unpleasantly obtrusive for its type.
Body: Impression of weight and consistency in the mouth due to a combination of alcohol and tannins.
Complex: Opposite of one-dimensional. Nuance of smells, tastes, and textures.
Corked: A wine fault, indicated by moldy, musty smells which mask the wine’s fruit and both dry and shorten its palate.
Crisp: A lively acidity, like in a juicy apple.
Decanting: Pouring wine from its bottle into another receptacle, such as a glass decanter. If it is then poured back into it own, rinsed bottle, it is known as double decanting. Decanting will allow the texture of the tannic wine to soften and the bouquet to improve through rapid oxidation from contact with the air. Decanting can also be used to remove sediment from the bottle. Primarily those wines made from deeply colored and tannic grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese) will benefit from decanting.
Finish: The sensations of taste, texture and smell you continue to perceive after swallowing. The longer the finish, the better.
Flabby: Deficient in acidity.
Flat: Lacking in aroma, fresh flavors and acidity.
Fleshy: Mainly used to describe red wines. Soft, plump, smooth, with very little tannins.
Full: As in full body and/or flavor.
Heavy: High in alcohol, implying inadequate balance of acidity.
Legs: The streaks that form on a wine glass when the wine is swirled. May be referred to as tears in France. The more visible the higher the alcohol content.
Palate: Wine is assessed by smell (the nose) and by taste (the palate). The palate confirms flavors detected on the nose, but adds body, acidity, tannins and finish to the picture.
Residual Sugar/RS: The amount of sugar remaining in a wine that has not been converted into alcohol when fermentation stops. Less than 2g/L is imperceptible. Some sweet wines will have upwards of 25g/L.
Super Tuscans: Ground breaking Italian wines that deliberately ignored local wine laws to make premium wines using outlawed “international” grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Tannin: A natural substance occurring in many plants, seeds, bark, wood, leaves and fruit skins that makes your mouth pucker. As a characteristic of wine, tannin adds both bitterness and astringency as well as complexity. Wine tannins are most commonly found in red wine, although white wines have tannin from being aged in wooden barrels.
Terroir (ter-wahr): The French word for soil. For wine, it has two specialized meanings. First, it refers to the influence of both the general and the specific environment in which the vine grows (topography, soil, climate, weather patterns, etc.). The second refers to particular tastes and qualities in the wine which are claimed to be the consequence of these environmental influences.
Varietal: A specific grape variety.
Viscosity: A wine’s liquid consistency. A wine’s viscosity may make it appear thin and watery, or may make it appear thick and syrupy. Viscosity is affected by the levels of sugars and alcohol found in the wine. Generally, the higher a wine’s levels of sugars and alcohol, the higher the wine’s viscosity will be. Wines with high viscosity tend to cling to the side of a wine glass longer, and may leave legs or tears as bits of the wine begin to drip back down into the glass.