‘The connoisseur does not drink wine but tastes its secrets.’ Salvador Dali
We’ve all seen people swish and swirl wine around in a glass, and stick their nose in for a good sniff (guilty!). While you might think they look a little silly, they’re actually on the money — tasting wine is about so much more than just drinking. It’s a sensory experience, and first you need to examine with your eyes and nose before finding diving in for a taste.
The eyes have it. You can discover a lot about a wine from how it looks; it should be brilliantly shiny and clear. Hint: more colour usually indicates more flavour, and as a general rule darker wines are more mature. Swirl the wine in the glass to assess its legs (viscosity) — the greater the amount, the thicker the body and the higher the alcohol content and/or sweetness.
Your nose knows. You can pick up on thousands of different aromas and flavours with your nose, whereas tastebuds can only detect four distinct tastes - sweet, salty, sour and bitter. So give your wine a swirl and assess it with your nose. How intense is it? Can you identify any flavours? Not everyone will have the same experience, so don’t be alarmed if you smell peaches and they smell pine trees.
Finally, you drink it. Take a decent sip, savour it, swish it around in your mouth — hit all the taste hotspots.
Generally speaking, taste receptors on the tongue go like this: sweet = front and middle; salty = front and sides; sour = back and sides; bitter = back.
The initial flavour of wine hits different parts of your tongue, and develops in the mouth. It may be sweet or acidic or dry and tannic. You’ll feel the aftertaste of the wine develop, and as the lingering flavours slowly leave you, you’re left with its finish.
There are four basic components of wine: acidity, sweetness, alcohol and tannin.
Acidity in wine is basically how sour it tastes, and is perceived as that mouthwatering, puckering sensation at the back of your jaw. Wines with high levels of acidity are less sweet than those with low levels, and are often described as ‘zingy’ or ‘tart’. Lower acidity wines tend to be described as ‘creamy’ and ‘smooth’ and can indicate grapes picked later in the harvest, or those that come from a region with a warmer climate.
This is the amount of natural sugar in a wine. The tip and top of the tongue are where we sense sweetness, so it’s generally the first taste you’ll get when taking a sip. Sweet wines are generally made from white grapes, unless it’s a dessert wine.
This can sometimes tell you the intensity of the wine, and how ripe the grapes were at the time of production. Warmer regions grow riper grapes that have the potential to make wines with higher alcohol content. The alcohol level can add a fair amount of texture and ‘body’ to the wine — think of the body as how the wine rests on your palate. Often likened to milk and cream, is it subtle like skim, heavier like whole, or decadent like cream? This gives you a rough idea of the textures of light, medium and full-bodied wines.
Tannin is a characteristic found in red wine. It’s a bitter acid perceived on the middle of your tongue and roof of the mouth as a drying sensation, like eating cotton wool or drinking really strong, unsweetened tea. Tannin naturally exists in the skins and seeds of grapes, and oak barrels.
Lastly, use words like 'complex', 'long', 'balanced' and 'elegant' and everyone will think you're a pro. Now, go forth and taste with confidence!
Top tip: Don't be scared of saying what you taste or smell in a wine. At the end of the day, everyone's tastebuds are different, so trust your instincts. Wine tasting shouldn't be pretentious and snobby — have fun with it, and enjoy trying new things.
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