What do we look for when we taste a wine?
According to the Royal Spanish Academy, to taste means to try, to savour something to examine its flavour or seasoning. However, when it comes to tasting, we are not just thinking about flavours. In wine tasting, as well as the sense of taste, the sense of smell, sight, feel and other sensory-cognitive factors are also involved, that is, a sum of sensations that shape how we experience it, but what do we look for when tasting a wine?
Jean Ribéreau-Gayon, considered one of the fathers of modern oenology, said that “tasting is to carefully try a product to understand its quality; it means to submit it to our senses, especially smell and taste; it is to try to understand it by identifying and explaining its defects and qualities. It is to study it, analyse it, describe it, judge it, classify it”. This definition does sound like wine tasting but might seem a bit frightening because of how deep it is. British expert and promoter of wine culture Susy Atkins says, “there are many people who think that wine is made for drinking and not for analysing.” However, when you open yourself to the possibility of learning something about wine tasting, you are able to enjoy the wine even more because you can identify its qualities, its defects, its nuances, its history... even if you are not a professional and even if it is only for pleasure.
What we look for when tasting a wine depends on the purpose of the tasting.
Today we will focus on our favourite tasting: tasting for fun, which allows us to try, analyse and reflect on the wine just because we want to. And for this, we will give you some simple tips so that you can enjoy this activity without worrying about the most serious and formal part. That means, from a position of humility, you can enjoy all that wine expresses and have your passion for it deepened.
Without looking at the label on the bottle, wine speaks to us from the glass and is able to tell us things even before we try it. Let’s play detective and try to work out what wine can tell us through the different stages of tasting.
1.- Visual phase
After pouring ourselves a glass of wine, let’s start with our eyes. The colour of a wine can give us clues about its age: a red wine with a more ruby or purplish-red tone tells us it is young; and when the colour is approaching garnet or tile tones, it suggests that it is no longer a young wine, and has aged for some time.
For white wines, the youngest ones usually have a very pale yellow colour or greenish hues, but as they get older, their colour darkens.
The intensity of the colour or core in red wine, i.e. whether the liquid is more translucent or darker, gives us clues about the grape varieties it is made with or the amount of extraction it has been through. A clear example is a wine made with Pinot Noir and one made with Cabernet Sauvignon. The former will always be lighter and more translucent than the latter, which is more opaque and concentrated in colour.
By looking at the glass, a wine gives us clues as to how it may have been made. Think about orange wines, visually what’s so special about them? Their colour!
The visual phase allows us to notice the clarity of a wine. A cloudy liquid may suggest a defect or tell us that the wine has not been filtered, which is not a defect but a characteristic of its production method.
Another thing we can see from a visual analysis happens when we tip the glass a little and watch how the famous “wine tears” (Marangoni effect) react. These drops that slide down the walls of the glass tell us about the amount of alcohol that a wine may contain (the more alcohol, the greater the density/stickiness), or about its residual sugar.
2.- Olfactory phase
Smell may not be one of the senses we think is the most important, but it plays an essential role in the enjoyment of food and, of course, wine, as it is responsible for providing up to 80% of the pleasure we experience when we open a wine.
What can we learn from this stage of tasting?
The aromas and smells of a wine reveal clues about how it might taste. They tell us about its intensity, its aging, the kind of wine it is, the varieties it might have been made with, and its complexity.
A wine must have clean aromas, which provide us with pleasant sensations, where we can find fruity, floral, balsamic notes (which add freshness and remind us of eucalyptus, pine, mint, etc.). We can also find aromas of wood or spices that can tell us about the production of a wine, as they appear especially in those that have been aged in barrels or are of a certain age.
We can also find out whether a wine has defects by its smell. Smells as strange as rotten eggs, an unused room, a wet dog or the famous cork smell can tell us that the wine is not in the best state to enjoy it.
Aromas are memories that can transport us to a special moment in our lives. This is where not only the sense of smell is involved but also our brain. It is very interesting to taste with other people and share sensations. You will be surprised by what others can feel through what a wine can remind them of just by smelling it.
3.- Taste phase
Finally! The part we are looking forward to the most. Let’s taste the wine!
Take a sip from your glass and hold the liquid in your mouth for a few moments. Make it run through your whole mouth, reaching every nook and cranny. What is the wine like? Saline, sweet, bitter, sour? What is the texture like? Is it silky or rather rough (astringent)? Do you taste too little or too much alcohol?
When we taste wine, three of our senses are involved: taste, obviously, but also touch; that is why you can feel whether the wine is velvety or rather rough. When we taste sparkling wines, the sensitivity of the buccal mucosa allows us to notice the tickling sensation caused by their characteristic bubbles: are there few? Lots? Are they fine? Or quite thick?
When you taste the wine, do you sense any of the aromas you noticed before when you smelled it? Here we are again using our sense of smell through what is usually called the retronasal route.
The taste phase gives us clues as to the origin of the wine. A wine with a higher alcohol content or that gives a greater sensation of warmth and less acidity nods to an origin that could be a warmer place. A wine with a low alcohol content and a fresh acidity speaks of a cold climate or of wines made from high altitude vineyards.
After having practiced the three main phases of tasting, our brain will inevitably analyse the sum of sensations we got from this experience. Perhaps we will compare the wines we tasted with others we have tried before or perhaps this tasting will help us to make the decision between buying this wine or a different one and finally we will be able to answer the most important question of all: Did we like it?
Either way, we should think of wine like we think of people. No two wines will be the same and neither will we as tasters, whether we are professionals or not. We might have had a bad day, or perhaps we are extra sensitive. We experience wine differently when we try it alone compared to when we are with others and this company can also influence our perception of the experience, as well as whether or not we have eaten before tasting or are enjoying the wines with food.
Whatever the circumstances, we hope these tips will help you enjoy putting your senses and new knowledge into practice. Be ready to enjoy new sensory experiences and don’t forget, always give a wine a second chance. Create your own tasting methods, for example by varying temperatures, or comparing how each wine expresses itself in different glasses. Trying and having fun is the best way to learn. We promise!