Lesson 1 Objectives: This lesson will help you understand what to look for in a bottle of wine, assess the quality of the wine, and start writing descriptive tasting notes. [Useful resources: Wine Tasting Score Card; Wine Tasting Note Aid]
Wine Tasting: What to look for in wines
There are three elements to wine tasting and appreciation. Let’s begin with the external layer...
(1) Wine Color:
What to look for:
- What is the color of the wine? For red, is it cherry, maroon, ruby, or brownish?
For white, is it light-green, pale-yellow, buttercup, golden, or amber?
- Is the wine clear or cloudy?
How: Tilting the glass against a white surface will give you an unbiased look at the color.
Implications: The color of the wine indicates its age. Red wines lose color as they age, while white wines gain color as they age. For example, an older red will be clearer and have brownish tints. A very old white (or an oxidated one) will have a bronze-gold color or even amberish. It is important to consider grape variety when judging color intensity. Syrah, for instance, is darker in color and more opaque than Gamay.
(2) Wine Aromas:
Smell is the most important contributing element to wine tasting. Our nose can pick up thousands of varying smells.
What to look for:
- Is the wine fruity – like blackberries, plums, grapefruits, and melons?
- Is the wine floral – perfumes of violets, lily, rose?
- Is the wine herbal – hints of mint, hay, tarragon, and rosemary?
- Is the wine earthy – reminds you of mushrooms and dry leaves?
- Is the wine spicy – sharp like clove, cinnamon, pepper, spices?
- Is the wine nutty – smells of oak, hazelnut, almond, pistachio?
How: Swirl the wine glass to aerate the wine. Take a good first sniff at the wine. Pause, and take a longer second sniff.
Implications: The above questions will help you describe the aroma of the wine. Grape variety provides a general attribute for the wine’s aroma. The additional layers of aromas come from its fermentation and aging process. For example, a wine that has been long aged in a barrel will have a rich oaky or vanilla-like aroma.
Wine Terminology: “Bouquet” and “nose” are often used to describe wine’s aromas. Bouquet is used to indicate rich and complex aromas.
What to look for:
- Body: the volume and weight of the wine. Milk is generally used as a hyperbole. For example, cream is full-bodied; regular milk is medium bodied; and skim-milk is light-bodied.
- Flavor: Is it sweet or acidic? Is it spicy or tasteless? Is it tannic – dry and bitter?
- Finish: does it have a long aftertaste?
How: Take a solid sip of wine, let it flow through your tongue. Note if it is sweet, acidic, or tannic. Take a second solid sip of wine, suck in some air to feel how the wine opens up in your mouth. Spitting out the wine is unnecessory; though some people do that to stay sober.
Terminologies and Implications: A “dry” wine is not sweet and an “off-dry” wine is sweet. A wine is “crisp” when it is acidic and not overly sweet. There is “balance” in the wine when all the components work together (acidity, sweetness, tannin, fruitiness). For example, balancing sweetness, fruitiness, and acidity will ensure the wine is not cloying, flabby, or sour. The taste in a wine can be “complex” – multi-layers of flavors and changes with aeration time. “Palate” is often referred to the taste and feel of the wine in the mouth. "Tannic" is used to describe red wines; and "astringent" is generally used to describe white wines.
A great wine is balanced, complex, and offers a long aftertaste.
We have designed a wine tasting score card to help you better remember and compare your tastings.
- Wine’s legs – the “tears” that flow down on wine glass when you swirl – are no indication of quality. It can however imply the full-bodiness of the wine. Fuller-bodied wines generally have slower dripping legs.
- Many people cannot differentiate tannic from acidic. Tannic is the taste of a highly concentrated tea – bitter and puckering. Acidic is the salivating taste that comes from a sour lemon.
- Tannin is the wine’s natural preservative and complexity cultivator. Wines shred tannins as they age, becoming softer in texture and more complex in flavor. This is why a highly tannic bottle of Bordeaux tastes better with aging.
- Lastly, don't smell the cork. It does not reveal much about the wine... and it is not that pleasant. Focus on the wine itself!