Wine tasting is ultimately about enjoyment, rather than blind adherence to a process you think you are supposed to follow. Keep it all in perspective, and wine’s just a beverage. “Does it taste good?” is, in the end, the only wine tasting question one needs to answer.
Wine, however, is complex and endlessly varied. In a sense, you never drink the same wine twice. Wine does not have a consistent formula applied over time, as a soda does. Its ingredients vary by vintage, even when made by the same winemaker using fruits from the same vineyards. It evolves in the bottle. Flavors come to the fore when consumed with one food, but lay back when you eat others. If it rained a lot in California one year, this year’s Cakebread or Duckhorn Merlot releases won’t taste like last year’s.
Because wine varies and is complex enough to generate subjective responses to its flavor, appearance and texture, wine tasting has developed as a process, sometimes ritualized. For some, it’s a vocation; the rest of us regard wine tasting conventions as tools to help us heighten our enjoyment of wine, and thereby press better value from our entertainment budget.
Whether one thinks the wine tasting process dorky, affected, good clean fun or anything in between—heck, you might even think it debauchery developed and disguised by the Devil himself—wine tasting focuses on the following.
Wine Appearance: The Eyes Have It
If you painted with wine colors, you’d have a gorgeous palate of reds fit for the robes of old royalty along the greens and yellows of gently tinted jewels.
Look carefully at the color of your wine. If it is “red,” does it perhaps have some “purple” in it? Violet? Indigo? Plum? Black cherry? Does the “white” wine before you appear closer to amber than apple flesh? And which apple do you mean? Macintosh and Honey Crisp apples are not the same color inside.
As you develop experience, you can begin to guess the grape variety from which the wine was made by studying its color, and the exceptionally attuned can even pinpoint the age of the wine.
Plus, the colors are just plain pretty.
Wine Aroma: The Nose Knows
Swirl, sniff. Swirl again. Swirling wine jostles the elements contributing to the wine’s bouquet to life. The point is not just to make your drink smellier. Since the smell bone is connected to the taste bone, releasing the aromatic elements of the wine unleashes the components of flavor as well. Flavor scientists confirm that taste is as much as 50% smell.
Wine glasses are designed to assist you to swirl without spilling. No need to create a mini whirlpool; just get a very gentle swirl going. After the movement subsides, get your nose right into the glass if you can, breathing in slowly but steadily. Get a good snootful.
Once you become accustomed to mentally filtering out the simple sugar and alcohol vapors, flavors and aromas will present themselves to you, sometimes in bunches, sometimes discretely. Allow your imagination reign. What you smell might not be fruit. It might not even remind you of any carbon-based compound.
All’s fair, and part of the fun.
Up next? Wine Tasting Fundamentals, Part Two: Texture, Flavor and Finish