Wine Tasting Tips

Tasting Wine - the Eyes

To really learn to appreciate wine, it is important to learn restraint and poise.

By far, wine is most rewarding when time is taken to observe this wonderful beverage well ahead of 'slurping it down'.

The first step is to pour it carefully - filling only a third and no more than a half of your stemmed wine glass.

Then the visual observation begins.

Lift your wine glass by the stem (this might feel a little posh for beginners but it is important not to obscure your view of the wine or alter its temperature by holding the bowl directly).

There are three aspects of the wine to observe visually - hue, intensity, clarity - and each requires a different way of looking.

The true colour, or hue, of the wine is best judged by tilting the glass and looking at the wine through the rim, to see the variation from the deepest part of the liquid to its edges.

Intensity can best be gauged looking straight down through the wine from above.

Clarity--whether the wine is brilliant, or cloudy with particles--is most evident when light is shining sideways through the glass.

Amid all this concentration, make sure you also simply enjoy the colour of the wine. There are many possible variations and the light dazzles beautifully through most.

Next comes the swirling. This too can feel unnatural, even dangerous if your glass is too full and your clothing brand-new. But besides stirring up the full range of colours, it prepares the wine for the next step, the olfactory examination.

The easiest way to swirl is to rest the base of the glass on a table, hold the stem between thumb and forefinger, and gently rotate the wrist. Right-handers will find a counter-clockwise motion easiest, left-handers the reverse.

Move the glass until the wine is dancing, climbing nearly to the rim. Then stop. As the liquid settles back into the bottom of the glass, a transparent film will appear on the inside of the bowl, falling slowly and irregularly down the sides in the wine's "tears" or "legs."

"Experts" derive meanings from them as various and profound as fortune-tellers do from looking at tea leaves, but in truth they're simply an indication of the amount of alcohol in the wine: the more alcohol, the more tears. Remember that when you're considering whether to open another bottle.

 

Tasting Wine - The Nose

When you stop swirling, and the tears are falling, it's time to take the next step: smelling. Agitating the wine vaporizes it, and the thin sheet of liquid on the sides of the glass evaporates rapidly; the result is an intensification of the aromas. If the glass narrows at the top, the aromas are further concentrated. Stick your nose right into the bowl and inhale.

There's no consensus about the proper sniffing technique. Some advocate two or three quick inhalations; others prefer one deep, sharp sniff. I've seen tasters close one nostril, sniff, then close the other and sniff again. The goal is to draw the aromas deep into the nose, to bring them into contact with the olfactory mucosa and thence to the olfactory bulb, where the sensations are registered and deciphered. It's a remote and protected place, and a head cold or allergies will effectively block it off from even the strongest aromas. But with practice, and keen attention, you'll learn how to maximize your perception of aromas, and then how to decipher them.

The world of smell is vast and bewildering.

First of all, our olfactory equipment is incredibly sensitive; we can distinguish aromas in quantities so small that laboratory equipment can scarcely measure them.

Second, our analytic capacity is extraordinary; estimates of the number of different smells humans can identify range up to 10,000!

Finally, wine has a staggering number of smellable elements. In their exhaustive study Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation, Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler, both professors at the University of California, write that "Identified in wine aromas are at least 181 esters, 52 alcohols, 75 aldehydes and ketones, 22 acetals, 18 lactones, six secondary acetamides, 29 nitrogen-containing compounds, 18 sulfur-containing compounds, two ethers, 11 furans and 18 epoxides, as well as 30 miscellaneous compounds. Many of these are modified in various ways by aging and cellar treatment, and they can and do react with each other or have additive, masking or synergistic properties."

Serious wine tasters love to identify smells. "Chocolate!" cries one. "Burnt matches!" insists another. "Tea, tobacco, mushrooms and a bit of the old barnyard," intones a third. Are they just playing word games?

No. In fact, wine does smell of more than grapes. Analysis of its volatile components has identified the same molecules that give many familiar objects their distinctive scents. Here are just a few: rose, iris, cherry, peach, honey and vanilla. Who's to say that some of the more imaginative descriptors--from road tar to cat's pee, sweaty socks to smoked bacon--aren't grounded in some basic chemical affinity?

As with colour, wine's aromas offer insights into character, origin and history. Because our actual sense of taste is limited to four simple categories (the well-known sweet, sour, bitter and salt), aroma is the most revealing aspect of our examination.

But don't simply sniff for clues. Revel in the sensation. Scientists say smells have direct access to the brain, connecting immediately to memory and emotion. Like a lover's perfume, or the scent of cookies from childhood, wine's aromas can evoke a specific place and time with uncanny power..

 

Tasting Wine - The Mouth

Now comes the best part. You can be mesmerized by wine's flashing colors and hypnotized into dreamy reverie by its evocative aromas, but actually drinking the wine is what loosens the tongue, opens the arms and consummates the liquid's true purpose.

You might think it's the easiest part, too. After all, you learned to drink from a cup when you were 2 years old and have been practicing diligently ever since. But there's a huge distinction between swallowing and tasting, the same gulf that yawns between simply hearing and truly listening. Once again, correct technique is essential to full appreciation.

With the aromas still reverberating through your senses, put the glass to your lips and take some liquid in. How much? That depends on the size of your mouth. But too little is as ineffective as too much. You need to have enough volume to work it all around your tasting apparatus, but not so much that you're forced to swallow right away.

Because you don't want to swallow, not just yet. It takes time and effort to force the wine to divulge its secrets. The aim is to keep a pleasant wine in your mouth for 10 to 15 seconds, sometimes more.

Roll the wine all around your mouth, bringing it into contact with every part, because each decodes a different aspect of the liquid. Wine provokes sensations, too: The astringency of tannins is most perceptible on the inner cheeks; the heat of the alcohol burns in the back of the throat.

The strength of these taste sensations can be amplified through specialized techniques that, frankly, are more appropriate to the tasting lab than the dining room. But if the wine is seductive enough, you may not be able to resist.

First, as you hold the wine in your mouth, purse your lips and inhale gently through them. This creates a bubbling noise children find immensely amusing. It also accelerates vaporization, intensifying the aromas.

Second, chew the wine vigorously, sloshing it around in your mouth, to draw every last nuance of flavour from the wine.

Don't forget the finish. After you swallow, exhale gently and slowly through both your nose and mouth. The retronasal passage, which connects the throat and the nose, is another avenue for aromas, which can linger long after the wine is finally swallowed.

You'll find that the better the wine, the more complex, profound and long-lasting these residual aromas can be.

With great wines, sensitive tasters and minimal distractions, the finish can last a minute or more.

It's a moment of meditation and communion that no other beverage can create..

[Adapted from an article by Thomas Matthews in The Wine Spectator www.winespectator.com. ]

 

 

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