The Short Version
Wine tasting is obvious, isn’t it? I mean, you wouldn’t have thought many of us would have much difficulty learning how to lift up a glass of liquid and sip it, right? Well, of course not! And nobody should tell anybody how they ought to enjoy wine. However, the art of wine tasting has historically had a general guide, a rough order of business designed to help the taster get the absolute most out of the experience. Wine tasting is, after all, a multisensory experience, full of infinite variety, and having a standard way to proceed helps us compare, helps us know what to look out for, and helps us to assess that magical liquid in the glass from every angle.
So, here are the basics of winetasting, and below you can read a much deeper dive into each step. So let’s go!
The first thing is something you’re likely to do anyway – look at the stuff in the glass! We generally do so for a few reasons:
- To check the colour, not just red or white but its various gradations (including tilting the glass to inspect the hues around the rim)
- To see if the wine is clear or cloudy
- To check the WINE LEGS (more on which later!)
The way the wine looks will give you your first clues, your first hints of what’s going on in the glass in front of you, e.g. whether or not the wine has been fined or filtered or not (which, hint, might mean you’ve got a low-intervention wine in your hands – again, more on which later) or whether it’s been in oak. So daft though it might seem, it’s important to not skip this step!
Time to get your nose in the glass! What does the wine smell of, and why? You’ll mainly be checking for:
- Wine flaws (like cork taint)
- Primary aromas (like fruit)
- Secondary aromas (like oak, or lees)
- Tertiary aromas (like forest floor, or truffles)
You can also give your wine a swirl in the glass to release more of the aromas before giving it another sniff – it may look a little strange, but it really works, we promise. Also, make sure to take your time – most good wines will have something substantial to give on the nose, so it’s worth taking your time over this step!
The moment you’ve been waiting for! Most of taste is in fact smell, so you’ll get a lot of what you got on the nose with that sip, only more so. Be sure to swoosh the wine all around the mouth, and don’t be afraid to do that ‘sucking a straw’ motion either – again, it looks strange, but it absolutely helps.
Of course, we’ll address this step in a lot more detail below as well, but when you sip a wine you’re by and large looking for, in addition to those flavours you already detected in the aroma:
- How acidic is the wine?
- How tannic is it (especially in reds)?
- How sweet is it?
- How much alcohol is there in it, otherwise known as body?
These are the basic questions you need to ask yourself with every bottle. And don’t forget, if you’re settling down with a whole bottle at dinner, that wine is going to change according to the time it’s been open, the food it’s been paired with, and so on. Wine tasting is a deep, complex, immensely multifaceted procedure, worth taking over.
Which, without further ado, let’s do so and take our own time over it here in our in-depth look at how to do wine tasting.
The long “in depth” version
So, you don’t have to, but the earliest clues you’ll get about the wine in your glass will be perceived with your eyes whether you’re trying or not. So, here is, in no particular order, a non-comprehensive (but fairly thorough) set of things to look for when you first get that glass in front of you.
OK, obvious one to start off with, but bear with us. Of course most wine you’ll ever get will be in one of the categories we call red and white wine, with a steady percentage being rosé. But when does a dark rosé become a light red? And if some rosés, like many from Provence, are so pale, can we mistake them for slightly darker white wine? And wait, what does dark white wine mean anyway?
Well here’s where the interesting questions start to come in regarding wine colour. Very few red wines are actually red, and even fewer white wines are actually, well, white (actually you could easily say none are white per se, as that would be, well, like milk; the palest ‘white’ wines are in fact the most transparent). Red wines are, really, various stages of purply-ish-reddish-sort-of-brownish-maybe, and white wine is on a spectrum of very pale to dark gold. And don’t get us started on ‘orange wines’ (OK, a bit on orange wines in a bit). So how to make sense of all that, and how to infer wine characteristics just from the shades?
It starts with the grapes. Grape must is pressed out of the pulp of the berry and is almost always clear (there are black grapes with black flesh known as teinturier, but they’re rare). With white wines the skins are usually – though not always – sieved away, whereas with red wines the skins of black grapes are macerated with the juice after pressing. This allows chemical compounds known as polyphenols to leech into the juice, making it change colour. Depending on how dark those grape skins are (and, often, how thick, as thicker skins usually contain more polyphenolic stuff) and how long the juice is left on the skins, the colour will end up lighter or darker.
But two sidenotes here. First, those complicating aforementioned rosé wines. These are usually made by crushing black grapes and leaving them on the skins for not much time, from as much as 48 hours to as little as overnight. Exactly where a rosé ends and a light red begins is, as in the case of some Alsace reds, a judgement call. Secondly, you can make white wines from black grapes as well, by simply removing the skins immediately after crushing – most famously, of the three most common grapes used to make Champagne, two (pinot noir and pinot meunier) are in fact black grapes. However this is only really reliable with thin-skinned grapes, as more pachydermous varieties (like cabernet sauvignon) often leave a pinkish tinge as soon as crushed.
At this point you might be nodding and saying, great, I get why red and rosé wines are dark to varying degrees, but one question: what about white wine? Didn’t you just say they could be dark or pale? Well yes this is true, and there are two main influences here: oak and time. To start with the former, you’ll probably know that some wine is put into oak barrels before bottling, and depending on for how long and the size of the barrel, substances in the wood will cause white wine to change to a yellow or even a golden hue, as will the very slight influence of oxygenation allowed by barrels. Which brings us to time. Wine intended for long bottle-ageing are to this day sealed with natural cork, as the material is very slightly porous and will allow for further oxygen to interact with the wine. Added to that, wine is an inherently unstable chemical substance which gradually stabilises over time, particularly with the help of oxygen, and will tend towards brown over time.
(Red wines are no strangers to this either – most reds are put into oak, while the browning tendency affects them in the opposite way to whites, causing them to lighten and become translucent over time.)
So why does any of this matter? Because it provides you clues as to the wine’s eventual aromas and flavours. You get a really pale white wine, you probably expect it to be fresh, light, maybe crisp, whereas a dark gold one would, you expect, be significantly richer from oak or at least more complex due to the effects of bottle-ageing. Get a red wine that’s a translucent violet you’d bet on it having a similar freshness to the pale white, whereas a dark intense purple probably means a dark intense wine (or at least a very fruity one). And if you know the grape or grapes used, or the age of the wine, or where it’s from, you can probably tell from a look what the wine is likely to be like.
OK, that was a lot wasn’t it! The rest won’t be as intense. Probably. But colour is one of the true fundamentals of wine, so thanks for making it this far!
(Oh, and orange wines? These are white wines left on the skins made from particular grapes which have thicker skins of a grey or light pink hue. Unless it’s ‘orange wine’ from Andalusia, in which case it’s orange because it’s got orange in it.)
Is your wine ‘cloudy’, thick-looking? Well it may surprise you to learn that this in fact means it’s vegan! Confused? It’s quite simple really.
Most wine you’ve ever had will have gone through a double process of filtration and fining. Wine, you see, is like every other fruit juice – you squeeze it out of the grape and all sorts of pulpy material comes with the clear, sweet liquid. Furthermore, the remains of the yeast used to ferment the sugar into alcohol get added to the mix, leaving a newly-made wine a really very busy liquid indeed. All of which is OK, except with one major caveat: the inherent instability of wine. The influence of all these chemical compounds is difficult to predict or control, and so it is normally in the winemakers interest to find ways to get rid of it.
The first and most common is sieve filtration, which is essentially what it sounds like. The second and rather more controversial process is fining, in which a substance is added to the wine to which the various unwanted chemical compounds adhere, making them stick together into heavier blocks, that sink and are then easier to remove.
There are two main reasons for controversy here. The first is that many winemakers believe that this procedure somewhat neutralises the wine, sanding down the rougher edges of wine flavours to make more homogenised overall products (similar things are said about the addition of sulphites, another route to stabilisation). The second is that this can sometimes render wines non-vegan or vegetarian, as the chemicals for fining are sometimes derived from eggs or the isinglass found in fish bladders (though it is extremely common to also use non-animal products, for example charcoal).
This is why, when you see a cloudy wine, you know it’s vegan-friendly – though as I say, if it’s clear, that doesn’t mean it’s not vegan-friendly. But even more broadly than that, a cloudy wine could be a faulty wine (from yeast or bacteria accidentally left behind), or deliberately cloudy, residues left in on purpose to try something out in the wine’s flavour profiles, usually something a bit out of the ordinary. It can be hard to tell which without further information, though another clue is that faulty wine is often also a little fizzy, indicating unwanted extra yeast that has undergone an unwanted extra fermentation.
Ah the famous wine legs, sometimes known as wine feet, wine fingers (leaping from limb to limb), and in Italian rather beautifully archetti del vino. You know them – the strange translucent drippings dragging down the sides of a glass of wine. There are all sorts of myths about wine legs, their supposed indication of age or quality or whatever it might be, most of which aren’t true. However, there are a couple of things you can learn.
These legs, these archetti del vino, have one more name, a scientific one: the Marangoni effect (or sometimes the Gibbs-Marangoni effect). The basics are to do with surface tension – the surface tension of alcohol is lower than water, meaning (for some reason) that the alcohol gets tugged away from areas where it is highly concentrated – i.e. the wine – to areas where it is less concentrated – i.e. the glass. A bit of swirling will enhance this effect.
So what do wines with big legs tell us? Mainly, that alcohol is there. Which is a relief, sure, but it isn’t a high bar. Nevertheless, more defined, thicker archetti are more likely to be present with wines that have a higher alcohol content, so wine body (and alcohol-related sweetness) are perhaps detectable.
How to do it
Sniffing the wine is an essential – and not necessarily very elegant – part of any true wine tasting. No genteel perching of the nostril just above the rim of the glass; as the guy in the movie Sideways says, no use being shy, you just need to get right in there. However, it’s important to note that you get different types of aroma from different parts of the glass – the most obvious is that alcohol burn that particularly strong wines can impart to a really deep sniff, whereas lighter, more ethereal aspects are emphasised the further away you get. It’s a really important part of the wine-tasting process, given that around 80% of what we ‘taste’ is in fact detected through the nose!
And if you do sniff at the rim of the glass? Well, that’s a thing too, but it’s technically what we call the bouquet in wine tasting. For the aroma proper, you’ve got to go in.
What to look for 1 – FAULTS
So there’s a strange yet persistent myth that when a waiter pours a little wine for someone to taste at the table that, should they not like it, they can order another one. Wrong! Once the bottle is opened, the bottle is bought, with one exception :if the wine is faulty. But how to tell if a wine is faulty? Well we’ve already seen that the appearance can give a few clues, but as we said, cloudiness and spritziness are sometimes intended by the winemaker.
It is therefore on the nose that the first real clues start to sneak in. Here is an small, necessarily incomplete but hopefully helpful list of things to look out for that could indicate a wine gone bad:
BURNT SUGAR – cooked. Also known as madeirised, after the sweet wine made by deliberately exposing the liquid to very high temperatures. Madeira is lovely and very valuable, but there is a difference between a wine made this way on purpose and wine that’s been left in the car for a few hours on a very hot day! Those same demerara flavours that in Madeira can be so wonderful absolutely destroy every other wine – so be sure to keep your bottle in a cool dark place.
CHEAP BALSAMIC VINEGAR – acetic acid (also known as volatile acidity). So here it gets complicated. Acetic acid is important. Acetic acid can be an important component of a fine combination of flavours. However – too much acetic acid and you end up with an aroma a bit like not-especially-good balsamic vinegar that maybe has been left next to the radiator for too long. However, be warned – a bit like chilli in food, some people often do actually like more or less acetic acid in their wine, so what is a fault to you may, just may, in the end, be your taste (though sometimes of course something has just gone wrong!).
MOULD, WET DOG – corked. The most famous wine fault, usually from when the cork dries out and starts to disintegrate and sprinkle itself into the wine. The flavours and aromas are famously awful: reminiscent of a cardboard box that, having housed a dog who likes particularly to play in old puddles, has been left in a moist room to grow a garden of mould all over it. It’s mainly caused by a chemical called trichloroanisole or TCA, which apparently in very large quantities can also cause blindness, in case you wondered if there was anything good about it. So, for everyone’s sake, be sure to store your wine on its side so that cork doesn’t dry out!
MOUSEYNESS – brettanomyces. So here it gets complicated. Brettanomyces, also known by the somewhat Australian-sounding shorthand brett, is a yeast that can find its way into wine virtually no matter what you do. There are things you can do to filter it out, but in unfiltered wines it’s either there or it’s not and there’s not a lot to do about it. Sounds bleak, right? Well, not necessarily. Not all bretty flavours are the same and not all brett strains develop the same way, and sometimes a touch of it is not just considered preferable but essential to the flavours of certain wines. This is because its ‘good’ chemicals – known as ethylguaiacols – can give extraordinary aromas of spices, leather, smoked ham and so on. Unfortunately, the less ‘good’ chemicals give aromas more like rancid cheese and particularly old barns in need of a good clean, not to mention the now-famous mousey tones.
How best to stop it, then? The answer doesn’t please some: sulphites. Much of the argument over the value of adding sulphites to wine is over the desirability of bretty flavours and aromas, arguments which – up to a point – are essentially subjective. Nonetheless I’m not sure anybody wants their wine to smell like a horse-saddle, so caution around this controversial character in the wine story is always advised.
OLD APPLES – oxidation. Corks wearing out doesn’t just disperse TCA into otherwise innocent wine – sometimes, they spoil the poor wine simply by letting in oxygen. If you’ve ever left a bottle open for too long you’ll know the smell, which is a bit like an apple that’s been left to go off in the sun. Doesn’t mean it can’t still be used for cooking, of course, but if you have a really nice wine you plan to drink over the course of a few days, investing in an effective stopper is an absolute must – and if it smells old straight after opening, send it back.
Unless, of course, it’s sherry, in which case it’s meant to be like that.
ROTTEN EGGS – sulphur. Sulphur can, in the right compounds, help stabilise a wine if that’s what the winemaker is looking for; it can also, however, ruin the experience of a wine if you’re not careful. Sulphur compounds can develop in wine as a result of fermentation or malolactic conversion (more on which later), and by and large the trademark aromas of sulphur – rotten eggs, to give a polite example -aren’t very pleasing on the nose.
Fortunately, this is one wine fault that can actually be helped. A bit of aeration, a bit of swirling, can allow the compounds to dissipate into the air, leaving behind a nice clean wine ready for degustation. So if you detect a strange cabbagey note in your wine, give it a moment – you may be pleasantly surprised.
OK that’s enough misery! Most wine isn’t spoiled, and so let’s have a look lovely things to sniff out for. There is of course an astonishingly large number – practically infinite – of things you may get from a wine, and nothing your sense receptors tell you is ‘wrong’ (after all, it’s your nose). Nevertheless there are a few general things most people agree on, and that are worthwhile trying to pin down as they indicate something about the winemaking process. Also they’re generally nice! So here it is, another incomplete but hopefully helpful primer.
These are the scents and smells that are mainly derived from the grape itself. These encompass most of the fruit-flavours associated with with any given variety or varieties, as well as other floral or herbal aromas considered essential characteristics. Fruit-flavours are caused principally by chemicals called esters, most prevalent in young wines, with a myriad other compounds responsible for the other flavours, such as terpenes (most connected to the aforementioned florals), phenols and ketones (flavours such as tannin and violets), and so on. Special mention goes to mineral flavours, which in certain white wines especially makes the difference between quite good and wow, yeah, really quite good.
In light white wines, the most common fruits to look out for will be things like citrus – lime, lemon, grapefruit etc – with fresh and herbal aromas such as elderflower and grass also relatively common. Richer white wines will often have fuller, more tropical fruits such as passionfruit and mango notes, while you’re also more likely to find some nuttiness and even smokiness than in lighter wines (though as with all things this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule).
Some particularly characteristic aromas include: fresh grass (sauvignon blanc – flintiness is also present in good, old world expressions); lychees (gewurztraminer); rosewater and grapes (moscato); lemon (unoaked chardonnay like Chablis, which can also show some exciting chalky, stony stuff); pears and almonds (arneis); grapefruit (lighter vermentino); light peach (garganega, the Soave grape!).
Light red wines are, naturally, marked by fruit flavours we might call ‘light red’ – think raspberries, strawberries, red cherries and so on – whereas fuller reds will likely show bigger, bolder, darker fruits like brambles and blackcurrants. Spiciness is more common in reds as well, helped along by heat from the higher alcohol. Interestingly, both lighter and fuller reds can carry redolence of unusual green flavours, which are always fun to notice.
Some typical red wine notes are: raspberries and strawberries (young pinot noir); cassis (cabernet sauvignon – look out as well for mint or eucalyptus from top-end new world varieties); plums and damsons (merlot); red cherries (sangiovese); black cherry (young nebbiolo); sour cherries (corvina, the main grape of Valpolicella classica!); raisins (corvina grapes that have undergone appassimento, as for Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone).
These are derived from the winemaking process – the effects of a winemaker’s choice on the final wine. Of course there are nearly innumerable things a winemaker can do to influence the finished product – and indeed, doing as little as possible could do even more! Nevertheless, here are a few things to look out for in particular.
The first, and most common, come from something known as malolactic fermentation. Not technically fermentation, is the process by which malic acid – so named for its importance in the flavour of green apples – is converted into lactic acid, a considerably more alkaline compound present in milk (and which builds up naturally in the human body after a lot of exercise!). Virtually all red wines go through this process, and many whites do too. Characteristic of this process will be aromas of toast, hazelnut, occasionally even cocoa. However, it is important to remember that not all winemakers will desire malolactic effect, preferring to maintain a brighter profile (only about 20% of white wines undergo MLF).
Another very common practice is oak-ageing, again especially common for red wines but particularly notable when whites undergo the process. Oak is immediately recognisable, but here too there is variation: French oak is renowned for its buttery aromas, whereas American oak is altogether spicier and brasher, more redolent of vanilla and coconut. Oak settles and softens over time as well, so the more aggressive those notes, the younger the wine is likely to be. Though most reds go through the process, the whites that have done so exhibit those oaky characteristics to the most striking effect, with many white wines worldwide known for this (Montrachet and Meursault in Burgundy, for instance).
(As a side note, in a lot of Italy wine is aged in unusually large barrels made of Slavonian oak, a type known for its relative neutrality. So just because an Italian wine isn’t obviously giving off buttered toast fumes, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been in a barrel!)
But how can you do something by doing nothing? Well one way is by the use of the yeast itself, even after it’s fulfilled its fermentation purpose and died, by simply doing not very much and leaving the wine there on the dead yeast cells, stirring them occasionally. This is known as lees-ageing, and is often said to impart bready and nutty aromas, particularly to sparkling wines made in the Champagne method. But that’s another example of something mainly affecting white wines, and we mustn’t neglect how you can make your red wine better, and as luck would have it we’ve already come across one: good brettanomyces, the encouragement of which (and its good ethylguaiacols) is especially effective in reds in leaving those leathery, earthy notes.
But perhaps you may be interested to learn that, by not doing very much, you too can make a real difference to the development of wine aromas.
Tertiary aromas are defined as those produced by the effects of bottle-ageing. As with lees-ageing, it’s not quite accurate to say this is done by doing nothing exactly, as the correct method and atmosphere of storage is important, but the secret ingredients are nonetheless simple: time and patience. Not all wine is meant to be aged – many are intended to be drunk young. However, wines built to be set down and left can leave extraordinary rewards in the form of these tertiary aromas, or ‘bouquet’ in wine-speak.
There are really too many to list properly – indeed, a reason why ageable wine is so highly valued is the sheer possibility of what you might expect from it – but there are a few rules of thumb. First, you expect bold fruit notes to diminish over time – in cabernet sauvignon, strong aromas of cassis, say, or blackcurrant, will soften over time to become less bold.
Second, many secondary aromas also are likely to diminish dramatically, with more aggressive oak or prominent lees characteristics likely to integrate into the overall flavours of the wine.
Finally, and most importantly, you can expect tertiary aromas to be non-fruit in character, and indeed not normally things you would associate with being edible. Furthermore, certain wines are famously characteristic for certain tertiary aromas that develop in great bottles: for instance, great Barolo is famous for particular tar and roses notes; Amarone, by contrast, is likely to acquire extraordinary cigar box and forest floor characteristics. Every wine is different, every bottle too, but you can still expect certain things from certain grapes, styles and regions.
There are, of course, myriad different smells and aromas in wine, far too many to list, but we hope you get the idea. We’ll return to them later – but for now, on with the tasting process!
Swirling the wine around your glass may just look like something for show, something that looks quite pretty to pass the time, but it actually serves a technical function. The idea is that you should take your glass, look it at, take a sniff, swirl it, then take another, with one good reason – oxygen. See, swirling (otherwise known as aeration) gets oxygen into the wine and causes some alcohol to dissipate, and oxygen reacts with the chemicals in the wine that produce aromas with the effect of changing and intensifying them. Remember, oxygen changes wine, indeed eventually into vinegar, and this can be utilised by the taster/swirler/aerator to bring different flavours out of the wine. Aerating also brings out the aforementioned wine legs, as well as helping overcome the ‘trapped sulphur’ wine fault. Not bad for a showy little movement!
And so, to the point of the whole thing. You’ve looked at the wine, you’ve sniffed it, you’ve thrown it around the glass, sniffed it again, considered the effects of aeration on the Marangoni-Gibbs effect, and now finally it’s time to drink some of it. What should you look out for? Well, as with every stage of wine tasting it’s both straightforward and massively variegated. Here’s a small breakdown.
How to drink
This should go without saying but, really, try not to down your wine! True appreciation is a slow process, and even if you don’t like the wine it’s better to go slow and determine exactly why. Plus drinking too quickly is very not good for you! So tip one: go slow.
Tip two: try and make sure the wine gets all around the mouth. You have taste receptors all over the tongue, so put them all to work! To extract maximum flavour experience from the wine, maximum surface area is worth using.
The third and final tip is one that, like swirling, you may not want to do, but we promise it really helps. In fact it is exactly like swirling, in that it involves aeration. That thing you see people do, puckering their lips and sucking in air with wine in their mouths? Another way of getting oxygen into the wine to draw the uttermost last flavour out of the liquid. It may not look very dignified, but trust us – if you do this, you will notice instantly the sharp increase in what you can taste and how intensely you taste it. This is the way of winetasting: not always the most dignified, but anything is worth doing for flavour.
What to look for
Flavours, tastes and sensations
So that word: flavour. This is a tricky one. As we’ve already said, an enormous percentage of what you taste is in fact smelled through the nose, in a process technically known as retronasal olfaction (effectively, smelling things that are already in your mouth – another reason why in-mouth aeration is so important!). Technically, flavour is not the same as taste, and our tongues can only taste the famous five of sweet, sour, bitter, umami, and salt. Everything else (which is to say, all the aromas listed above) are flavours that aren’t so much tasted as smelled.
That said, retronasal olfaction is an important part of tasting – or if you prefer flavour-detecting – the wine. Everything and more from our aromas section will be there, and so it’s crucial to pay attention to them. Wine will usually press a few of the taste buttons too, mainly sour, sweet and sometimes bitter. But more on that later.
The things you’ll really notice first about wine will be more to do with sensation than with taste or flavour, however. The two principle culprits are acidity, present in all wine and noticeable to varying degrees, and tannin, present mainly in red wine and again, to varying degrees.
Acidity you’ll know immediately – it stimulates saliva production, giving wine its characteristic mouthwatering quality – the greater the acidity, the more the mouth waters. Acidity gives what in the wine world is called freshness, and is crucial for many reasons: it is usually a pre-requisite for long bottle-ageing, and judging the right level is absolutely vital for food pairing. It’s an integral part of the structure of wine, and helps identify certain grapes (in whites, for instance, riesling is known for its sharper tang) and indeed whole regions and countries (Italian reds, for example, are marked by higher acidity than average). White wines are generally more known for acidity, but that’s hardly to say that reds lack it in general, or indeed can afford to necessarily. Wines with too much acidity can be called sharp, whereas insufficient acidity can get the wine labelled ‘flabby’. It’s all about balance.
Tannins, however, really do apply mainly to red wine, with a few interesting exceptions. Tannins are a form of polyphenol found in the skins of grapes, and as red wines gain their colour from maceration with those skins, it is they which gain the most tannin.
They are effectively the opposite of acidity – where acidity makes the mouth water, tannin combines with chemicals in the saliva to dry the mouth out (similar chemicals have a similar effect in tea). Tannins are responsible for, in wine-speak, structure – the greater the tannin, the more structure it is said to have, and are often just as big a contributor to the ageing of red wines as acidity. Many grapes are known for their great tannic structure, which is often associated with those grapes known as good agers – cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, and so on. Again, balance is everything, and many grapes are renowned for their lack of tannin as much as anything (perhaps most famously pinot noir, which is nonetheless a great ager).
And can white wines have tannins? Well yes, through two ways. The first, and less common, is those so-called ‘orange wines’ and other skin-contact whites. The other is another way reds also gain tannin – from the oak barrel. Oak imparts significant tannin to wine (the smaller the barrel, the more significant), and is another reason oak-ageing is often considered desirable, as a contributor to bottle-ageing potential.
The third and fourth things to look out for can sometimes be easy to confuse, but are also quite distinct. First, sweetness. Pretty self-explanatory – the most obvious encounter with a flavour receptor you’ll find is that of sugar with the tastebuds adapted for the perception of sweetness. A wine is considered dry if it has under 9 grams per litre of sugar; 30-35g/l, it starts to become noticeably sweet; a serious dessert wine like Sauternes can be anything between 100-200g/l and even beyond; and the sweetest dessert wine known is the mega-sweet sherry known as Pedro Ximenez, which generally has around 400g/l of sugar. Which really is very very sweet.
And the fourth one – well, it’s alcohol! The most important thing to remember is that alcohol carries flavour. The bigger the alcohol content, the more intense flavours (as opposed to tastes or sensations like sweetness or tannin) are likely to be. Wine people refer to this as body – generally described in some way as light, medium, or full – and is one of the true fundamentals.
And the confusion? Well, sometimes high alcohol which isn’t well-balanced in the wine can leave a bitter-sweet sensation, even though alcohol on its own is odourless. Sometimes this leads people to believe a wine is sweet, but a side-by-side comparison with a true sweet wine, high in sugar, will make this mix-up easy to avoid.
The three stages of wine
Which brings us to the end of how to taste wine, so why not finish with, well, the finish! Technically each mouthful of wine is divided into three stages: the attack, the first wave of flavours and sensations immediately after the sip; the mid-palate, perhaps the bulk of the wine experience in which you detect most of the aromas we’ve listed here; and the finish, which we will linger on here for a second.
A wine is defined as having a long finish if, after the wine has left the mouth, aromas and textures linger on for a long time anyway. Long finishes are frequently taken as a sign of quality (though of course, everything is relative – an overly rich wine might overwhelm a lighter food in a pairing, for instance). There are a variety of wine words associated with finish, such as clean, crisp or fresh (used to describe wines with strong acidity), persistent (for wines whose finish just keeps going and going), drying (for particularly tannic wines), short or modest (for wines whose finish doesn’t drag on), as well as any particular flavour and aroma notes that you, the taster, can detect.
Bonus step: listening
Well we did say that wine-tasting involves all the senses, and this one seemed to have got missed out somehow. But surely we’re not saying you should put that glass of wine up to your ear and listen to it? Are we about to tell you that the sound it makes when it swirls can tell you something?
Well, to be blunt, no. But you’re not meant to listen to the wine, even to the lovely sound of a cork being pulled – rather, you should listen to each other, to your friends around the table. Wine is a social thing, a subjective thing, and someone might tell you something you hadn’t thought of before, like if a sauvignon blanc smells of a meadow after a storm, or if that isn’t the faintest touch of asparagus in that glass of Abruzzo cerasuolo. And as is often the case, the power of suggestion is mighty: you’d be amazed at what you might detect once someone has pointed it out to you (yes meadow! yes asparagus!).
Because that’s the joy of wine, a social experience from bottom to top, from conviviality to aroma ideas, to be enjoyed, hated, debated, discussed – whatever it might be, but always best in company.