We already have some notions about the vineyard and how wines are made, convenient to better understanding the product, and now it is time to get into the tasting. The first thing to remember is Don’t worry: it is much simpler than it sounds and, above all, natural, because since childhood we have learned intuitively to choose what we like. As the Maria Moliner Dictionary states, “To taste is to try something to see what it tastes like.” Easy, right?
But as this is an analysis with the senses (via the eyes, nose and mouth), it is subject to some subjectivity: our physical state and mood (tired, sick, or sad), the average quality of that which we have tasted (because we will always compare them), and the number of wines to taste (as we get tired, our sensory perception fades) all influence how we taste wine.
In general, our goals define the type of tasting:
Hedonistic tasting, in which we seek only the pleasure of drinking a good wine, choosing those which satisfy us the most. This is the type of tasting we usually practice with friends.
Technical tasting, where we apply more critical thinking, trying to analyze all the sensations that a wine gives us, based on the knowledge of enology that we possess. In this case, the objectives may revolve around choosing wines to buy, verifying the state of the wine (if it has gone bad), the decision to save or consume, possible pairings with food, etc. It is also the type of tasting that professionals practice.
When tasting, is important to be aware of a number of conditions that influence our perception and make us lose objectivity. These can be both external (environmental) and internal (the taster’s).
CONDITION OF THE TASTER
– Be in good physical shape (no tiredness, runny nose, headache) and relaxed.
– Avoid eating during the tasting. You can use a bit of bread to “clean” your mouth between two wines, but do not use any other food, since most of the wines (even if they are not good) improve with food. Do not forget the old adage, “It was given with cheese,” referring to the idea that a wine accompanied by food always tastes better than it really is.
– Drink a minimum amount of wine, to maintain your critical potential through to the end of the tasting (if you are “buzzed,” you will be less objective). Professional tasters generally spit the wine to reduce the effects of alcohol.
– Do not try too many wines in a row. The ideal is to limit yourself to 4-6 when you do not have much practice, and to 10-12 with training.
– Do not use perfume or cologne and, of course, do not smoke. Perhaps these odors will not bother you, if are used to them, but they certainly will bother others who accompany you at the tasting.
– Practice often to continue gaining experience and refresh your memory.
– Choose a suitable time for tasting, usually before eating, so that your senses are alert and more receptive.
One must be aware that each individual is different: two individuals may have very different responses to the same stimulus (due to genetic differences).
As we said before, wine tasting is much simpler than it seems and, above all, it is natural, or innate, because we learn how to do it from childhood. Whenever we eat a meal, the first thing we do is look at it (and it has to appear attractive to us), then smell it (using an alert sense, to verify that we don’t smell anything bad or strange), and finally, we bring it to our mouth to try it (where we decide if we like it or not).
Senses and sensations. Most of our senses are involved in wine tasting. The sensations we perceive from different types of sensory stimuli are summarized in the table below:
SENSES USED IN WINE TASTING
|ORGAN||SENSES & SENSATIONS||PERCEIVED CHARACTERISTICS|
|EYE||Sight: Visual observations||SIGHT||Color, clarity Fluency, effervescence|
|NOSE||Smell: (Directly through the nose) Smells||SMELL||Aroma, bouquet|
|Smell: (Retronasal) Smells||Mouth aromas|
|MOUTH||Taste: Tastes and flavors||TASTE||Flavors or tastes|
|Reaction: Chemical sensitivity||Astringency, pungency, bubbling|
|Tactile sensations||TOUCH||Consistency, liquidity, fluidity, stickiness|
SIGHT. Through sight, the taster perceives color, which is the first sensation of wine. It is a very important source of information, which often receives little attention. Seeing the wine guides us, telling us what type of wine we will be tasting. Blindfolded, or using black glass, it would be difficult to distinguish a white wine from a rosé from a light red, especially if the temperature is raised slightly. In addition, sight gives us information regarding the age of the wine and the quality of its conservation. It helps to know that age and evolution do not always go hand in hand in wine (nor in people), since you can find wines that are well preserved and seem younger and vice versa. Normally, a great wine is usually one that stands the test of time above the rest.
Today it is difficult to find a wine that presents visual defects. Wineries already are equipped with the technology needed to make the product perfectly clear (transparent) and bright. When the opposite occurs, i.e., we find an opaque or cloudy wine, often it is a result of problematic storage of the bottle.
It is important not to consider the presence of a light sediment at the bottom of the bottle as a defect. This is a natural phenomenon, in which substances from the wine, such as salts or polyphenols, precipitate (fall to the bottom) as a result of time or temperature. It happens in wines of a certain age which have been made in a more traditional way. The sediment is completely safe (you can drink it and nothing happens) and can easily be removed by decanting the wine.
SMELL. The sense of smell is one of the most powerful senses we have and at the same time, one of the least developed. Olfaction is a complex process: the smells which originate from our food are perceived by the olfactory mucosa, located deep within the nostrils, and interpreted by the olfactory bulb, which is in the brain. This is why smell is so closely related to memory. It is a subtle sense, fine and sensitive, well protected, and can be accessed in two different ways:
– Direct nasal stimulation, the normal way to smell, which happens when we breathe in (through the nose) the aromas emanating from the glass.
– Retronasal stimulation (aromas that rise from the mouth to the back of the nasal passage), which comes into play when we drink wine, because as we swallow, there is always a little air expelled through the passageway that connects the mouth and nose.
When we taste a wine, we perceive an array of sensations in the mouth, of which many are olfactory, even though we are not always consciously aware of this. Therefore, when we catch a cold, we say that we cannot taste anything. This is not true; actually, we cannot smell anything.
There is a multitude of aromatic substances in wine (over 600) which are usually grouped into families or categories:
Resinous: resin, pine, eucalyptus, cedar…
Animals: musk, sweat, cat urine…
Spices: bay leaf, pepper, nutmeg, cloves…
Wood: oak from the barrels.
Chemicals: these are negative (sulfur dioxide, reminiscent of boiled eggs, acetic acid or vinegar; ethyl acetate, which smells like nail polish remover…)
Empyreumatic: these come from toasting the barrel and are welcome if they are in small proportion: smoke, fire, toast, burnt caramel…
Flower: carnation, rose, violet, honeysuckle, broom…
Fruit: banana, strawberry, raspberry, coconut, blackberry…
Vegetal: can be nice (tobacco, hay, underbrush) but sometimes represent defects or lack of maturity: green pepper, cucumber, rushes, wild garlic, grass…
Wines do not smell like strawberries (because they don’t contain strawberries), but they do remind us of the smell. The aromatic sensation that a wine produces is a complex mix of aromas, which may include one dominant but not exclusive scent. Within a wine there are usually three types of aromas:
And do not forget that the sensations of smell which the wine produces vary with time, temperature and agitation.
The mouth is not a proper “sense,” but it is a sensory organ, and it is important to know that taste and other sensations which are perceived in the oral cavity are very much involved in the appreciation of the flavor of wine. Taste is perceived through taste buds, which are organs specific to the tongue. These buds detect only four tastes: sour, bitter, sweet and salty. The rest are tactile, thermal and chemical perceptions, which also involve the lips, soft palate and cheeks.
The four flavors are not perceived all at once, since specific taste buds are located in different areas of the tongue: sweet on the tip of the tongue, sour and salty in the middle, along the sides, and bitter at the back. There may be several seconds between the sensations of sweet and bitter.
Sweet is the easiest to identify. The rest, in a pure state, are not generally welcome, and are accepted only if they are balanced out by the sweet taste.
In wine, the four elemental flavors are due to:
– Sweet: alcohol, glycerol and sugars (when the wine is not dry).
– Sour: acids found in the grapes and wine (mainly tartaric, malic, citric, acetic, lactic and succinic).
– Salt: salified organic acids or trace elements present in the grape.
– Bitter: polyphenols (especially tannins).
Feelings we experience in our mouths and the substances that cause them are:
Now it is time to begin wine tasting, so we shall go through, step by step, how to proceed.
For visual analysis, it is essential that you have good lighting and a white background. In order, analyze the following characteristics:
1) Clarity. Tip the glass against a white surface and look at the wine in the glass from top to bottom, and sideways. It should be glossy, without any floating objects or cloudiness. If you lift the glass up to the light and look through it, the wine must be transparent. If everything looks good, we call the wine clean, bright; otherwise, it is cloudy.
2) Color. We also analyze this by tilting the glass. Now we are interested in determining:
3) Effervescence. A white, red or rosé wine, which we call still wine, as opposed to sparkling wine (champagne), does not have any visible bubbles (which would be an indication of a defect). If you do find some bubbles (not like foam, but like a carbonated soft drink), it may be a perlant wine, a characteristic of some wines from coastal areas.
4) Fluidity and legs. This is the last of the visual tests. When the glass is swirled in a circular motion, wine extends all over the inner surface, leaving a thin layer on the sides (clear or colored, depending on the type and age). As it runs down the sides, the wine leaves “tears” or “legs.” In principle, this information is not particularly valuable because the legs are linked to alcohol content and dry wine, which are not necessarily positive parameters. When a wine exhibits weak legs, we call it aqueous, fluid; otherwise, we refer to it as unctuous, fat, with good legs.
In the olfactory analysis, keep in mind that you have to work with memory and don’t try to work too quickly, because if you are not used to it, it is easy to get very tired. The features that we have to analyze are:
1) Honesty: refers to the absence of improper aromas, which either do not correspond to the type of wine, or are unpleasant (and might be defective). It is the first impression we look for when smelling a wine. If true, we call it an honest wine.
2) Intensity, which defines the amount of flavor and its persistence. Some wines take a while to “open,” i.e., to express all their flavors, and you have to give them time. When a wine has good intensity, we call it intense, aromatic. In contrast, if it does not, we refer to it as a closed wine, having little intensity.
3) Quality: refers to the positive aromatic values expressed by the wine. If the aromatic quality is good, we can classify the wine as fine, elegant, complex. And if it is not, you can call it inexpressive, neutral, poor. In this category, it is also important to consider the aromatic harmony, meaning that the aromas form a whole together, without certain strong aromas that dominate others.
When analyzing a wine with the olfactory sense, we proceed through two steps:
1º) Start with a still glass. It is very important not to start swirling the wine so as not to lose the most volatile aromas. Gently smell the glass from a distance, gradually bringing your nose closer to the glass, and this way you will be able to perceive the most ethereal and fragile aromas. This first impression can be very different from the swirled wine.
2º) Swirl the glass. With agitation, new flavors and intensities will appear and complete the aromatic profile of wine. This deals with less volatile compounds, which require some help to be detected and distinguished.
Keep in mind that the term “odor” sometimes has a negative connotation, and when wine tasting it’s more common to hear people speak of “aromas,” which is used when we describe a young wine, one that has yet to evolve. The term “bouquet” (which comes from French and literally means “a bunch” of flowers) is used to describe mature wines, which may have been barrel-aged, since in this case we refer to a set of aromas.
On the other hand, carbon dioxide, which is often found in young wines (as well as sparkling wines), is an excellent vehicle for aromas, which results in a more aromatic wine. However, the gas goes poorly with the tannins in red wine, so its presence is not recommended in structured wines.
To analyze the wine with your mouth, take a sip of wine that is not too large, so you can move it easily throughout your entire mouth, and do not keep it in your mouth too long (15-20 seconds) so that you avoid overheating the wine. The parameters we will analyze are:
1) Honesty: As in the olfactory analysis, this refers to noninterference of tastes-aromas that are outside the expected for this type of wine. We use the same language to analyze it as well.
2) Intensity: This parameter considers the body and volume of the wine, and allows us to define its structure or frame. On a scale from weak to strong, we say that it is fragile, thin, slim, large, robust, structured, solid.
3) Quality: This allows us to rate the balance and quality of flavors. The balance refers to the interaction between the dominant flavors: in whites and rosés, the balance of acidity and sweetness, and in reds, a balance of acidity, sweet ness and bitterness as well as the sensations produced by the tannins. When it reaches the right point of equilibrium, it is called a balanced wine, round, flavorful. Otherwise, it is referred to as unbalanced, with edges. As for quality, in white and rosé wines, we describe the acidity with terms such as flat, fresh, alive, and the sweetness as off-dry, sweet, and very sweet. In red wines, above all we judge the strength of tannin and its quality. On the one hand, we evaluate the amount of tannins (that is assessed as light, faded, structured, hard, firm) and on the other hand, we analyze the grain of the tannins (which leads to the expressions silky, velvety, thick, rugged, rustic or coarse).
4) Finish: This is an important aspect in which we consider the duration of the feelings and flavors after we’ve swallowed the wine. It varies between 2-3 seconds for a simple wine and 20 seconds for extraordinary wine. We consequently use the terms short and long finish.
5) Final Sensation: To complete the analysis, we have to interpret the harmony and overall quality of the wine, the overall impression it leaves us with and how all of its elements are assembled. When the impression is positive, we have a harmonious wine.
The oral analysis is done in three consecutive phases:
1) Attack: the initial sensation perceived during the first 2-3 seconds. It is often marked by the sweet tastes.
2) Swish: the other flavors rapidly mask the sweet taste, highlighting and harmonizing with each other (points, edges or balances).
3) Length and Finish: aroma-flavor that lasts more or less time after having swallowed or spit the wine.
It is very interesting and fun to organize tastings with friends. For example, before a lunch or dinner, you could enjoy a wine tasting with a wine that each person has brought. It’s nothing complicated: just create favorable conditions following the basic rules on the environment that we address at the beginning of this chapter.
The glasses are very important, and ideally, if you are going to try several different wines, each person should have two or three glasses, so you can leave the wine in the glasses and compare them. Use a nice and versatile glass that is not too large (discard those fancy “tasting glasses”).
The wines must be served at the correct temperature, the one at which you would consume them. With white wines, sometimes they are tasted a little less cool than normal, to make them more aromatic, but if you don’t have a lot of experience doing this, it’s easy to misjudge them (because they seem hot).
The order is very important. If you are going to try various types, start with whites, then rosés, then reds and finally sweet wines at the end. If you have a sparkling wine (champagne), put it at the beginning. When tasting, it is essential to organize the wines so that the lightest is tasted first and that you continue in a progression towards the heaviest. For example, with reds, you would start with the youngest, then Crianza, reserva, gran reserva and finally icon wines. A common way of organizing is also by the harvest, beginning with the earliest and continuing on to the more mature.
It’s helpful to choose a theme for the tasting because you will draw better conclusions and the experience will be richer. Take, for example, young whites, or whites aged in oak or red Grenache, or “cosecheros” (nouveau-style Rioja wines), or vintages of 2008, or sweet Moscatel, or rosés.
It is not recommended that you taste over ten wines in a session. For an amateur, it’s too much, and fatigue plays tricks on your senses. Professional tasters systematically spit the wine and swallow almost no alcohol, but even they do not often taste more than fifteen in a row. To begin with, four to five wines is good; it’s not too many but there are enough to discuss interesting themes.
Try to take notes on the wines, giving simple descriptions and grading them. This way, you develop a comprehensive opinion, which does not always have to coincide with the experience of others.
If you really enjoy this and taste a lot with the same group of friends, you might want to use scorecards and judge the wines as in a wine competition. They are easy to use and allow you to rate the wine on a scale of 100 points. It’s easy to find versions of scorecards in the industry, at the entrances to the various wine competitions (in Spain, there are Bacchus, Tendril, Bacos, and others) or through the IVO (International Wine Organization).
Finally, at the end of the tasting, drink the wine with some delicious dishes prepared for the occasion along with your wine tasting friends, who are always grateful diners.