I’ve noticed a trend over the past few months; less wine related articles and more beer! While this is not a bad thing, I think it’s time I put more effort into the wine content. Over the next few months I’m going to be reviewing a lot of topics covered in my WSET course and try to share some of the knowledge here. To start, we’ll focus on the basics of tasting!
Tasting wine comes with a lot of preconceptions and conjures images of snobbery. Personally, drinking is a lot less work than tasting, and I don’t advocate adopting all of the tasting techniques 100% of the time. Wine should be enjoyed, but our enjoyment can be enhanced by increasing our awareness of what we’re tasting. Tasting is also important when considering food and wine pairing. Being able to identify specific characteristics (acidity, for example) in wine helps us pair it with corresponding flavours in food.
The Systematic Approach to Tasting
WSET uses a specific technique and method to evaluating wine. The goal is to be as objective as possible in describing the individual qualities of the wine. While it does a good job of breaking a wine down into the characteristic components of appearance, nose and palate, but is rather objective and hence is rarely seen in it’s true form in any wine review. The method is broken down as you would logically encounter each individual aspect of the wine:
In evaluating the appearance of a wine, we look at three main qualities; clarity, intensity and colour. The appearance of a wine can tell us a lot about what the wine might taste like, and it can warn us of possible faults. Wines that have gone bad will often appear hazy or brown in colour. WSET provides guidelines on what to look for under each category. Is the clarity clear or hazy? Is the intensity pale, medium or deep? Is the colour purple, ruby, garnet or tawny?
If you’re like me and could use a refresher on just what colour ‘tawny’ is, check out ‘The Official Standard of Colours in Wine‘, developed by WSET and Winefan. WSET also provides a full, up to date Systematic Approach to Tasting at www.wsetglobal.com
Smelling a wine is the first step in really determining the unique characteristics of a wine. Describing the smell of a wine is often subjective and relies heavily on your previous experience with smell. As an example, I grew up living on the coast of BC, near the ocean. The first time I smelled a Californian Zinfandel, I immediately pictured a beach at low tide, with dried seaweed scattered on the beach.
When evaluating the smell of a wine, we look for the condition, intensity and aroma characteristics. Is the condition clean or unclean (another indicator of fault), is the intensity light, medium or pronounced? Aroma characteristics are more subjective, but often fruit, flowers, vegetables, spices or oak aromas can be present.
Let the tasting begin! Having given good thought to the appearance and aromas of the wine, it’s time to consider the taste and flavour characteristics. Tasting is hugely subjective, and your experience with a wine may be entirely different than another (and you’re not wrong for thinking so!). Being able to describe your tasting of a wine allows for discussion and comparison on equal terms with another tasting of the same wine. While descriptions of taste can vary widely from one person to another, we can usually agree which wine is sweeter than another and which wine is more acidic. In addition to sweetness and acidity, we also look at the tannin, body, flavour characteristics and length of the wine.
Sweetness: To state the obvious, sweetness indicates how much sugar is in a wine. In most table wine, all of the sugar produced by the grapes is fermented to alcohol, however low levels of sugar can still be present. A wine with very little or no sugar is described as ‘dry’ while a wine that tastes slightly sweet is considered ‘off dry’. It’s easy to confuse sweetness with fruit flavor; when in doubt, it’s probably drier than you think.
Acidity: Acidity results in sour notes, although what really denotes acidity to me is the mouth watering sensation I get immediately after swallowing. I have often confused some of the flavors in Sauvignon Blanc as being the flavour of acidity. Acidity is not a flavour per se, but more of a mouthfeel. I had this ‘eureka’ moment during my WSET tastings – I can now identify acidity in red wine, and not just Sauvignon Blanc!
Tannin: Tannin from the grape skins causes the drying sensation when you drink wine. This is only a consideration for red wine, with the level depending on the grape variety, climate and winemaking style employed. Considering the tannin level in a wine can provide hints to the variety and climate of the wine. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon has characteristically high tannin.
Body: The body of a wine (or mouth-feel) is affected by many factors including the alcohol, tannin, sugar and flavour compounds extracted from the wine. Mouth-feel is classified as light, medium or full bodied; think of it like milk (skim, 1-2%, homo/cream).
Flavour characteristics: Yes, wine is made from grapes. However, flavour is merely chemical compounds that we associate with a corresponding item. During the winemaking process, some of these compounds are extracted and make it into the final product. Thus it is possible to taste plums and chocolate in an old world Merlot. The variety and depth of flavours that can be present in wine is one of the most interesting and fun parts of tasting wine!
Length: All of the above characteristics can linger on the palate for a long time, or a short time. The length is often an indicator of quality (longer is better) and can often change and mutate as time passes, leading to more and different flavours.
Now that you have a more objective and standard method for evaluating a wine, we can start to reach some conclusions about the quality of a wine, and more importantly whether we like it or not. Quality wine will have a balance between acidity, sweetness and tannin. The complexity of a wine will increase accordingly with the quality. A lesser quality wine may only have one or two flavours whereas a better wine will have numerous flavours to discover. The more experience you have with tasting, the expressiveness of particular regions will start to become apparent. How well a wine captures the unique climate and soil conditions of where it is grown is also a consideration.
In the end, these techniques and guidelines are just that. Only you can decide if you truly like a wine, but now you’ll be able to describe exactly why you like what you like.