How to Taste: Tasting the wine

Finally!! I saved the best for last…

We’ve taken a look, swirled, slurped, learned about why it’s great to use a wine aroma wheel to get your sensory wheels turning. I should have mentioned that Vinography has a similar tool you can download.

And now your reward. Let’s taste! 

If this is your first sip of the day it may be a  bit of a shock. It’s the rare wine that pairs well with Colgate 😉 So, take a second sip, using the slurping technique, and think about how the wine tastes and feels.

Does it taste good? That’s the most important thing of all! 

Flavor: What’s your overall impression? Do the flavors echo the aroma or are they different (the wine maker usually hopes for some kind of connection). Can you pick out any flavors in particular? Fruity, floral and vegetative flavors are usually grape derived. Coffee, coconut, grilled bread, vanilla and butter are just a few examples of barrel-derived flavors. 

Mouthfeel: Does the wine seem to coat your palate or refresh it (cream vs. lemonade) Is it soft or astringent? 

How about weight? If the idea of body doesn’t come naturally for you think about skim milk, vs. whole milk, vs. heavy cream as an analogy. Have you had heavier wines than this? Lighter ones? Where does this one fit in, in the scheme of things? 

Alcohol: Do you feel your mouth warming up? That’s the alcohol talking! If it spills over into heat or burns, the winemaker may have made a boo-boo. Same deal if you smell alcohol easily. The alcohol is just supposed to be there. It’s not supposed to draw attention to itself. Alcohol is a major source of the wine’s overall body – it gives it heft. This is one of the key elements we’re talking about when we refer to balance.

Acid: The source of the alcohol is the grape sugar. During fermentation, a little over half of the sugar converts to alcohol. So, the way for the winemaker to avoid making a boo-boo is for him to monitor the grape sugar in each section of his vineyard, frequently, as harvest approaches.

Can you taste the acid? Even if you can’t, believe me, it’s there. Wine is higher in acid than almost any food you might serve unless you choose to go with sliced lemons. That’s one reason why it’s so food friendly! Some wines have so much flavor that it’s hard to taste the acid, but you can still gage it. Use your tasting technique and then notice how much your mouth is watering. The more it waters, the higher the acid. Does the wine finish zingy (high acid) or flat (low acid)?

Why do you care? Food friendliness! And, acid is one of nature’s natural preservatives. Wines with a high, but balanced, acidity stay fresh and lively longer. But, if it’s painfully tart, that’s not a good thing. It’s all about balance.

The acid is part of the fresh fruit. If you’ve ever grown tomatoes you know that when they’re not ripe they taste sharp and sour. Then the sugar goes up and the acid goes down. It’s the same story in the vineyard. So, the wine maker needs to watch the acid carefully too.

Tannin: You’ll need a red wine for this: Tannin is rarely a flavor. When it is, it’s bitter. It’s much more a feeling. The tannin runs around your mouth seeking out protein and then it gloms on to it. It feels drying and astringent. It makes your teeth feel furry. Have you had a wine that was more tannic? Or less? If the wine’s nothing but astringency the tannin isn’t well balanced.

Why do you care? Tannin is another great, natural preservative. It prolongs the wine’s life. It ages out over time. The molecules enlarge with oxidation until they fall out of the wine as part of the sediment. So, a wine that was astringent in its youth will be softer with age.

The main source of tannin in wine is the grape skins, which is why you almost never hear anyone talking about tannin in white wine. Reds are fermented juice, skins, seeds and all together. Thick skinned grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, tend to make tannic wines. Thin skinned varieties, like Pinot Noir, are usually softer from the get go. White wines usually ferment as juice only, so the tannins are negligible. The wine maker can chew on the skins and bite into the seeds to get an idea of “phenolic maturity”, which tells him whether the tannins green and harsh or are they a bit softened by maturity. New barrels will also contribute wood tannins.

Balance: Hopefully all these components were beautifully balanced. And, that just means that nothing was sticking out and distracting you. When it comes to balance, it really helps to taste with a group. It helps you identify your, personal, sensitivities. For instance, if you think the wine is too hot, and everyone else agrees, then it’s safe to assume the wine isn’t well balanced. If you’re the only one who thinks it’s too hot, you’re not wrong –  you’ve just learned that you’re sensitive to the heat of alcohol. When you go shopping, look for wines that are 13.5% and under.

How about the aftertaste? Do you like the lingering flavors? How long does the flavor last? You might want to try another technique with this: Just after swallowing, keeping your mouth closed and breathe out. The most complex wines generally have a long finish while simpler wines fade rapidly.  

You wine preferences are as personal as your taste in food. No one is “right” or “wrong”. If you want to become a more perceptive taster, the best thing you can do is to find friends who feel the same way and form a tasting group. You’ll learn from the wines and each other. You’ll have a lot of fun, too! Cheers! 

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