Understanding the basics
Sommeliers have a phenomenal capacity for tasting a wine and identifying its many complex flavours and aromas. Indeed, it’s a skill that’s been refined through years of practice and study, but they too had to start somewhere. The fact is that anyone can learn to taste wine properly, and taking the time to develop your wine palate is probably one of the most enjoyable endeavours going!
Let’s start with the basic steps of wine tasting.
1. Hold the glass by the stem
This stops the wine being affected by warm hands and keeps it at the ideal serving temperature. Wine that’s too warm will taste dull and flabby.
2. Look at the wine’s colour
Examining the wine under a neutral light can reveal information about its age (older wines are more transparent as they age) and viscosity (or ‘wine legs’, which usually indicate a higher alcohol level). This is not as critical a step in wine tasting, but it will nonetheless play an important role in your perception of the wine.
3. Take a deep sniff
When you first smell a wine, think big to small – look for broad categories first. The first sniff of the wine will give you an initial impression of the wine’s primary aromas. These are largely dependent on the grapes used, and include fruits, herbs and floral notes.
4. Swirl, then sniff again
Swirling the wine (gently – no need for theatrics) mixes up its chemical compounds, making it more aromatic and helping you to identify scents you couldn’t find in the first smell. Here, you’ll find secondary and tertiary aromas. The secondary aromas come from the winemaking process and are usually related to bread or yeast – they are very producer-specific: the longer the producer ferments the juice in yeast, the ‘breadier’ the wine will taste. Tertiary aromas come from aging, either in-bottle or in oak. These aromas are generally savoury – think nuts, woodiness, tobacco, leather and leaves.
5. Time to taste
While this is an exercise in wine tasting, it surprises many people to learn that most of the work is done by your nose. Taste buds can only detect sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, sourness and umami, so use the first sips to detect these qualities, and identify whether the wine is full-, medium- or light-bodied. You’ll also be able to identify the wine’s texture – is it oily or drying, for example? Wines that make your tongue feel dry usually contain more tannins.
6. Consider the finish
The finish, or length, is how long the wine’s flavours and aromas linger on your tongue. Fine wines – especially bold varieties – can have a finish of a whole minute, sometimes even longer.
Flavours & Aromas
Once you’ve got to grips with the basics, it’s time to start refining your ability to detect certain flavours and aromas – to identify the specific citrus in a primary fruit aroma, for example, or the cedar in a woody tertiary aroma.
Again, this is a skill that comes with and practice – there are no shortcuts, unfortunately. However, there are a number of tried-and-tested tips that sommeliers swear by that can help you really hone in on a wine’s flavour profile.
1. Take your time
Properly tasting a wine is about slow savouring and letting your senses take over. It takes time and focus to identify the nuances of a wine – don’t rush.
2. Close your eyes and visualise
Tasting with your eyes closed helps to block out external stimuli that could affect your impression of a wine. Identify a flavour and let your mind paint a picture of it – how does it compare to other pictures you’ve painted before? Does it open up your senses to corresponding aromas you didn’t initially find?
3. Keep searching
It’s easy to get stuck on a specific flavour, and this can interfere with your ability to explore the rest of the wine. Once you’ve identified a flavour, move on. What else is there here?
4. Find more flavours
It can be helpful to coat your mouth with a larger sip of wine, followed by several smaller sips – this better allows you to isolate and pick out flavours. Again, focus on broad-based flavours first, before moving on to more specific ones.
5. Compare and contrast
One of the simplest ways to develop your palate swiftly is to compare different wines in the same setting. Order a flight of tasters at a wine bar, join a tasting group or simply get some friends together to taste a few wines at once. Tasting different varieties side-by-side gives you an immediate sense of individual flavours and aromas.
6. Neutralise your nose
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with aromas while tasting a wine. Reset your nose by giving your forearm a deep sniff!
7. Take notes
Wine tasting notes are a very subjective thing – there’s no right or wrong way to take them, as long as you’re consistent in the way you make your observations. What primary flavours did you pick out? What about secondary and tertiary? What was the body like? And the finish? Be sure to date your entries – when you later revisit a wine you may be surprised by how much your palate has developed.