Now go forth and flex that wine knowledge.
Casual show of hands: how many of us really know how to taste wines? We’re not just referring to the act of physically tasting, but tasting as the process of identifying and appreciating the layers of the wine before us. Unless we’ve deep-dived into the subject, chances are that not many of us are equipped with the know-how about wine-tasting beyond “mmm, nice,” “no, not nice,” and being able to declare a preference for white or red.
Learning how to taste wine and to articulate what it is we’re drinking is important because it helps do justice to the painstaking process behind the bottle on the table. It also helps heighten our appreciation of wine overall, which in turn, gives us more excuse to drink wines (in an educated fashion), and we’re really about acquiring skills that offer more incentives for drinking.
There are many ways to learn how to taste wines, but for complete amateurs, we’re here to share the easiest way to start: our guide to the basics of wine tasting. All the pointers you’re about to read come from Gerald Lu, head sommelier at Praelum Wine Bistro in Singapore.
1. Trust yourself
“Don’t let anyone influence you on what you should or should not be tasting. It’s important to trust your palate, and that is how you can best enjoy the flavours and the process,” is Lu’s first tip.
2. Different parts of the tongue register different tastes
It seems obvious to say that different parts of the tongue are agitated in response to specific taste profiles, but because we don’t actively realise this day-to-day, it begs paying attention to when drinking wines.
Sweetness is registered at the tip of your tongue. Acidity is detected on the sides of your tongue, and tends to be expressed by the puckering of your tongue and the generation of saliva. The more it puckers and the more saliva in your mouth after a sip, the more acidic the wine is. Phenolic bitterness is highlighted at the back of the tongue, which is just a proper way of talking about the presence of tannins — the tangibly dry, bitter characteristic that you feel when drinking.
2. Texture and mouthfeel? What are those?
You often hear people talk about a wine being light, medium or full-bodied, and this generally refers to the texture or the mouthfeel of the wine. Sugar and alcohol interact to create this “weight” on your palate, so a full-bodied wine will have more sugar and alcohol, for example, than a light-bodied. drier wine.
A wine like the Tenuta San Guido Le Difese 2015, a Super Tuscan, is a blend of 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 30 percent Sangiovese, both working together to deliver a medium-bodied wine.
3. Finish: the longer the better?
The finish is usually a good gauge of the quality of the wine. Any wine that you can still taste on your tongue more than eight to ten seconds after drinking (mind you, that aftertaste has to be pleasant), is considered ideal. The finish of some wines can linger far longer after you’ve drunk the last drop, which makes for truly memorable drinking experiences.
4. Why and how should I nose and swirl a wine?
Dunking your nose into the wine glass is not just a pro move, it actually heightens your experience of what you’re drinking, given that your olfactory senses are king when it comes to tasting. Lu mentions you should nose in quick sniffs, not more than two seconds per inhale, or the ethanol starts to intrude.
Swirling goes hand-in-hand with nosing. If you’ve ever swirled a wine glass just to act like you know what you’re doing, here’s the truth: you are swirling to oxygenate the wine, to “release” it’s bouquet. Try nosing a wine before and after you have swirled the glass — it makes all the difference. What you smell ultimate creates the nose of the wine, and segues into the actual tasting notes.
Here’s how Lu describes the bouquet of a Sauvignon Blanc, like this one from The Paring. “You get a lot of bright, citrusy aromas. Lemon, flowers, fresh cut grass — all typical of the characters of a Sauvignon Blanc.”
5. How the look of your wine tells a story too
It’s not all about taste and smell. What you see in your glass can give you a deeper understanding of what you’re drinking. Though visual cues are a more intermediate step to tasting, and typically helps clue you in when blind tasting wines, there’s no harm in having the basics on lock.
Colour, to Lu, tells a lot about the age of the wine, as the darker it is, the potentially older it is. Darkness is also an indication of how robust and pronounced the flavours will be as well.
Finally, the viscosity. When you swirl the wine, take note of the streaks that fall down the sides of the glass. These “tears” indicate the level of sugar and alcohol there is in the glass — the slower, the higher.
6. Articulating what you’re drinking
Now, it’s time to put your newfound knowledge together and taste. Lu believes that keeping it simple is always the key when you’re learning how to taste. “Don’t overcomplicate it. Be straightforward and keep it simple.”
Don’t expect to be able to rattle off a laundry list of tasting notes and characteristics after a single sip a la trained sommeliers. When you approach tasting as a novice, keep the following points in mind:
- What is my tongue discerning? Is this wine sweet, if so how sweet? Is it acidic, because the sides of my tongue are puckering? If so, how acidic?
- What flavours am I being reminded of? Though you might not be armed with a tasting vocabulary from the start, focusing on whether you can taste fruity notes (berries, citrus, apples, for example), aromatics (herbs, flowers), spice (warm spice, anise, cinnamon, to name a few), and minerals from what you’re drinking can be a good way to get started. It’s all about making the connection between memory and taste.
Here is how Lu describes a Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon 2015, a Chardonnay: “there’s the characteristic of big red apples, the taste of brioche, some flowers like chrysanthemum, and a touch of vanilla that implies the use of oak. The finish is long, lingering after 10 seconds, the sign of a good quality Chardonnay.”
Compare this to how he speaks about a red wine, in this case, a 2017 Pinot Noir from Domaine Michel Gros. “Lovely red currant and raspberry character with a high acidity and hints of oak and vanilla with a touch of anise. Medium-bodied, nothing heavy, with a long finish”.
Notice the similar points he addresses — flavours, scents, acidity, finish and body. Use these as a checklist you can gauge how you taste wine when approaching that next glass.
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.