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Wine Tasting Tips

Wine tasting is an area of wines where confusion reigns supreme. There is much mystique and tradition associated with tasting wines, but there is no need. By following a few steps, and more importantly understanding why you’re following these steps, you’ll enjoy trying different wines more and more.

  1. Look at the colour – Try to look through the wine onto a white background. A sheet of paper is ideal. You can tell a lot about the age of the wine from the colour. White wines will develop more colour as they age while reds will generally lose colour. And if you keep them long enough they’ll both turn the same colour, brown. As white wines age they will change through: yellowgreen, straw, pale gold, deep gold, light amber, yellowbrown, brown. As red wines age they will change through: purple-pink, ruby, mid red, dark red, brick red, tawny brown.
  2. Swirl the wine in the glass – The aim is to oxygenate the wine. This releases the ‘volatiles’ into the air above the wine. Get as much wine as you can on the side of the glass, this gives you more wine to air surface area. Decanting a wine serves the same purpose before serving it.
  3. Smell the wine – Straight after swirling the wine, stick your nose right in the glass and take a few short sharp sniffs. A long sniff will dull your sense of smell. What you’re looking for here can be summarised in three areas: the grape smell, fermentation bouquet and maturation odours.
    • Varietal – the characteristics of the fruit eg: peppery spicy Shiraz, lemony Riesling, blackberry, raspberry, cherry, plum, black currant, chocolate, coffee, tobacco or cedar in Cabernet Sauvignon, raisins and grapes in Muscat, apple, peach, apricot, lemon and other tropical fruit in Chardonnays, raspberry, strawberry, cranberry in Pinot Noir.
    • Distinct – you can pick the individual wine aroma but can’t identify a single varietal, usual in blended varieties eg: Cabernet Merlot, rich in blackberry and spice
    • Vinous – you can pick a wine aroma, but nothing definite, usual in neutral grape varieties eg: Sultana, Doradillo
    • Fermentation bouquet – a fresh yeasty smell can be picked up in newly bottled whites, very distinct in some varieties, difficult to pick up in others
    • Maturation characteristics – are the result of ageing in oak and natural bottle ageing eg: the vanilla cinnamon from oak maturation Some of the more common problems you can pick up on the nose include: sulphur - too much preservative, vinegar – excessive acetic acid, probably oxidised, sherry – wine has oxidised, probably a leaky cork, musty – bad cork.
    And, the question everyone asks, do you sniff the cork?
    • No. The tiny amount of wine you can smell on the cork is not very helpful. Instead you should look at the cork. Has the wine leaked past the cork, it may be oxidised. Are there little crystals, sometimes white wines precipitate tartrates (not a fault, just doesn’t look good).
  4. Taste – Many of the tastes are really smells. Try holding your nose while tasting a wine. You’ll find there’s a lot less ‘taste’ in the wine. There are four primary tastes you can identify:
    • Sweet – typically sugars, but alcohol and glycerol (the stuff you see running down the side of the glass, also called ‘legs’) can contribute to a sweet taste. If there is no sweetness in the wine, it’s referred to as a ‘dry’ wine. You’ll taste sweet on the tip of your tongue.
    • Sour/acid – usually the taste of acids, you’ll feel this as a ‘softness’ on your teeth. Acids give the wine crispness and freshness. Without acids the wine will taste flat and dull. You’ll taste sour on the back inner sides of your tongue.
    • Bitter – is usually found in oxidised wines. Easily confused with tannins. Tannins you can identify by having ‘squeaky’ teeth. The tannins come from the grape skins and seeds. Bitter you can taste across the back of your tongue. Tannins will soften with age particularly with the help of good oak.
    • Salt – Not really an important tasting flavour in wines. Usually present as a salt of the acids in wines. You’ll taste saltiness on the front outer sides of your tongue.
  5. Finish or persistence of taste – what does the taste the wine has left in your mouth feel like? A wine can have a short, medium or long aftertaste or palate. As a rough guide: short means the taste is gone in less than 10 seconds, medium is up to around 60 seconds and if you’re still tasting the wine after 60 seconds then it’s a long palate. If there’s an unpleasant acidy aftertaste then you probably won’t like the wine. If the long aftertaste leaves you with a pleasant taste then it’s probably going to be a wine you will buy again.

And finally, research from around the world shows some interesting variations in our senses of smell and taste:

  • Women are generally more accurate than men in identifying smells
  • People between 30 and 60 years of age have the most accurate palates
  • Generally after 65 years of age our perceptiveness of smells and taste declines

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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