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Wine 101: How to Taste

On average we chew our food nine times before we swallow it. We’re supposed to do it eighteen times, but at roughly one second per chew, that’s a whole nine seconds per mouthful of food. Not bad. After all, nine seconds is fair amount of time and more than enough to really taste what it is you’re eating. Drinking is a different story. Think about it. You raise a glass to your lips, pour the contents into your mouth and swallow; into your mouth, over your tongue, down your throat, gone. I wonder how many food products you regularly purchase that take anywhere from two to three years to produce? Not many I suspect – probably just wine. Two to three years in the making, swallowed in a second; into your mouth, over your tongue, down your throat, gone.

I want you to care about what you drink. Not just because of the effort required to produce it, but I want you to care about wine because of what it costs you. The simple truth is that proportionately over the course of your lifetime you may end up spending more on wine than you will food, so why shouldn’t you get every last drop of value from what you drink?

I want you to start by getting yourself some decent wine glasses. No fancy colours shapes or designs, just straight-forward decent wine glasses. This is going to make a huge difference. I want you to dig out the decanter you were given as a wedding present but as yet haven’t used, and I want you to use it. Beg, borrow, or steal, I want you to get your hands on a decent corkscrew, and as utterly ridiculous as it may sound, I want you to learn how to open a bottle of wine correctly. But that’s not all. Wine in glass, I want you to look at it, smell it, swirl it and smell it again. I want you to raise the glass to your lips, pour it into your mouth and then I want you to hold it there – maybe not for nine seconds – but I want you to hold it, swish it around your mouth, get some air into it and really taste it. And once you’ve done all that, then, only then can you swallow. And now I want you to do it over and over and over again. You see I don’t just want you to know that you like what you’re drinking – that’s not enough – I want you to know what you like about it and why you like it too. Wine is a great drink made better via a little bit of consideration, and I want you to care about it because ultimately you want to.

And as silly and awkward as all of the sniffing, swirling, slurping and spitting may seem – persevere and spend a bit of time getting to grips with it, as learning how to taste properly will help you to learn more about wine. If I can do it, anyone can.

Begin by pouring yourself a quarter of a glass. There is a right way to taste. It’s easy and there are three basic parts to this process, which once you’ve strung them all together, will help you to get more out of every glass you put your lips to from here on. This is how to go about it.

You’ll need to use your eyes

I appreciate a quarter of a glass doesn’t really constitute much in the way of fun but, having that small amount of wine in the glass will allow you to tilt the glass on its side and give it a good old swirl without spilling the contents – we hope… Here’s how to do it.

Take your glass by the stem and with some decent overhead light and something white underneath, tilt the glass away from you on a 45 degree angle. To look at a glass of wine can really only tell you so much about it. Beyond the obvious – red or white – what you’re seeing might give clues as to what variety it is, how it was produced, its age and general condition.

Remembering that colour does not affect quality, most young wine should show bright vibrant colours; reds will range from bright cherry to purple, while whites will go all the way from bright gold to green to colours so pale they boarder on being clear. As wine gets older, red wines tend to brown slightly and get lighter, while white wines become darker. In nearly all but a few cases I expect young wine to appear bright and shiny in the glass. It’s a similar approach to buying fish – bright and shiny rather than cloudy and dull. But tread with care. Some varieties are naturally lighter in colour than others, and an increasing number of wines today are being bottled unfiltered – both of which can trick you into thinking that a wine is older than it may be, or worse still, out of condition.

You’ll need to use your nose

There’s no sense more important than smell when it comes to tasting wine. At the top of your nose, just in behind your eyes, is your olfactory nerve – the epicentre of smell and taste. Your olfactory nerve is the communications link between what you smell and taste, and your brain. You taste berries, it tells brain. Burn your toast, brain will find out about it soon enough. That’s why it’s really important that you take some time and smell what’s in your glass. Here’s how to go about it.

Take the glass by the stem and have a smell – don’t swirl – just put your nose to the glass and smell. Now I want you to repeat the process, only give it a good old swirl first. To do this find a flat surface such as a table and take hold of the stem as though you were holding a pencil. Hoping you all know how to hold a pencil correctly, start the glass moving by making small clockwise rotations – almost as though you were tracing around a coin. Try and build up your speed as you go. Aroma molecules are released off a wines surface, so by swirling the glass you’re increasing the surface area of the wine, which fingers crossed will give us more to smell. How far away you hold your glass from your nose is completely up to you, there are no hard and fast rules about this, although those of us who are blessed with size may have to hold their glasses a little further away than others. So here we go – a bit of a swirl followed by a big sniff. Notice a difference?

The kind of things that you should be looking for are fruit smells, non fruit smells and faults – although hopefully the faults are few and far between. While fruit smells are pretty self explanatory, non fruit smells are not. These include things like tobacco, leather, spices, earth, farmyard, herbs, minerals, toast, animal, nuts – some of which come through production and some of which are just characteristic of the grape variety.

Finally, if you can’t smell anything, don’t worry. It may be that the wine is too cold. If so, place your hands around the bowl of the glass for a couple of minutes. Or, it may just be the wine – some wines don’t actually smell of much at all. In any case, give the glass another swirl and have another smell. There’s no limit to how many times you should smell a wine. Some wines you’ll only have to smell once, while others will change in the glass so you can go back again and again and again.

And, of course, you’ll need to use your mouth

Taste is the final sense we use when we’re tasting wine. And while what we taste largely qualifies what we’ve smelt, the one major advantage your mouth has over your nose is that it can feel things – things like sugar, acidity, tannin and texture. Texture, or how a wine feels in your mouth, is a really important part of any wine. Wine can feel silky and fine, lean and austere, oily and round or rough and aggressive. Beyond smell and taste, how a wine feels in your mouth will heavily influence how you feel about the overall package.

Alright, this is how we get started. Take a sip – about half a mouthful is perfect. Remember what I said at the start of the chapter about two to three years in the making, swallowed in a second? Well here’s your chance for redemption. Rather than simply swallowing it, give it a good swish around your mouth. Try and suck a bit of air in at the same time – without dribbling. It’s kind of like whistling in reverse. Swishing it around your mouth will give you a really good snapshot of what the wine tastes and feels like, the air helping to release more flavour.

With the wine in your mouth think about body; is it light like water or heavy like Guinness? Think about flavour; is it sweet, sour, bitter, salty, dry or hot? Think about texture; is it minerally like water from a stream or oily like well, olive oil? And most importantly think about balance and length; by balance I mean that wine is a sum of its parts which collectively should be seamless – kind of like looking at a jigsaw puzzle from a distance and not being able to see the individual pieces – or a band where each of the members are playing both in tune and in time. Length refers to how long you can taste the wine for after you’ve swallowed it. You can divide your tongue into three parts – the front, middle and back palate. The same wine may have a different impact on each of these three zones, although almost like an echo, great wine will often resonate, going on and on long after you have swallowed it.

What you taste where

With something like 10’000 taste buds scattered about the roof of your mouth, your gums and your tongue, you’re palate is the sensory equivalent of the Big Brother house, only here cameras and microphones are replaced by a sea of microscopic receptors that pick up every little bit of flavour and sensation you stick inside your mouth. It’s therefore super important to really coat the entire inside of your mouth by giving the wine a good swish around so that nothing will go unnoticed. Sweetness, texture, acidity, tannin, body and alcohol or what you taste and feel are picked up at different spots throughout your mouth. Here’s a brief run down of what’s happening where…

  • Sweetness – those of you with a sweet tooth should have no problems here. You detect sweetness on the tip of your tongue. Wines with high levels of sugar will, unless balanced by enough acidity, coat your palate and give you a cloying sensation. The best sweet wines in the world are also some of the greatest illustrations of balance between sugar and acidity.
  • Acidity – despite how it may sound, we’re talking about types of acid that aren’t harmful to us. Acidity is registered as that pins and needles feeling on the side of your tongue. Some wines are more acidic than others and will make your mouth want to water. That level of acidity is more often noticeable right at the back of the mouth. Some of the best German wines balance huge acidity levels with sweetness.
  • Tannin – tannin is a type of acidity that comes from the pips and skins of grapes, most commonly red grapes. It can also come from a wine having spent extended time in oak barrels. It registers as that drying – sometimes furry – character which at its most extreme, will coat and dry out your entire mouth. You register tannin at the back of your palate.
  • Body – is when your palate becomes a set of scales and determines the weight and volume of the wine in your mouth. Wines that are higher in alcoholic strength will often feel heavier in your mouth than those which are lighter in alcohol.
  • Texture – much like balance, texture is determined by a combination of sensations including sweetness, acidity, alcohol and tannin. It is an overall impression given by the result of each of these factors combined.
  • Alcohol – you feel alcohol at the back of your mouth. It’s comes across as a warm feeling that becomes hotter if it’s not in balance with the body of the wine. A wine that has plenty of fruit flavour can support a greater percentage of alcohol compared with less fruity styles of wine.