Let's Start at the Very Beginning: Wine (Tasting) 101
“We use all five senses when we evaluate wine.”
I open my Wine 101 lectures this way, and everyone happily agrees because they can’t wait to get through the intro and onto the tasting portion. Then I ask if there’s anything weird about that statement, and finally someone looks past the bottles of lined-up wine waiting to be tasted and asks the perhaps not-so-obvious - do we hear wine?
Yes, we do. We hear, see, and smell wine (not necessarily in that order) before we ever taste it, so that by the time it’s actually on the palate, our senses have already begun an evaluation of the information contained in the glass. These first few tidbits then culminate into the internalization of feeling then tasting the wine.
The realization of full-sensory awareness adds so much more depth to your experience than just trying to list tasting notes. Considering wine in layers allows us to remember the wine instead of memorize it. (The difference between the two being that ‘remembering’ has a more integrated connotation than ‘memorizing’). The more wine you remember and are able to subconsciously recall, the greater the spectrum of wine built into your memory bank grows. A large spectrum allows you to categorize each subsequent wine against a larger and larger context. This is how professional tasters do what they do.
Of course, tasting notes are faster. You can’t have a spiritual experience every time you take a sip.
Professionals use a systematic approach to evaluation that takes the wine apart systematically. We do it the same way each time and note the technical indicators. For example, the WSET will train you on the technical side n the following way:
Site: Is the wine clear (meaning no suspended particles) or hazy? Haziness or cloudiness can indicate a fault, or can be an intentional lack of filtering, a style that’s gaining popularity in the world of natural wine. Typically though, you should expect your wine to be clear. What color is the wine, and how concentrated is the color? Already information is presenting itself: gold notes in white wine, and brown notes in red, can indicate oak, oxidation, or age; lemon, ruby, garnet or purple colors can indicate a more youthful wine. (These are generalities, but are important starting points in learning a deductive process.)
Nose: What does the wine smell like, and how strong are these aromas? Aroma is a the biggest insight into the taste of wine, or of anything really, and its accurate to say that you’re already tasting the wine just in smelling it, since up to 80% of what we think we taste is actually what we smell. Think of how much less satisfying your food would taste if it had no smell. We have the same situation in wine.
Aromas travel through your olfactory tract directly to your brain. Smell is the strongest sense associated with memory. Again, not just in wine. Wine aromas are broken up into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Primary notes are those that are fresh and young: look for fruit and floral notes.
Secondary notes have to do with the production process, so this is where you will find barrel notes: spices, brown sugar, coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa powder, tobacco, and so on, or other process notes.
Tertiary notes are associated with bottle aging: mushrooms, forest floor, game, leather.
Wine does not have to have all three of these categories. It can only one, two, or three, and just because you have a primary note doesn’t mean you have to have a secondary note to have a tertiary note. Some wines have no primary notes, some no secondary, and some no tertiary. It’s not a completely linear process since they address different categories.
Don’t get too caught up trying to categorize an aroma if you are just starting to think in this direction. Just store this information away for future use. Also don’t get too caught up in the ‘proper’ way to smell the wine, different methods work for different people. Just put your nose right over the center of the wine and inhale. You’ll find your style.
Palate: Here is where the sugar, acid, body, tannins (if the wine is red) and alcohol levels are evaluated, along with what the wine actually tastes like (finally)!!
Sweetness - Take a sip large enough to cover your tongue, and notice how sweet the wine is or is not. The sweetness range is from dry to luscious and most wines that we encounter in day to day life are dry, in that they’re not inherently sweet, but of course there are different levels of dryness that than range into off-dry, medium-dry, and so on, stopping at luscious.
Acidity - Next we’ll notice the acid level of the wine. Acid is what gives wine its zesty, clean feeling, and what balances out sweetness. Note the sensation of acid on the sides of your tongue and by how much saliva your mouth creates. More saliva means higher acid (acid is measured on a scale of low to medium-minus, medium, medium-plus to high). A great example of a high acid wine is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. That vibrant freshness is acid, and generally speaking, acid in wine is your friend.
Tannin - If the wine is red - do you feel a drying sensation, especially along the gum line? Those are from tannins, compounds that bind to the proteins in your mouth and create a feeling similar to overstepped tea. Tannin ‘count’ and tannin ‘nature’ are different. The count is the intensity of the tannin - low, medium, or high, and the nature is the personality of the tannins - rough, smooth, round, etc.
Body - Notice the weight of the wine in your mouth. In most situations, the physically heavier the wine, the higher the level of alcohol, but it can also be tied to other functions.
Alcohol - Speaking of, do you think the level is low, one of the mediums, or high? Alcohol gives itself away through heat, weight, and texture. It sometimes comes across as silky. Generally speaking, lower alcohol wines range up to 11.5%, medium (all levels) range from 12-14%, and high is over 15%. Wine usually doesn’t go much past 16.5%, but there are always exceptions.
Flavor - Finally we arrive at the tasting notes. We’ve done a lot of assessing to this point, and this is why I like to stress that wine is more than its tasting notes. (Look how long it took to actually get to actually tasting!!)
We usually expect that the palate and nose will generally match. So in the beginning when we pulled out the nose notes, we were already diagraming the palate notes. Sometimes the two are different - one can be deeper than another, or a characteristic that is prominently featured one the nose may barely show up on the palate (or the reverse), or maybe there’s a complete surprise on the palate. When a (good or bad) surprise on the palate happens though, NOTICE what everyone does: they immediately smell the wine again, subconsciously trying to reconcile what they missed in the nose. It’s probably super basic evolution, but it’s always super interesting to watch.
To continue the palate assessment, examine how the taste notes play off one another and reveal themselves. Is it in stages or stacks (one right after another, or one lifts up the next, lifts up the next)? Do you have lots of descriptor notes, ranging from fruit/flowers, to more diverse indicators, such as tobacco, game, or wet stone? Many different descriptor-types can mean a wine is multidimensional and can indicate complexity. Finally, how intense are the flavors? Are they satisfying or shallow? (You can use our ‘light’, to all the ‘mediums’, to ‘pronounced’ range here.) Is one more prominent than another?
Finish - Swallowing wine (versus spitting, which really is necessary sometimes, especially when you have many wines to evaluate) is so important in finalizing your assessment. Professional tasters like to talk about the length of the finish, or what you taste and how long you taste it after the wine is swallowed. A long finish (they can otherwise be short or one of the mediums) is an indication of good wine, but a short finish doesn’t mean a bad wine.
There’s no set time that decides whether a finish is long or short; as you get used to noticing how long the taste in wine persists you learn the short-to-long range. Note that the finish should not be unpleasant, meaning that if it’s ‘hot’, for example, the alcohol is out of balance. It can also be too tannic, acidic, sour… basically, anything that feels wrong probably is, and can be considered a mark against the wine in terms of quality.
This are the components to a systematic approach. There are tons of nuances along the way, but this is the process!!
The number one question I get in my Wine 101 classes, before we even start tasting, is how to know if a wine is good quality (you would think the number one question would be, “Can we hear wine?” but again, they’re usually distracted and I have to prompt that one). The answer is “BLICCT” - a term I learned in WSET that I will never forget because it has turned out to be extremely accurate. In life and in wine. It’s the sum total of your assessment of the wine’s balance, length, intensity, complexity, concentration, and typicity. (We can have a talk on typicity later, but there is a level of expectation involved regarding the grape, region, production techniques, and producer.)
This is the approach that I use and teach. But I preach something a little differently; I like to emphasize the full-sensory concept that we touched on before we got to the clinical side. So let’s loop back into the sense of hearing as a primer for the rest of our senses.
Imagine that it’s the end of a long and productive week fo work, and you are at a restaurant ordering wine. The empty glass is placed in front of you the server or sommelier begins pouring. Obviously you see the wine as it begins to tumble out of the bottle, but you are simultaneously hearing it.
Wine should never glug. Once you begin to listen for a proper pour, glugging will bring on the same cringe as gear grinding. A proper pour is directly positioned over the middle of the glass. It comes out as a steady stream with no sloppy splashing or dripping and it has a deft and definite stopping point. Did you just hear it? You just heard wine that you’re about to pick up swirl, smell, then taste being poured, didn’t you? In your mind. This is how attuned our senses actually are - it’s just becoming aware of our awareness.
If you never knew that the way wine sounds when it’s poured matters, I promise that you you’ll listen and notice from now on when someone gets it right and when they get it wrong. There’s something grounding and preparatory about using hearing in this situation as a gateway to the other senses.
A bad pour doesn’t affect the quality of the wine, btw. The point of this part of the discussion is to emphasize that wine is so much more than just tasting notes. A high level of sensory involvement allows you to start understanding how information held in the wine starts to reveal itself, and one sense prepares the next. The wine is constantly communicating with you, and every way understand it involves on your senses. Don’t just jump in for that first sip and start scribbling notes.
Start at the very beginning.