how to taste wine
In three steps, Look, Smell, Taste. Voila! Easy right? Yes, it is simple but like everything else, there is more than meets the eye when tasting wine.
Wine tasting is a a skill that anyone can develop. Consider cooking; with the proper ingredients and recipe anyone can create a dish. Some people seem to be “naturals” having a better understanding of what flavors go together than others. The level of focus and skill that one develops depends on the individual.
This article discusses the five tastes, the multitude of aromas, and practical tools to help hone your wine tasting skills. You’ll know what type of taster you are, and why wine tasting is different for every person.
what does color mean in a wine?
Wine color can indicate the varietal, or type wine grape, age, region and winemaking style. Say you have a white wine in yoyr glass that’s very light in color, almost clear. It’s likely that the wine is a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, or a white wine that typically doesn’t spend time in oak.
If the wine looks more yellow, it could be a Chardonnay that has spent some time in oak or gone through malolactic fermentation (MLF). If the colors are bright and clear around the edges then it’s a young fresh wine. If it has a golden or darker color then it’s showing some age.
For red wines lighter red wines indicate a thin skinned grape such as Pinot Noir and a cooler region like Burgundy or Russian River Valley in California. Thin skinned grapes need cooler climates.
On the other hand, a darker red color indicates a thicker skinned wine grape such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel. If the color is bright red, with blue or purple hues, this indicates a grape like Grenache or Petite Sirah.
Brick red with orange hints can indicate a Barolo, a region in Italy made with the Nebbiolo grape. Italian wine law mandates that the wine spends a specific time resting in oak in ordered to be labeled a specific wine from a specific region.
Where does the color come from?
The color of a wine comes from the skin of the wine grape. This is why thin skinned grapes are lighter in color and thick skinned grapes are darker in color. The thicker the skin, the more anthocyanins, or pigments. Notice when you bite into a grape that the flesh is clear. The skins stain the clear grape juice. The longer the juice soaks on the skins, the darker the color, the more flavor, texture and tannin.
There are and a handful of exceptions where grapes have red pulp also known as a “teinturier”. At school I remember that we were taught about three varietals, Alicante Bouchet, Rubired and Colorino. According to wikipedia, there are as many as 15 teinturiers including the three listed here.
Wine grapes look like blueberries. The industry often refers to wine grapes as berries. They are much smaller than table grapes, or the grapes you see in the grocery store.
what are wine legs?
In short, wine legs indicate the alcohol content or viscosity of a wine. Typically higher alcohol wines or sweeter wines will have thicker legs on the wine glass. As you swirl your wine in your wine glass and let it come to rest, the liquid slides down the surface of the glass. Because alcohol evaporates faster than water and the the substances present in the wine, the legs will indicate the alcohol level, viscosity or sugar content.
how many tastes are there?
We only have five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, the Japanese term for savory (think beef broth). Spice is not a taste. Spiciness is sensed by pain receptors via the trigeminal nerve which is why spicy food and tannic red wine don’t pair well together.
All other flavors are smelled. Think back to when you last had a cold or stuffy nose and everything tasted bland. You probably could taste the salt in the chicken noodle soup but not much else. This is because your taste buds still worked but your stuffy nose compromised your ability to smell. In wine school we were taught that humans are able to recognize about 10,000 aromas on average with our 400 scent receptors. Recent science has increased that number to suggest we are able to detect closer to 1 trillion smells. (1) Perhaps we should be called wine smellers rather than wine tasters.
How do I taste wine?
If you are new to wine or want to become a better wine taster, the first thing that you can do in two words, is to pay attention. Become aware of the smells around you. Notice what is in front of your face or under your nose. Aromas are everywhere!
You can practice all of the time if you like. When you’re taking a walk, smell the air, the fresh fresh cut grass, the flowers, the smell of the pavement after it rains, the fertilizer in a flowerbed, the chlorine in a swimming pool. Think about the amazing aromas when you stop by your favorite cafe or restaurant.
Notice the smell of the coffee grounds, sweet and savory pastries, roasted veggies, buttered potatoes, rare meat, grilled fish, smoked bbq from the grill. When you’re in your kitchen go to your spice rack and smell each of your spices and herbs. The list is seemingly infinite.
How do I smell wine?
There are two ways to smell or two pathways that aromas can travel into our system, Orthonasal and Retronasal through the nose and mouth respectively.
Try it for yourself. Next time you have a wine glass in front of you, keep your mouth closed, inhale gently through your nose and exhale. Take note of the aromas you experience from the orthonsal pathway.
Now, place your nose back in the wine glass, begin your inhale through your nose and your mouth. Then close your mouth and exhale. What do you notice when you smell retronasally? Any slight differences? Any new flavors or different dimensions of the initial aromas?
If it’s not glaringly obvious, not to worry. This is a skill that improves with practice. A helpful tip is to smell a neutral smell between the orthonasal and retronasal sniffs. You want to start with a clean slate each time to avoid the first smells from influencing the second round of aromas. An easy way to do this is to sniff the bend of your elbow.
what am i smelling?
The next step is to then articulate what it is you’re smelling. Not sure what you’re smelling? Is it on the tip of your tongue? That’s completely normal and there is a simple tool to help articulate which aromas and tastes you’re experiencing.
The Wine Aroma Wheel by Ann Noble. She created the original at UC Davis and we used hers in our Sensory 101 class. Below is Wine Folly’s wine aroma wheel as I am a fan of their fun, approachable style. It’s jam packed with wine info for the novice and wine geeks alike.
To begin, you’ll start from the middle and work your way out. Say you have a white wine in front of you.
Now combine your five tastes with up to 1 trillion aromas and you’re ready to begin wine tasting. It’s important to note that your initial capabilities depend on a number genetic and environmental factors.
Everyone has a different number of tastebuds, sensitivities to certain tastes or smells, anosmia, (unable to smell) ageusia (unable to taste) and memories associated with certain tastes or smells.
what is a wine concierge?
A wine concierge is a service who finds wines you will love based on your preferences and price range and then delivers the wine to your front door. If you are interested in trying new wines but not sure where to start then Wines2Hou can help! Try wines from all over the world in every price range. Wines2Hou is a Houston solution for the unique wine gift. They can find the wine bottle that will be the perfect gift for any occasion.
Are you a super-taster, a taster or a non-taster?
Half of the population falls into the Taster category where the other half is divided evenly between the opposite ends of the spectrum, so 25% super-tasters, 50% tasters and 25% non-tasters. You can get a good idea of which category you fall into by taking in a look at your beverage & vegetable preferences.
Do you drink coffee? If so, how do you take your coffee? Black, with cream or sugar? Do you drink beer? IPAs? Do you drink tannic red wines or prefer lighter, fruitier styles? What about bitter greens? Do you love them, tolerate them or avoid them all together?
If you don’t really like coffee, or you need cream and sugar in your coffee then you may be a super taster. Perhaps you prefer tea. If you prefer to drink light, fruity wines like Pinot Noir, Grenache or Lambrusco, can’t stand beer, especially bitter beer and avoid bitter greens at all costs then you are leaning towards the super taster.
If you love black coffee, like IPA’s, are not offended by any veggie, and prefer big red tannic wines then you are most likely teetering into the non-taster territory.
The rest of the population falls somewhere in between. This is a good indication but let’s find out what kind of taster you are based on the number of taste buds on your tongue. Please don’t feel like you “failed the test” if you are a non-taster. It’s actually a blessing because you’re able to enjoy more food and drink. Super-tasters have it rough. They are picky eaters and can be limited in their selection of delectable dishes.
taste bud test
In Sensory 101 we took the Taste Bud Test to get a rough estimate of how many taste buds we had on our tongues and then categorize us into tasters, non-tasters or supertasters. I actually found a youtube video that shows you how to do it at home yourself if you’re interesting in discovering what kind of taster you are based on your tastebud count.
In this video he uses paper and a hole punch. We used paper reinforcers, blue food coloring and counted what we saw on the actual paper with a magnifying glass. Now taking a pic with your smartphones makes it easier and requires less equipment. He says 35+ papillae. If my memory serves, we used 30+ papillae as our Super-taster qualification, 15 – 30 range for tasters and below 15 for non-tasters.
There are strips that you can buy on amazon to see if you’re able to taste this chemical called Phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). Here is a Taste Test Activity that can be done to determine whether or not you have the protein to taste PTC. You can find these Super Taster Test Kits on amazon for about $5. Keep in mind, being a supertaster is not always the greatest thing.
It seems that one would want to be a super taster as it has “super” in the name but supertasters are highly sensitive to tastes meaning they enjoy fewer foods and beverages. Now let me also mention that being sensitive to a taste and having a preference for a taste are two different things. For example, beer can be bitter depending on the IBUs but many super tasters like bitter beer. Keep in mind expectation. If one is anticipating a drink to be bitter like beer, then it’s palatable. But if someone is expecting a fruity malty, sweet, or not bitter flavor and then they taste bitter it can be shocking initially.
Now that you know what kind of taster you are, it will help you to better understand your preferences. Remember that wine is personal. Don’t let anyone ever tell you which wine you should or shouldn’t like. That’s like someone telling you that you should love steak if you’re a vegetarian. Or when someone looks down upon you because you drink a “cheap wine.” Our preferences are based on experience and memories associated with smell.
For example, take the the scent of roses and consider these two very different stories. There was a child who spent every summer in the park with his family with roses everywhere. When he smells roses he associates happy childhood memories. There was another child whose mother passed away at a young age and there were roses at her funeral. Every time this child smells roses, she is reminded of this sad day. When both children smell the same scent their individual experiences produce very different emotions and reactions. It is the same with wine. When an aroma is smelled in a glass of wine, how you perceive the wine is heavily influenced by your life experiences.
Did you know that smell is one of the senses most highly associated with memory, as seen in the animated film, Ratatouille.
This clip shows the food critic taking a bite which transports him back to his childhood but taste is really mostly smell which we’ll get to in just a moment. Fifthsense.org has an article with some interesting insights as to why smell and memory are strongly connected.
Again it can all be overwhelming so the best thing to do is start with the basics. Wine is hobby or a lifestyle that can take a lifetime to master. There is always something new to learn, the wine grape, north or south, geography, East facing slopes versus west north or south. The influence of bodies of water, mountains, soil types, wine chemistry, wine making influences, oak, fermentation science, yeast influences, harvest, ageing. Wine is really a memory game. Learning to recognize characteristics in a blind tasting.
Last but not least, remember to spit when you are at a wine tasting with many wines otherwise you’ll end up like this guy.
how does wine tasting teach mindfulness?
Wine tasting is simply paying attention. Like mindfulness, wine tasting is a skill that anyone can develop. When we consciously act, the person slows down, smells the food, notices the texture, visually takes in the food, employing all of the senses. This was a tactic that I used when dieting in preparation for the bikini fitness competition. Learning to be mindful or aware in one area of life makes it easier in other areas. Enjoy!
(2) Understanding Wine Technology The Science of Wine Explained New Edition, Foreword by Hugh Johnson. Bird, David. Chartered Chemist & Master of Wine. 2005. p.119.