The Art of Wine Tasting
The Aroma Wheel helps wine lovers identify and describe a whole range of smells found in wines, both good and bad.
USING YOUR SENSES
Wine tasting is rather like choosing a spouse: you start with a negative attitude. What's wrong with it? Is the colour murky or dull? Does it smell like a locker-room after a heavy workout? Does it taste like salad dressing? Once you have established that there are no negatives then you can begin to analyze the wine for its good qualities.
Wine appeals to all five of our senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and even hearing. We are enchanted by the sound of a popping cork and the bursting of sparkling wine bubbles. Next comes sight, the way the wine looks in the glass, its colour and transparency or opaqueness. Then comes the smell as we lift the glass to our lips. Finally, the taste of the wine and the feel of its body or weight on our palates. For assessment purposes we are really looking at sight, smell and taste, in that order.
Hold the glass up to the light. (Natural daylight is best. Neon can give a bluish tint and coloured walls can alter the shade.) What we are looking for is clarity and colour. All wines should be bright and clean, free of particles or sediment. Mark down hazy or cloudy wines.
White wines have a range of colours from water white to deep golden depending on sugar content and maturity. Red wines range from dense purple to pale cherry depending on grape variety and age. (Incidentally, white wines gain colour with age, as opposed to reds, which lose colour and fade.)
Older reds will exhibit gradations of colour from the "eye" of the wine to the rim. Against a white background, tilt the glass slightly and see how the wine changes colour. The wine may be deep ruby at its centre, but where its rim touches the glass it may be brick, orange, mahogany or even water white. Diminishing density of hue is a sign of age. A red wine that holds its colour to the edge is a young wine. A browning edge may suggest that the wine is too old or oxidized.
Now swirl the wine in the glass and let it settle. Hold the glass up to the light and look for the transparent wetness left on the sides of the glass. This will fall back to the surface in "tears" or "legs" (the Germans call them "church windows"). This effect can tell you the alcoholic strength of the wine. The thicker the "legs" and the slower moving down the glass, the higher the alcohol.
Your nose will tell you seventy-five percent of what you want to know about a wine. Our noses are much more sensitive than our palates. We can smell as little as 400 molecules of a substance but we can taste it only if we have at least 25,000 molecules.
A healthy person can distinguish among some 5,000 smells, but our palates only register four taste sensations: sweet, salt, sour and bitter. These basic tastes are fanned out into thousands of nuances at the top of the nose so if we have a cold we will find it difficult to smell and taste. In terms of wine, sweet = grape sugar, sour = acidity, salt = saltiness (rare) and bitter = tannin.
To get the most concentrated smell of the wine first swirl the wine in the glass. This action creates friction and causes the wine's esters to evaporate. The esters carry the wine's aromas. Sniff the glass in short, sharp little in-takes of air. First look for faults. Are there any off odours (the smell of musty barrels or the vinegary scent of oxidation, for example)?
Once you have established that the bouquet is clean, assess its quality. Is it concentrated or light? Does it smell of fresh fruit or berries, dried fruit, flowers, nuts, spices, herbs, vegetation? Does it have an overlying vanilla or cedar scent from oak barrels? Does it show age and maturity with a smell of leather, coffee beans, truffles or chocolate?
Store the memory of the smell so that you can identify it when you experience it again. Remember, the nose is like a muscle: the more you use it, the more refined it will become. We tend to take our sense of smell for granted. Odours are either pleasant or unpleasant. We don't tend to break them down and analyze them. Most people find it difficult to describe what they smell in a wine, but when they hear a description that approximates their own experience they will agree.
Using an accurate term to describe the bouquet of a wine will help you to remember it the next time you are served it. Enologist Ann Noble of the University of California at Davis has created a tool to help wine lovers identify and describe a whole range of smells found in wines, both good and bad. It's called the UC Davis AROMA WHEEL, and it consists of three concentric circles. The smallest contains the most general terms to describe a wine's bouquet. The second circle becomes more specific, qualifying the first. The outer circle refines the perception down to a specific aroma description.
When you first sniff the wine ask yourself which descriptive term in the innermost circle best describes what you smell. Once you have established the category, sniff again and decide which smell it resembles in the quadrant fanning out from the original term. Then zero in on a specific description from the outermost circle. Wines with complex bouquets, such as aged Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Late Harvest Riesling, will have more than one aroma. First isolate the predominate smell (oak? berries? Botrytis?) and then identify the others.
Recognizing Wine's Components
Your nose will help you detect the main components of wine.
Acidity: A fresh, citrus-like smell suggests high acid. If you find yourself salivating after smelling a wine's bouquet you are reacting to the presence of acid.
Fruit: A sweet berry or fruit smell. The warmer the growing region the more tropical the fruit will be in character. For whites: pineapple, mango, melon and fig. The more northerly are apples, pears, quince and gooseberry. For reds from warm climates: black currant, blackberry, plum; from cool growing regions: cherry, pomegranate, raspberry, strawberry.
Alcohol: The presence of alcohol heightens our perception of sugar. While we cannot actually smell alcohol we are aware of its presence as a "hot" sensation in the nose (and as it goes down the throat).
Tannin: This naturally occurring compound is experienced as an astringent taste and feel on the back of the palate and cheeks. You can perceive tannin in the bouquet of a red wine when it is young and particularly heavy. It will come across as a bitter, woody, inky smell.
Oak: Wines that have been barrel-aged will extract flavours and tannins from the oak. New French oak imparts a discernible vanilla quality to the wine. American oak, favoured in Rioja, gives the wine a coconut quality. Oak will also add a spicy character to the wine reminiscent of cloves or cinnamon.
There is not one taste but three: the initial taste as the wine hits your palate, the secondary taste when the wine warms up in the mouth and the aftertaste once you have swallowed it. Let the wine wash over the entire palate. The first impression will be of the sweetness in the wine because of the position of the sugar-sensing taste buds. The sensation of sweetness is short and intense. Acidity is slower to reveal itself, but lasts much longer.
Different areas of the tongue are more sensitive to one taste sensation than another. The sensation of sweetness, for instance, is experienced at the tip of the tongue. A sugar lump placed at the back of the tongue will take a comparatively long time to register as sweet.
- Sugar: the tip of the tongue
- Salt: the tip and upper front sides
- Acidity: the middle sides and underside (and cheeks)
- Bitterness: back of the tongue (and cheeks)
Note the presence of fruit, acidity, alcohol and tannin (in red wines, that dry aftertaste on the sides of the cheeks and back of the mouth). The longer the aftertaste lingers, the better the wine.
Check the harmony of the wine; all the elements should be in balance. A wine is made up of fruit (sugar), acid, alcohol and tannin or oak. Think of these as legs of a chair. If one of the legs is shorter than the others, the chair will be unbalanced. If one element, say, the acidity or the smell of oak, predominates, then the wine is not harmonious.