How to Taste Wine:
After all the build up, actually tasting the wine flavor is the culmination of the whole wine tasting ritual. We've looked at the wine's color and appearance and explored the depths of its aromas. All thats left is to actually put it in our mouth and experience what has been hinted at by the color and aroma. There are many components to the taste of a wine and it does not just include the actual flavors you experience. Wine is a complex sensory experience stimulating many senses. Along with the taste, the feel of the wine in your mouth, its balance, and its lingering aftertaste and aromas are all equally important. When learning how to taste wine, don't miss all of these by just chugging your glass down. As with the nose, take your time and immerse yourself. Explore each wine from every angle.
How to Assess Wine Flavor (the "Mouth") - The first step to assessing wine flavor is to put it in your mouth! This may seem obvious but keep in mind that too little wine in your mouth or too much, filling your mouth to bulging, may both make it hard to evaluate. Take a medium-sized sip, enough to feel the volume in your mouth. But don't swallow! Yet. If you simply swallow it down you have lost the chance to explore all that a wine can give. Hold it in your mouth and move it around. Swish it around in your mouth so that it comes in contact with all of your tongue and the inside of your mouth. Most tasters even suck in a little air through the wine (practice this at home so you don't dribble your wine down your chin!) to aerate it and bring out more aroma and flavor. This may seem rude, to make bubbling, sucking sounds at the table, but it is actually a perfectly acceptable practice at a wine tasting!
After you have gotten the feel for the wine in your mouth, swallow it if you want to. Another option is to spit the wine into a spit bucket. Most wine tastings supply a dump/spit bucket for those tasters who don't want to swallow. This is important if you are drinking many wines or need to drive later. While some tasters feel they can fully assess a wine without swallowing, others like to have the feel of the wine on the back of their palate as it goes down to get the most out of the experience. A good compromise is to swallow a small amount and spit the rest. Or swallow your first mouthful but spit the rest of the glass.
So that's it right? Wrong! After you swallow or spit you have to continue to pay attention! The wine will leave a lingering feeling and flavor in your mouth. This aftertaste, usually referred to as the wine's finish, is an extremely important part of the wine flavor! Continue to focus on the flavors in your mouth and how they linger. Only after this step is your assessment of the wine flavor done!
Here are the components of the wine flavor to pay attention to:
- Dry/Sweet - Is the wine dry or sweet? Many newbies get confused by these terms. Whether a wine is dry or sweet refers only to whether it has residual sugar in the bottled wine. Most table wines are fermented totally dry and have no residual sugar. Some wines, especially dessert wines, have some sugar left which makes the wine sweet. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that tannins (particularly in heavy red wines) have a drying feeling in the mouth. This does not mean that the wine is dry. It may have a dry feel to it, but it has nothing to do with the sugar or lack thereof. Even some dessert wines like Port which are sweet can have high tannins and therefore feel "dry". In regards to the sugar, notice if the wine is completely dry or if it is off dry with a bit of sweetness or is it sticky sweet?
- Body - The body of a wine's flavor refers to the weight of the wine in your mouth. Does it feel large, heavy and thick or is it light. Does it weigh on your palate or is it weightless? Body is usually described on a scale in terms of lightness or heaviness, ranging from very light to very heavy or full-bodied.
- Acidity - You all know acidity from other tart foods. Vinegar and lemon juice are high in acid and thus taste tart and acidic. Wine normally has acid in it as well, although it can vary quite a bit. Acidity is part of what is considered the wine's structure. It helps hold the flavors together and give them thrust and power. Too little acid and the wine is flat and flabby. Just the right amount can make the wine feel lively and fresh. However, too much acidity can make the wine excessively tart and even seem lean and pinched. Ideally you want acidity to hold the wine together and give it presence but it should be in balance with the other components of the wine. Different types of wine will vary as to their natural acidity.
- Tannins - Tannins are polyphenol chemicals that are naturally occurring, particularly in the skins of red grapes. While most wines have some tannins, they are most noticeable in heavier red wines. People usually describe the tannins as causing a drying, astringent feeling inside their mouth. Tannins vary depending on the ripeness of fruit. It is normal for young red wines to have tannins but they should not be excessively astringent. Rather they should be soft and silky, integrating nicely with the rest of the wine. However, tannins can also be bitter and astringent, feeling harsh, hard and chunky in the mouth, detracting from the elegant mouthfeel of the wine. Describe how noticeable they are as well as if they feel soft or astringent and hard.
- Flavor Intensity - This is a measure of how powerful the wine flavor is. Does it kick you in the face with an intense flavor or is it watered down and weak? While this can go hand in hand with the body of the wine, even lighter styled wines can be intense and powerful. Think not about how "big" it feels in your mouth but rather how intense the flavor jumps out at you.
- Specific Flavors - Most wine tasters like to search for descriptors to describe the specific flavors a wine reminds them of. Like the wine aroma, this can vary from fruit flavors to just about anything else, like spice, chocolate, oak, and others. There is no right and wrong. From your experience, simply think about what it reminds you of. Cherries? Sweet tobacco? Lemons? It also helps to explore whether the fruit flavors seem ripe and sweet or if they seem under-ripe and green. Even if a wine is dry (has no residual sugar) it can have ripe fruit which gives the impression of sweetness. If you are having trouble coming up with descriptors or picking out the subtle, complex wine flavors you taste, you can consider trying out a Wine Tasting Wheel to guide you, at least initially.
- Mouthfeel - The mouthfeel of a wine is an overall sense of how the wine feels in your mouth. A great wine should feel good in your mouth. It should not be harsh or clunky. It should be silky or velvety. It should caress the inside of your mouth and feel good going down your throat. This is one of the hard to define characteristics about wine flavor which set apart a good wine from a great one. The greatest, most noble wines have a great, flawless mouthfeel, lending the wine a sense of elegance and finesse.
- Attack - The attack is the first impression the wine makes on your palate when you first put it in your mouth. Does it jump out at you and knock you over or is it stealthy, hardly making an impression?
- Midpalate - The midpalate is the flavor profile and feel of the wine in your mouth after the initial attack of flavor and before the finish. Some wines may jump out initially on the attack but then fall flat and lack a midpalate. A great wine should be consistent, making a good impression throughout the tasting process.
- Finish - The finish is another aspect of the wine flavor that often goes overlooked for novice wine tasters yet is one of the most important characteristics that set off the greatest wines in the world. Great wines have a long, lingering finish which is flavorful, balanced and entices you to go back for the next sip. Pay attention after swallowing or spitting the wine. Does the flavor drop off immediately (short or no finish), does it linger but have an odd or unpleasant aftertaste, or does it reverberate on your palate with beautiful flavors that last a long time (long finish)?
- Balance - Wine should be balanced, meaning that all of its component parts are harmonized into one cohesive whole. In other words, each of the aspects to the wine flavor fit together beautifully without anything sticking out awkwardly. The tannins, acid, body and flavors should all be noticeable and pleasant but not overpowering. If any one is sticking out like a sore thumb and getting in the way of your appreciating of the other components, then the wine is out of balance. Perfect balance is another important hallmark of a great wine.
That's it! Now go taste some wine! And don't forget to take some Wine Tasting Notes in your Wine Tasting Journal while you are at it!
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