Trust Your Buds!
We are often asked how to properly taste wine. One thing we try to make clear is that everyone has a different sensitivity level to the major tastes: Bitter, Sweet, Savory (Umami), Salty, Sour. The most important thing to tasting is not to try to identify every component, but rather focus on identifying major structural components while making note of your overall impression. A fantastic Syrah from Paso Robles may be a “Blueberry Freak-out” while a Syrah from the Northern Rhone is velvety and complex. When we choose wines for Meritage, we like to break down all of the major components of quality in the wine as well as note where it falls in style and personality. Here is a brief outline of how we do that.
Color: What you see can tell you a lot about the wine. Hold the wine over a bright, clear white surface.
Look at the Rim for clues
- Pale indicates a younger wine
- Dark indicates an older wine
- Green edge is cool climate
- Yellow/Gold edge is warm climate
- Purple/Garnet is young, full-bodied
- Chestnut is either mature or long barrel ageing, sometimes tells of a lighter body
Look for Brightness, does the light shimmer on the surface or is it dull? If bright, then it is a cleaner wine that has been handled correctly. If dull, the wine may have been harmed by excessive temperature variation or been exposed to too much oxygen. The wine is not as structurally sound.
Look for Clarity, is the wine clear like a gelatin or cloudy? If clear, then it has been handled properly. If cloudy, or has visible sediment, then the wine was not filtered, fined, or drawn from tank/barrel properly. This leaves more volatility in the bottle because of the organic matter and is more likely to have bottle variation and ageing problems.
Look for Color appropriate for the varietal. If you are looking at the color of a Cabernet Sauvignon, which should be a dark garnet or purple, and it looks very light and translucent, then the wine did not spend enough time on its skins and will not have the depth of flavor you would expect. If a Chardonnay is amber in color, then it is likely that the wine saw some heat or was oxidized at some point. However, a slightly hay or golden color is common on older whites and is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you like the aromas and flavors of aged wines.
The Aromas you smell when initially tasting a wine can tell you a huge amount about the wine.
Sniff the wine before swirling to catch “cork” aromas
- Corked Wines offer a musty or wet/moldy mushroom odor. Corked wine refers to when a wine has been spoiled due to the transference of TCA (Trichloroanisole) and/or TBA (Tribromoanisole) to the wine from or through the cork during storage or bottling.
- Many people ask, “Can you get rid of cork?” This is widely disputed, but there have been some Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers that believe that the insertion of a rolled up piece of aluminum foil into the corked bottle of wine left in a refrigerator overnight will diminish the amount of TCA/TBA and eliminate the “corky” attributes.
Swirl to aerate and open up the wine. The following aromas are indicators of specific flaws in the quality of the wine.
Nail Polish indicates Volatile Acidity (VA). This generally means that the wine had too much alcohol and/or too much residual sugar at the time of bottling. This makes the wine unstable and stewy.
Wet Horse indicates the presence of Bretamycies (Brett). Brett is a fungus that lives of the skins of grapes, can take hold in damp cellars and on wine barrels. Too many parts per million of Brett and a wine can be spoiled, but in many instances the presence of Brett is considered desirable in small amounts due to the aromas it brings to a wine. These aromas resemble iron, graphite and damp earth when in small doses and lean closer to barnyard or a wet horse when in higher doses.
Bell Pepper or weedy aromatics indicate either under ripe fruit or the presence of young Cabernet Franc. These aromas typically come out in wines made from grapes that did not fully mature. However, young Cabernet Franc usually has a tinge of vegetal characteristics and these develop into rather pleasant aromas of cooking spices or incense when properly matured.
Glue can be an indication that there is too much sulphur dioxide in the wine. Again, not proven, but many Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers have indicated that dropping in a copper penny will diminish the amount of sulphur dioxide over time.
If it smells sweet like a sherry and it is not a sherry, then it is likely that the wine has been oxidized, which means the finished wine has been exposed to too much oxygen and that oxygen has started to break down the chemical bonds of the wine.
If you smell alcohol, then there is too much alcohol and the wine will be bitter and harsh. This is often the main cause of VA (Volatile Acidity), but even in lower doses the alcohol can drape over and hide the essence of the wine and make for a rather unpleasant drinking experience.
Here are some classic aromatics of some common varietals that can help you determine what varietal you are tasting.
- Pinot Noir typically offers strawberry, raspberry and bing cherry.
- Bordeaux varietals, such as Merlot, Cabernet and Malbec, typically offer some combination of black or red fruits. Examples might be blueberry, cherry, cassis, plum, blackberry or boysenberry.
- Sangiovese typically exhibits more dried red berry fruits. Dried cherries, dried cranberry and plum.
- Chardonnay usually exhibits some apple, pear or fig, but often can offer more tropical notes such as peach, pineapple or banana.
- Sauvignon Blanc is all about citrus fruits with occasional touches of hay or grass. It is common to find mandarin orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit and even sometimes mangoes on the nose.
Smell for Terroir or Sense of Place. In a blind tasting, familiarity with these scents can easily help you determine the wine’s origin. Terroir is essentially the mixture of soils, climate and exposure that gives an area or a vineyard its individual stamp or fingerprint. There are high levels of consistency from any given area, regardless of year.
- In Burgundy you will find that traces of flint and limestone are common.
- The Right Bank of Bordeaux, with its Merlot based wines, typically showcases some level of wet earth and dried clay.
- The Rutherford appellation in Napa Valley produces Cabernet Sauvignon that appears to have a dusty note to them.
- Just south of Rutherford in Oakville, however, the Cabernet has a slight chalkiness to the finish.
Aromatics from the wood are very easy to detect and can tell you a lot about how the wine was handled.
- If you smell Vanilla, Chocolate, Mocha or Coffee, then you know a pretty good percentage of the wine was aged in new French oak. If you can detect a hint of coconut, it is likely to have seen a larger proportion of American oak.
- If you smell leather, tobacco or cedar it is likely that barrels that had already been used for one or two vintages were used on the majority of the wine. The oak imparts less of the vanilla or coffee at that point and imparts more subtle flavors during ageing.
Palate: Once you have taken in all the complex aromas you will take a sip and move on to the palate of the wine, which is where we pick up the major flavor components, as well as determine the style of the wine.
Weight: First we look at the extraction or weight of the wine. This indicates the ripeness of the grapes at harvest and can also indicate the amount of residual sugar or alcohol in the wine.
If it has a heavy weight and is extremely viscous, then you know there is more glycerol/alcohol and potentially more residual sugars.
Medium weighted wines will have been picked at a lower sugar level and should show more freshness and acidity.
Light weight wines can be an indication that there is less residual sugar and alcohol tends to be lower. It can also be a testament to a higher level of acidity in the wine or the choice to not take the wine through malolactic fermentation.
Texture: We next pick out the texture of the wine. This can be an indication of the balance of a wine, in particular the level and maturity of the tannin. Finer tannin seamlessly integrates into the wine much more successfully than more granular tannin, which can come across as chewy.
A certain smoothness to the wine is desired and generally is not possible without good balance between the alcohol, sugars, tartaric acid and tannic acid.
Angular wines generally have one these four components out of balance, usually the tannin. If a wine is granular, often the grapes were macerated, or soaked, too long or the fermentation temperature was too high.
A long, slow fermentation at the right temperature allows the wine to ferment quickly enough to maintain its freshness while developing strong chemical bonds in the polymers and allows more complexity to show due to the longer strains. These wines tend to be a bit creamy or mouth coating.
If a wine also has larger amounts of residual sugars and alcohol, then it is likely to show a more velvety character. One thing to make a note of, dry is not a descriptor for a texture or flavor of a wine. It refers to the level of residual sugar, thus simply the sweetness of the wine.
Flavors are the most ambiguous part of tasting wines. Everyone picks up on different flavors and there are tons of different chemical compounds in a wine that can trigger a specific flavor on your palate. Here are some simple ones to start with, but let the experience of your palate with all food and beverages guide you to your own personal set of descriptors of flavor. Here are some examples typically found in certain types of wines:
Fruity Cabernet, Pinot Noir
Oaky Rioja, Chardonnay
Spicy Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Syrah, Nebbiolo
Finish is the most often misunderstood and overlooked part of tasting a wine. A wine with a short finish is not necessarily a bad thing if you are consuming it on its own as a cocktail beverage. A long, fresh finish is something that is much better with food, while a wine whose flavor profile coats your palate and lasts for minutes is a prime candidate for time in the cellar. When rating a finish, we often look at four characteristics.
First we look at the level of freshness, or tartaric acid. If the wine lasts a long time on your palate and/or it appears to be juicy, making your palate water, then it has high levels of tartaric acid. This is a necessity for both pairing with food and ageing in the cellar. The higher levels of well integrated tartaric acid, the longer the wine will develop and last in your cellar.
Tannin on the finish is also used to determine a wine’s longevity. If it is well integrated, with fine texture, either creamy or velvety, it is an indication of the proper amount of tannic acid. If it is chewy or grips your palate, then there is too much tannic acid. Tannin will deteriorate over time, but if a wine is too tannic young, the fruit in the wine will deteriorate at the same rate. Thus it is not a balanced wine and one you would want to age.
The length of a finish, how long you can taste the flavor, is a great indication of the balance and how long a wine can age.
Last thing we look at is balance on the finish. Everything should be present, but nothing should be dominant. If a wine has this balance, then it will always express all of its breadth throughout its lifespan. Again, it is really the balance of sweetness, acidity, fruit (sugars), alcohol and tannin.
Environment, where you are and who you are with when enjoying the wine also has a great impact. If you are in a good mood, the wine will show better because your palate will be more receptive. Pairing with the right foods will take the attention away from the lesser qualities of the wine and allow you to focus on its strengths. Whether you are having a simple taste or drinking multiple glasses will also affect what type of wine is the most pleasing. Remember, having a glass of big, rich Napa Cabernet while on a golf course in 110 degree heat in Arizona does not sound like much fun, but having that same wine later paired with a wood fired rack of lamb in a nice, cozy air conditioned restaurant with your buds sounds a bit more enticing.
When rating a wine, make sure you take into consideration its overall personality. Finally, the definition of a great wine always starts with your enjoyment. If you like to drink it then you have found a winner, regardless of what pundits may say about it!