Wine. We drink it, we like it, but do we really ever stop to think about what it is we’re actually tasting? If you’re looking to up your wine knowledge, I urge you to press pause the next time you crack open a bottle and repeat the below steps to gain a better foundation and understanding of the nuances (and joy) a wine can bring!
There are essentially 4 components of taste: salt, sweet, sour, and bitter (plus that elusive 5th “umami”). There’s no salt in wine so you’re essentially dealing with 3 tastes to be identified. Sweetness is detected on the tip of the tongue and is typically one of the first sensations identified in the mouth. Sweetness is typically a factor of residual sugar (not all of the naturally occurring sugar is converted into alcohol during the fermentation process, can be a stylistic choice of the winemaker or a factor of nature). Sour tastes are attributed to acidity; this is the tartness you may detect in the sides of your mouth and can cause that lip-smacking sensation that leaves you craving another sip. Bitterness is causes by tannins and can lead to a dry mouth sensation on the back of your tongue.
After pouring yourself a glass of wine, take some time to look at it, what color is it? Can you see through it? These are general clues as to a wine’s varietal and age. Take a smell, then put your hand over the top of the glass and swirl before taking another whiff. Swirling the wine increases the wine’s exposure to oxygen which helps to release the aromas; covering the glass with your hand helps to intensify those aromas. When smelling a wine, always trust your first impression. What does the wine smell like to you? It’s helpful to analyze the aromatics systemically: are they fruity? If non-fruity, is it floral or spice that you smell? Is there an earthiness to what you breathe in? Hints of minerality, wet earth, rocks, dirt? And lastly, do you smell the essence of oak: toast, vanilla, nuttiness etc.
To truly taste a wine and experience the full spectrum, start by taking a sip and holding it in your mouth for 5 seconds. Swirl it around, let it coat your tongue and the sides of your mouth. Then spend the next minute or so analyzing what you’ve tasted. In the first 15 seconds you should be able to detect any sweetness on the tip of your tongue, if not sweet, is fruit present? And that may seem like a silly question, wine is made of grapes, grapes are a fruit. But does the wine taste like fruit; is the taste reminiscent of freshly picked blackberries or tart cherries? In the next 15 seconds, you should start to identify the presence of acidity in the wine (this can also happen immediately depending on the acid level in the wine). Do you have a pleasant mouth-watering sensation on the sides of your mouth? This is also the time to identify the weight of the wine, is it light, medium or full-bodied? As the minute continues you should start to formulate your opinion of this wine, do you like it? And finally in the last 15 seconds, this is when tannins are typically detected, does your tongue feel slightly dried out? If this happens early on perhaps the tannins are overpowering. Essentially each component, acid, fruit and tannins should all be in balance through the minute with no one component overpowering the other. A truly good wine will linger in the mouth through this full minute, and will leave you ready and waiting for that next sip!
Now this method has a time and a place, sometimes you just need to let loose with a glass of wine and the remote and not think too much beyond that. But if you’re looking to build your wine knowledge, I would highly encourage taking a moment to enjoy and savor each sip, for 1 minute to be exact. Catalogue your notes, relate them back to the varietal/region/producer you’re tasting and before you know it you’ll be a wine tasting master!
Caroline Shifflett is the voice behind "Chardonnay Moi" a wine and lifestyle blog. When she's not at her day job in the fast-paced retail industry, she's working on developing her wine label, 86 | 87 , with her younger brother. In between, she shares her love of food, wine, and travel with her family and friends. Follow along @chardonnaymoi.