Think that you aren’t sophisticated enough or don’t fit in the right income bracket to enjoy wine-tasting? Think again. These tips will help you fake your way through a wine-tasting session — or develop a lifelong hobby (the finest pleasures, not the most!).
Supplies – All you really need is a good wine glass, some wine, and preferably some good company.
Glasses – Obviously if you are at a wine-tasting party or tasting the wares at a winery you won’t be bringing your own glass, but when you decide that it is time to get your own wine glasses, first look for a clear glass — you definitely want to be able to see the color, especially as a beginner. Your glass should curve in a bit at the top so you can swirl it without spilling. Some companies try to sell glasses that are supposedly matched to certain wine types, but taste tests have shown that people rarely prefer wine from its matching glass. Instead, a good hand-blown crystal glass is often preferred.
Wines – The two main types of wine are red and white. Red wines are made from black grapes fermented with skins and pips. Red wine can be dry or sweet. Some of the more well-known reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and Sangiovese. These names refer to the types of grapes which the wines are made from, and there are about 40 major types of grapes used for red wine. Wine regions have standards as to what percentage of a wine must be a single sort of grape to be classified by that grape used for its creation – in California it must be 75 percent, while in Alsace, France, it must be 100 percent. Many wines, however, are a combination of different varietals, the term that refers to a single grape wine. White wines can be made from either white or black grapes.
There are more than 50 major white grapes grown round the world — the three most prevalent are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. White wine is usually considered to be more refreshing than red wine because most are best served chilled. There are a number of other wine types. Pink wines include Blush types and Rose (pronounced row-zay). Blush originated in California and is usually made using Zinfandel grapes with the peels left in for a time and then removed. Rose is processed as an unfinished red, but tastes refreshing like a white, with some of the flavors of a red.
Sparkling wines and Champagne are sometimes produced by the same method, but only those made in the north of France are allowed to be called Champagne. Sparkling wines are created by adding yeast and sugar to table wine. The so called Methode Champenoise, also known as the Classic Method, is painstaking, and cheaper bubbly is usually mass-produced using a slightly different method.
There are a few types of “dessert wines.” Port starts as a wine fermented from 40 or so types of grapes. The must – byproducts of fermentation — is poured off after a short period of fermentation, and then the young wine is re-barreled for a year or two before being bottled. Port usually requires 15-20 years of bottle aging, and then it is a sweet, fortified wine often taken with cheese and nuts. Madeira is fortified with alcohol and then heated, either artificially or by storing in a hot attic. Originally, Madeira was created by being shipped — back when shipping meant in the hull of a ship — through the tropics, where it was heated.
Sherry is a blended wine that is also fortified. Extra room is left in the barrel and special yeast is added. Fruit wines are fermented from other fruit besides grapes. Common fruits used include raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, blueberries, or cherries. Fruit wines have a monster-sized taste, partly due to the large amount of fruit used to create them. They are usually fermented in cold conditions, which helps preserve the natural fruit flavors. Fruit wines are especially good with dessert and are sometimes used in sauteacute;ing or other cooking.
If you are hosting a wine-tasting party, there are more supplies that you will need to have. Be sure to have water available for people who get thirsty and those who want to cleanse their palates. Snacks are important. Provide snacks that either complement the wines or cleanse the palate. Snacks also help ensure that people won’t become too intoxicated. There are a number of different types of tasting parties, some of which are quite expensive, but which could also be as cheap as $15 per person. If you’re going to serve dinner, wait until after the tasting session.
Tasting Technique — Some of you out there might be asking, “What technique can there be to tasting something? Put it in your mouth and taste it!” First of all, you’re right. There are some wine snobs who will say that there isn’t much point in drinking some wines, and they’ll point to rating guides saying that you should drink wine with a certain rating to cultivate your taste for fine wines” Drink wine that you like, not what other people tell you that you ought to like.
There are three stages to wine-tasting: Look, smell, and taste.
Look. Pour yourself a small amount of wine, perhaps an inch or so. Hold your glass up to the light or against a white background and observe the color. Red wines can be lighter or pale reds, but they also range to brownish red and purple. White wines are usually greenish or brownish and typically gain color with age. The tint observed at the “rim” allows expert tasters to judge the age of the wine – a purplish rim might be a younger wine while older wine usually has an orange or brown rim tint. Swirl the wine and see what sort of body the wine has. Also called the “legs,” body refers to the viscosity. A more mature wine will have more body.
Smell. Swirl the wine and hold your glass to your nose. Some tasters prefer taking on deep whiff while others will take a small whiff for the impression followed by a deeper impression. Either way, pause to get a good impression of the smell before moving on to the actual tasting stage. The aroma, also called the “nose” or “bouquet,” should remind you of things that you might smell in nature.
The smell usually correlates with the taste, and wines might smell fruity, earthy, woodsy, or spicy, or any number of combination of things. Try closing your eyes and imagining yourself someplace else — perhaps in the middle of an outdoor market. What is it that this wine’s smell makes you think you might be standing near? Most good wines have a pleasant flavor in both smell and taste, though some wines — even some good ones — don’t really have a nose at all.
Taste. Take a sip and swish it around your mouth — front to back and side to side, and you might even want to breathe in a bit. While your taste buds aren’t really separated out on different areas of your tongue, swishing helps you utilize all of your taste buds. The initial taste may be a bit different than the overall impression you get after swishing, and another important aspect of taste is the aftertaste. In France they even have a rating system for aftertaste — if the aftertaste lasts for 1 second, it is given 1 caudalie; 2 seconds is given 2 caudalie, and so on. Highly rated wines often leave the strongest and longest aftertaste. Balance is the key to the taste of a wine. The four main components to the taste of a wine are sweetness, acidity, tannin, and alcohol content. If the wine is unbalanced in one of these areas, then it will be noticeable.
The sweetness will probably be the first thing that you notice about the taste — especially if it is particularly sweet or particularly bitter. To think about acidity, consider the difference between drinking milk, water, orange juice, and grapefruit juice. Acidity makes the wine taste crisp, but if it is overly acidic it will have a bit too much of a punch. Tannin can also be a bitter sort of a flavor, and it comes from stalks and skins of red grapes. Tannin is present in strong black tea and are most notable in young wines. The tannin flavor tends to mellow as wine ages. Alcohol content will make the wine range from a sweet flavor to the fiery taste that accompanies higher alcohol content.
Another characteristic to consider when tasting a wine are to feel the body of the wine in your mouth. Is it more or less viscous? Think about the fruitiness of the wine and try to compare different wine flavors to different fruits. What is the overall impression of the wine? Do you like it initially or not? There are times when tasters will spit out the wine that they are tasting instead of swallowing. Typically this is only done when tasting a very large number wines, or if you happen to be a professional tester or are participating in a wine review of some sort, in which case, keeping a clear and level head may be important.
Note taking – I know none of us want to go back to high school, but taking notes is beneficial to all wine-lovers, not just professional tasters. Having a collection of notes on different types of wines can help you select a good wine at a restaurant, or bring a good wine home to have when you invite the boss over for dinner. There are some particular methods of note-taking for wine-tasting, and some websites or books offer questionnaires that can be used to evaluate wines. There are special terms that some wine-tasters use, but especially at first, simply writing down things that the wine flavor or aroma remind you of might be the best that you can do. Write down your reactions to the various stages of testing – look, smell, and taste.
Recording your overall impression is important – if you don’t like a wine, you can try a different one the next time. Perhaps write down some foods that you think that particular wine would be good with, and then you can check back in your notes when deciding what to serve with a particular dinner.
Wine Etiquette – There are a few things that you ought to know before serving wine, and likewise there are also a few bits of etiquette that you would do well to know before attending a wine-tasting event.
Serving wine – The right temperature for serving wine varies from wine to wine, and different people prefer different wines at different temperatures. Generally, folks prefer red wines around 65 degrees F, white or Rose wines closer to 55 degrees, and Champagne or sparkling wines are generally preferred around a chill 45 degrees F. Each variety of wine tastes a little different at different temperatures. You might want to include in your notes at what temperature you taste wines. To chill the wine, fill a bucket with ice and cover the ice with water. Submerge the bottle in the bucket.
To go from room temperature to the proper temperature, put red wine in for about 5 minutes, white wine for 10 minutes, and Champagne for 15 minutes. Some people (not wine snobs, usually) even toss an ice cube or two in a glass of wine to chill it quickly. Spend a minute learning how to pop the cork properly. Don’t bend it. Pour the cork out with about an ounce of wine to remove any debris from the cork and to check the wine out. Some folks prefer to decant the wine to remove any other particles that have settled out of the wine.
Keep in mind also that it is usually recommended to allow red wines to “breathe” for an hour or so before serving. Breathing the wine for two long, however, will cause the wine to taste dull and flat.
When pouring, don’t touch the bottle neck to the glass and hold the bottle around the body instead of the neck. You can hold a napkin below the neck to catch dripping if you prefer. Fill the glass no more than two-thirds full, though preferably to only about half full. If there is leftover wine and you can’t convince anyone to finish it off, you can save what wine is left, but don’t just re-cork the bottle.
Find a small container – small to the point where the wine might be overflowing from it (perhaps a small, 375 mL wine bottle). In fact, when you close the container, whether with a cork or a plug or a lid of some sort, there should be a little bit of spillover. Because the main issue with saving wine is keeping it away from oxygen, doing this will prevent oxidation from happening. Store this container in the refrigerator, and it should keep for about a week without becoming too stale.