Intermediate Wine Tasting Tips
Once you’re comfortable with the steps of wine tasting and you have mastered the basics, it’s time to consider some deeper knowledge. There are a lot of different things to know when it comes to wine. Some people can get very carried away and make it a very tedious ‘chore’. Our aim here is to help you sound intelligent, but not like an insufferable ‘know-it-all’.
Beyond the Basics
Now that you’ve been tasting wine for a while you can begin to take it to new levels of aesthetic evaluations. Aside from simply identifying flavors, you are also using your taste buds to determine if the wine is balanced, harmonious, complex, evolved, and complete.
This is when you start to consider the wine’s ‘balance’. Ask yourself about the acidity, alcohol, tannins and flavors as they come together as a whole. Are these elements pleasurable as a whole? Does one element overpower any of the others? If so, does this detract from the wine’s attractiveness? Or does it make it more enjoyable?
A balanced wine should have its basic flavor components in good proportion. Our taste buds detect sweet (residual sugar), sour (acidity), salty (not really a factor), and bitter (from tannins).
Sweet and sour are obviously important components of wine. Saltiness is rarely encountered and bitterness should be more a feeling of astringency than actual bitter flavors.
Dry wines have flavors that cannot be detected by smell alone. These flavors must be derived from the aromas that are displayed. The tastes are also defined by the acids, tannins and alcohol that are sometimes more ‘felt’ than tasted.
No two wines are the same. No two wines have the same components, but there should be balance between the flavors. If a wine is too sour, too sugary, too astringent, too hot (alcoholic), too bitter, or too flabby (lack of acid) then it is not a well-balanced wine. If it is young, it is not likely to age well; if it is old, it may be falling apart or perhaps completely gone.
A harmonious wine has all of its components and flavors seamlessly blended. A young wine can have these components blended already, but many times each element is still individually recognizable. This is not a bad thing, in fact, it means that the wine will probably age well, but it also means that it is not harmonious, yet.
Complexity can mean many things. Your ability to detect and appreciate complexity in wine will become a good gauge of your overall progress in learning how to taste wine.
Some of the most successful wine brands have been formulated to offer recognizable flavors like very ripe fruit (i.e., jammy) and strong vanilla. They are reminiscent of soft drinks. It is perfectly natural for new wine drinkers to relate to them first, because they are familiar and likeable. But they do not offer complexity.
Complex wines seem to dance in your mouth. They evolve, even as you taste them. Slow down; don’t move on to the next sip until this one has played out. Fine wine can be compared to looking at a good painting; the more you look at them the more there is to see. The length of a wine, whether old or young, is one good indication of complexity. Simply note how long the flavors linger after you swallow. A complete wine is balanced, harmonious, complex and evolved, with a lingering, satisfying finish. Such wines deserve extra attention
Now it’s time to look for the wine’s ‘flaws’
Do you detect any off-aromas that may indicate spoilage? If it smells like a musty old attic and tastes like wet newspaper the wine is unfixable. If it smells like vinegar you have volatile acidity, the wine is no good. If it smells like nail polish there is ethyl acetate, this is also undesirable.
Sometimes it will have a strong sulfurous odor that smells like burnt matches, this can be fixed by giving it a vigorous swirl and the smell will eventually dissipate.
If it has a yeasty smell and the scent of sweaty saddles you have Brettanomyces. A little bit of “brett” gives red wines an earthy, leathery component; but too much erases all the flavors of fruit.
Learning to identify these common flaws is at least as important as reciting the names of all the fruits and flowers. And it will also help you to understand your own palate sensitivities and blind spots. Discovering what you recognize and enjoy is key to learning how to choose wine on your own.
Good things in wines
In every wine type (varietal) there are similar flavors and aromas, here is a list of reference, or a starting point:
• Pinot noir: cherries or mushrooms
• Beaujolais: strawberries
• Merlot: plums
• Shiraz: leather and sometimes barnyard smells
• Sauvignon blanc: grass and even cat pee!
• Riesling: petrol (this is desirable)
• Nebbiolo: roses and tar
Of course, this is just a starting point. You can make your own judgments.
If there are no obvious off-aromas, look for fruit aromas. Wine is made from grapes, so it should smell like fresh fruit, unless it is very old, very sweet, or very cold.
Many grapes will release a spectrum of possible fruit scents. These scents help to identify the growing conditions of that particular vineyard, such as; climate, whether it be a warm, cool or moderate environment.
Flowers, Leaves, Herbs, Spices & Vegetables
Don’t be surprised if you smell flowers, leaves, herbs, spices or vegetables. This is perfectly normal, expected and desirable. The most common is floral aromas, especially in wines from cooler climates. These varietals include; Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and some Rhône, like Viognier.
Some other grapes carry herbal or grassy scents. Sauvignon blanc is one that is often strongly grassy, while Cabernet Sauvignon can be scented with herbs and hints of vegetation. Rhône reds often show delightful scents of Provençal herbs. Delicate herbal aromas are preferred over stronger ones. The best wine aromas are complex but also balanced, specific but also harmonious.
Earthy scents are another common wine aroma. Damp earth, mushrooms, leather and even rock can exist in red wines. A mushroom smell can add nuance; it can also help you determine a possible grape or place of origin of the wine. Too much mushroom may just mean that the grapes didn’t fully ripen.
Can wine smell like beer? Yes! Many young white wines and young sparkling wines may have a scent very reminiscent of beer. This is from the yeast.
Some dessert wines smell strongly of honey; this is evidence of botrytis, often called noble rot, and is typical of the very greatest Sauternes.
Chardonnays that smell of buttered popcorn or caramel have most likely been put through a secondary, malolactic fermentation, which converts malic to lactic acids, softening the wines and opening up the aromas.
Older wines have more complex, less fruity aromas. A fully mature wine can offer an explosion of highly nuanced scents, beautifully co-mingled and virtually impossible to name.
Trust your nose
If you smell toast, smoke, vanilla, chocolate, espresso, roasted nuts, or even caramel in a wine, you are most likely picking up scents from aging in new oak barrels.
Depending upon a multitude of factors, including the type of oak, the way the barrels were made, the age of the barrels, the level of char and the way the winemaker has mixed and matched them, barrels can impart a vast array of scents and flavors to finished wines. Think of the barrels as a winemaker’s color palette, to be used the way a painter uses tubes of paint.
Wine tasting words
For many people, this is the most intimidating part of the wine tasting process. No one expects you to be a wine tasting expert. When tasting and discussing the wine, there are many ways to describe the experience. You may simply say that you like it or don’t like it.
Now that you’ve tasted and have directed your attention to noticing the flavors, language will be helpful. Isn’t it funny that no one ever says a wine smells or tastes like grapes? Instead they use descriptions of other fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and minerals. There are thousands of flavor compounds milling around in that glass, these compounds share flavors with other foods.
This is the fun part; allowing yourself to assign words that may seem out of place or silly. It is not silly at all to say a wine “smells like rotting leaves.” It feels funny because you don’t expect to be drinking something that smells like a barnyard. This is where you truly need to ‘trust your nose’. There is no right or wrong answer. These aromas are not flaws, in fact, they are desirable and expected. Trust yourself and be daring with your words.
Think of it like you’re writing a poem. Every wine tasting experience is unique and each of us has a different background and experience to bring to the tasting. We all have memories associated with certain scents that are just as unique and individuals as we are.
Use the experiences you’ve had in life to explain your impressions the wine has created in your mind. Use words from your hobbies or other areas you know well.
When it comes to the actual words, wine tasters need to borrow their vocabulary from other areas, including fruits, flowers, spices, nuts, types of wood, or metals. Trying to look for common ground, there are some words expert wine tasters habitually use. These words are not a tight standard, as several terms describe similar concepts and, sometimes, wine tasters give different meaning to the same word.
Look in our glossary for the definition of these words!