Wine Tasting 101 (Part One: The Stages of Wine-Tasting)

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Let’s do it!

Some time back I said I’d write a post about wine-tasting, and then never got around to it. In this short series of short posts (I’m planning on keeping it as simple as possible) I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about how to taste wine. Today is Part One: The Stages of Wine-Tasting.

Almost anyone can drink, and enjoy wine, but how much you enjoy it is directly related to how much time you’re willing to put into enjoying it. Wine tasting is the difference between grabbing a quick bite on the run and sitting down to savour a meal. Every wine is different, and it’s when you stop to examine and enjoy the distinctives of each particular glass of that you pass from the world of wine-drinking to wine-tasting. If you’re serious about getting the most out of your glass of wine then you need to break your drinking experience down into five stages.

Stage One: Look Before you even raise the glass to your lips, take a moment to visually examine the contents. Beyond red or white, what colour is it? Does it have the deep purple-red of a Cabernet Sauvignon, or the light pinkish-red of a Pinot Noir? The golden-yellow of a Chardonnay or the near-colourlessness of a Pinot Gris? Is the colour bright, indicating a younger wine, or dulled, indicating that the wine has been aged? Tilting the glass slightly with a light-coloured surface like a white tablecloth behind it can allow you to see how the colour changes with the depth of the wine, while gently swirling the glass will not only help release the aromas but also allow you to examine the ‘legs’ that run down the inside of the glass – an indicator of the alcohol content.

Stage Two: Smell Most wine glasses are tulip-shaped to concentrate the aroma (which used to be referred to as the bouquet but isn’t anymore) handily close to your nose. Take some time to smell the wine and see how many different aromas you can identify. A good starting point is to look for two distinct ‘fruit’ aromas plus one other aroma. Wine which has lots of different aromas going on is referred to with words like ‘complex’ and ‘harmonious’ if it’s done well, and words like ‘disjointed’ if it’s done badly, while wine with just a few aromas may be called ‘simple’ or ‘plain’. I’ll talk more about the (many, many) different types of aromas in another post.

gibbston valley wines
The same but different.

Stage Three: Taste Rather than just swallowing the wine down, take a moment to hold it in your mouth and think about what you’re tasting. Do the flavours match the aromas? Can you name a distinct flavour? How does it feel in your mouth? Heavy? Light? Oily? Is there an acidic tingle, or a tannic dryness? The ‘burn’ of alcohol? Again, I’ll be talking about this in more detail later.

Stage Four: Spit or Swallow This is pretty self-explanatory. Spittoons have been available at all the wine-tasting venues I’ve been to but I’ve yet to see anyone use them. Nonetheless, if you’re tasting a lot of wines it’s probably a good idea to spit at least some of it out in order to avoid getting totally wasted (unless that’s your aim). I’m assuming, though, that for the most part the wine you’ll be tasting is the wine in the glass you’re planning on drinking from, so you should probably swallow it.

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Real champagne. It tastes nothing like cheap bubbly.

Stage Five: Think This is the stage where it can be helpful to make notes. If you’re doing so, remember to note down not only the name of the wine but also the year. I like to add the cost as well, because I’m cheap and because I’m always curious about how more expensive wines compare to the cheaper ones. The key questions are ‘did I like it?’ and ‘why, or why not?’. This is important because the whole point of wine-tasting is to maximise your enjoyment of what you’re drinking. Think about how it compares to other wines you’ve drunk, both wines that are similar (comparing today’s Shiraz with your previous Shiraz-drinking experiences) and wines that are very different (comparing the Pinot Gris at the start of the tasting with the Merlot at the end). Over time you’ll build up a sensory memory of various wines which will help you choose wines with confidence, whether to match a particular meal, to satisfy your particular tastes, or indulge your curiosity.

So, salud, l’chaim, à votre santé, and cheers bro! May every glass of wine you drink be the best yet.

Always drink responsibly. One standard drink of wine is approximately 100ml (3.3 fl oz). The New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that women consume no more than 2 standard drinks a day, and no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and that men consume no more than 3 standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week (note that this is slightly lower than the limits recommended by the World Health Organisation). The World Health Organisation recommends that women abstain from alcohol during pregnancy. In New Zealand the legal drinking age is 18. Do not drink alcohol if you are under the legal age to do so in your country. It is illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol.

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