How to Taste

The tasting process is broken down into three different parts: sight, smell and taste.

SIGHT (aka Visual Examination) 

Hold the glass by its base with your thumb and curved forefinger to prevent the color of your hand from being reflected in the color of the wine. During the visual examination, you will want to evaluate the wines color, intensity and clarity.

Note - When visually comparing wines, it is important to have the same amount of wine (usually two ounces) in each glass.

Color:

Hue is the specific color (as in the color of a crayon). To observe it, tilt the glass to a 45% angle. Pay attention to the color at the rim. Is it watery or does it continue to the very end? Young reds often have a blueish tint to their purple hue. This tends to change to a brickish orange with bottle age.

The overall color of red wines lightens with age. One exception is young Red Burgundy. The added sulphur can have a bleaching effect on the wine, which lightens its color. As the wine ages, the sulphur binds with other elements in the wine, and it can appear to have gained color. White wines tend to darken with age.

Intensity:

This is judged by looking straight down the glass from above. To use the crayon analogy, this is how hard or how many times you covered an area with the crayon. The hue doesn’t change, but the darkness or intensity of the color does.

Clarity:

Hold the wine up to the light source and observe how clear the wine is. Is it cloudy or brilliant? Cloudiness could be due to an unfined or filtered wine.

Other:

Legs or tears in a dry wine are simply an indication of alcoholic strength. The longer they take to form after the wine is swirled and the more defined they are, the higher the alcohol content of the wine. They are often influenced by dish washing detergent residue.

Bubbles, very simply, indicate effervescence in the wine. In sparkling wines, they are quite obvious, but effervescence may also be present in otherwise still wine if a small secondary fermentation happens to occur in the bottle. Fine sparkling wines, such as Champagne, will have a tiny stream of bubbles, indicative of a long, slow secondary fermentation.


SMELL (aka Olfactory examination) 

In many ways, olfactory examination is the most important part of tasting. All specific flavors come from the sense of smell.

To effectively evaluate the smell of a wine, swirl it. The thin sheet of liquid on the sides of the glass evaporates rapidly and intensifies the aromas of the wine. Young wines are said to have “aroma,” while the term “bouquet” is typically used to describe the complex nose of an older wine.

Place your nose in the glass right after swirling and inhale deeply. You may want to try short, quick sniffs as well as slow deep ones.





TASTE (aka Gustatory examination) 

During gustatory examination, the tongue senses primary tastes. Sweet is sensed near the tip of the tongue, acidity on the edges along the side and bitterness towards the back of the tongue. Acidity makes you salivate (literally makes your mouth water) and tannin leaves the mouth dry. You may also evaluate tactile senses such as fizziness, temperature and viscosity.

Whistling in air while you taste accelerates vaporization, intensifying aromas and helps more fully involve your olfactory sense via the retronasal passage. Exhale through the nose and inhale through the mouth.

Note the weight of the wine. Think skim milk for light-bodied, whole milk for medium-bodied and cream for full-bodied.

After tasting, reflect on the balance of the wine, its length, depth and complexity.


Serving Temperature

One of the most important factors in how a wine tastes is its temperature. The effect is so dramatic that a 10-degree difference can make it difficult, if not impossible, to tell that it is the same wine.

Reds tend to taste their best in the 59F to 68F temperature range. Cold brings out the astringent qualities in tannin, so very tannic reds tend to show best at the warmer end of the range. Low tannin reds, such as Beaujolais or Pinot Noir, do their best at the cooler end of the range, where the chill brings out their fruit qualities.

Whites tend to taste their best in the 40 to 50F range. Three types tend to do better at the colder end of the scale: simple, high-acid whites, where the effect of tartness is softened by the cold; sweet whites, which seem less cloying at a lower temperature; and sparkling wines, as the cold helps them to retain their bubbles. Big, complex whites, like great older Burgundies or fine vintage Champagne, do better at the warmer temperature range for whites, which allow them to express their depth and nuance of flavor.

Be careful not to exceed 70F. A wine’s alcohol is emphasized significantly above this temperature and it loses its structure, often appearing “flabby” or “soupy”. On the other side of the spectrum, extreme cold hides a wine’s faults, but also its flavor, so be careful of over-chilling any wine of quality.

These are general guidelines, of course, but paying attention to them can greatly enhance your enjoyment of the wine and, to those of you in the field, your sales.


Serving Order

It is always best to taste your wines before determining their serving order, as nuances in the wines may alter their ideal line-up. However, here are some general rules for serving order:

Dry before sweet
Light before heavy
Ordinary before fine (complex)
Young before old*
Light, young red before full-bodied sweet white

*The exception is when a very tannic, fruity young red (Bordeaux, for instance) would mask the delicate flavors of an older, mature one.