Wine for Beginners
Like all food and drink, wine is hard to explain. For example, Dr. Pepper has 23 flavor components. Most people can pick out a few of them when sipping on a Dr. Pepper. Let’s just take one of those flavor components, such as cherry. Think about how you would describe what a cherry tastes like to someone who has never had a cherry. You couldn’t just say it tastes like cherry; they wouldn’t understand because they have no frame of reference. You could say it tastes good or bad, but that’s not helpful because that is your opinion of the flavor and may not be theirs. Then the problem is compounded further by what kind of cherry it is. A Bing cherry and a Renoir cherry don’t taste the same. When making a description we are tapping into our memory banks of other aromas and flavors to make something unfamiliar, familiar. The process for assessing aroma and flavor components in wine can be applied to any food or beverage. It can help other people understand what they are smelling and tasting. And it’s just fun to do.
Some things to keep in mind when tasting/describing wine:
- Wine tasting is subjective. You may not taste the same thing someone else does and that is ok.
- Flavors and aromas are tied very strongly to memory. You might not like the wine because a flavor or aroma brings up an unpleasant memory or vice versa.
- We may describe wine as having flavors of apricots or cherries, but these are just descriptors. The flavors in the wine remind us of those flavors but there aren’t actually apricots or cherries in the wine (unless it is wine made from apricots or cherries).
- The majority of people approach trying new food and drinks in the simplest of ways; take a bite or sip and you'll decide pretty quickly if you like it or not.
- A structured approach to tasting wine (or anything) is a tool to help see beyond that mimediate "like/dislike reaction".
Wine tasting 101 starts with looking at the wine in the glass. One of the first thing you want to look for is if the wine is cloudy or has sediment. Cloudy/sediments in wine is not necessarily an indicator of bad wine, but it could be, so it is important to note. Then, take a look at the color; is it deep, rich, light, ruby, golden, tawny? When doing blind taste tests, sommeliers use color as a clue as to what varietal and vintage the wine may be. For the novice, it's a way to get to know the varieties and how age can affect color.
Give the wine a swirl! This can help in assessing the color but more importantly, this aerates the wine, allowing more aromas to be released. The shape of the wine glass is designed to trap those aromas, which brings us to our next step; smelling the wine. The idea is to gently inhale and try to pick out familiar aromas. It helps to close your eyes and imagine the aromas.
Now, we have looked at the wine, we have swirled the wine, and we have smelled the wine. It is finally time to taste the wine! Take a small sip of the wine and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds. Do not use this first sip to assess the wine, this sip is to get your mouth and brain ready to pick out familiar flavors. Now, take a bigger sip and swish it around to coat the mouth. Swallow or spit, then inhale through the mouth. Think about how the wine felt in your mouth, on all parts of it. What are the texture components? Was there a prickly sensation, a mouth drying sensation? Did the wine seem oily, heavy, light? Next (and you may need another sip) start to identify flavors. If you are having trouble identifying flavors, a flavor wheel may help. You may find that the wine doesn't taste how it smells, in fact it may be quite a bit different from what you were expecting.
There is a lot of pomp and circumstance to tasting wine and sometimes it does seem a little silly, but give it a try. You might find a new appreciation for the complexity of wine.