Tasting wine to assess its quality and characteristics involves more than a simple swirl and sip. Becoming an expert in wine tasting won't happen in a day, but applying these techniques will help you develop a greater appreciation and understanding of wine.
When wine is in the glass, the first thing to do is raise the glass to eye height to observe its color, transparency, and other qualities.
1 – Clarity, which may be described as bright, limpid, opaque, veiled, or cloudy
2 – Effervenscence, or the presence of bubbles and their intensity, duration (judging by their quantity and size), or foam (fine or coarse, effervescent or persistant)
A good wine will be limpid and bright, while its effervenscence (called the “pérlage”) should be found only in sparkling wines like champagne, spumante, or those labled “frizzante.” Good pérlage is characterized by an effervescent foam on the wine's surface that is persistant, fine, and abundant in the glass, so that it forms those seemingly inexhaustible “fountains” of bubbles.
3 – Fluidity, judged by the wine's viscosity on the sides of the glass when swirled
4 – Color, in its range of nuances:
for white wines: paper white, slightly green, straw, golden, amber yellow
for rosé wines: powder, peach flower, onion skin, salmon, raspberry
for red wines: cherry, ruby, pomegranate, orange-red, amber-red
A wine's color may also be defined according to its nuances (or reflections): green-hued, hay, golden, and amber for whites; crimson, pomegranate, violet, brick, and amber for reds. To top
After judging the wine's appearance comes the evaluation of its aroma. The sense of smell is powerful, and has the potential to invoke strong emotions. One may judge the wine's finesse and elegance, its intenstiy and body, complexity and persistence of aromas that spring from the glass. The depth of aromas is in relation to its fineness of a wine, from its production and evolution to its maturation, from the vine and zone of origin to the efforts and techniques used in the winery.
The aromas of wine
The innumerable aromas of wine have been classified in broad categories. According to the phase of a wine's life and evolution, one may discern the following aromas:
- primary or varietal aromas, typical aromas of certain grapes (for this reason defined as “aromatic,” such as Moscato or Brachetto)
- secondary or vinous aromas, that develop during the alcoholic fermentation;
- tertiary or post-fermentation aromas, which are the most fascinating aromas because they develop during the aging as the wine rests in barrels or the bottle and matures over the course of years.
Other than this very basic classification, there is a more specific category of aromas that distinguishes wine aromas in ten different families:
- animal, like hair, fur, gamey, leather, or hide;
- balsamic, that recall resins, such as pine, juniper, menthol, balsamic herbs, and camphor oil;
- chemical, such as medicinal, acetone, sulfur, hydrocarbons, flint;
- phenolic, that recall a burnt smell, such as toast, smoked, incense, cooked smell; and also cocoa, coffee, and caramel;
- etheric, such as those aromas produced by the ethers and esters of fatty acids (soap, varnish, nailpolish, wax); but also like flour, bread crust, yeast, butter, honey, and fresh cheeses;
- floral, or aromas of flowers;
- fruity, or aromas of fruit, both fresh and dried;
- woody, derived mostly from wine being aged in oak barrels;
- spiced, or aromas of spices, drugs, and aromatic herbs (cinnamon, fennel, licorice, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla);
- herbaceous, or vegetable substances in general, such as peppers, tomato leaves, sage, grass, hay, wet leaves, underbrush, and tobacco. To top
Finally, it's time to taste the wine. The moment that wine enters your mouth is the most important one, the final verdict that judges consistency with the information gathered from the first two steps about its appearance and smell with what you taste. In the end, taste is what decides if the wine is good or bad, if you like it, if it's satisfying.
This part is actually the easiest test because the basic tastes are only four: sweet, bitter, acidic, and salty. The principal sensations are perceived on the tongue, while other characteristics (such as alcohol and tannins) are perceived on the palate. The persistance in the mouth (its so-called “length”) and its state of development are analyzed. Finally, other than what we gather from the tongue and palate, our analysis of what passes through the retro-nasal passage that connects the mouth to the nose completes the tasting.
Following are some tasting parameters, from light to intense sensation according to:
- sugar content: dry, tart, “friendly” or semi-sweet, sweet
- alcohol content: light, generous, hot, vigorous, powerful, “liquoroso” or high alcohol content
- texture: coarse, soft, velvet, fat, oily
- acidity: flat, fresh, savory, sharp, raw, green
- tannins: tannic, astringent, rough, puckering, austere
- structure: thin, light, full, pulpy, robust
- persistance: short, medium, long, very long, extremely long
- development: young, ready, mature, tired, lifeless, past To top
A universal wine glass does not exist. Every wine has unique characteristics, and the right glass will highlight them according to its form. For aromatic wines, either still and sparkling, the ideal glass is the open cup; while for all other wines, a wine glass is sufficient if it is adequately pot-bellied and with a growing width according to the importance of the wine it contains. A wine glass should also be clear, with smooth sides, and clean so that no foreign odors can be detected.
The serving temperature of a wine is all too often overlooked. To be able to appreciate the qualities of a wine, whether white, rosé, or sparkling, the rule is that it should never be served at too high of a temperature.
For white and sparkling wines, it is well-known that they should be served cold (8-10°C, or 46-50°F); we only get confused when red wines are the matter at hand.
First of all, it is recommended that red wines – including Barbaresco and Barolo! - are not actually served at the all-inclusive “room temperature.” This was the advice for wines served in times past, when rooms weren't well heated and – even in summer – carried a chill.
Today, a red wine should be served between 18 and 20°C (64 and 68°F) if well-structured; otherwise, even cooler is recommended. The reason for this is that at low temperatures, alcohol “melts” in the wine, therefore masking the aromas that were so carefully developed and conserved in the bottle.
Cooled wines are therefore more appreciated in the nose and in the mouth and avoid the unpleasant “hot” sensation of too much alcohol that would otherwise – inevitably – cover the balance of flavor and retro-nasal sensations, leaving an unsatisfied palate instead of one sated and happy! To top
The conservation of wine in the cellar is an aspect that determinedly influences the evolution and quality of the wine. In particular, some aspects should be held in consideration:
- air – a good circulation is recommended, and the wine must rest in a place far from foreign odors (salumi, cheese, smoke, mold)
- temperature – beyond the ideal temperature (between 10 and 16°C / 50 and 60°F), it's important that it is kept at a constant, whether summer or winter
- humidity – another fundamental parameter often overlooked: humidity must be between 60% and 70%. A dry cellar risks the dry cork situation that then lets in oxygen which oxidates the wine; if the cellar is instead too humid, mold may easily develop on the cork (and ruin the vintage)
- light – together with oxygen and heat, light is one of the worst enemies of wine, the cause of color alterations. Wine should be conserved in the dark or in a room with suffused lighting.
- silence – even vibrations provoked by noisy environments and traffic are harmful; wine must rest peacefully
- the position of the bottle – laying down is preferable, in such a way that the wine is always in contact with the cork and therefore keeps it elastic. It's worth remembering that the odor and taste of corked wines are always caused by bacteria, which then contaminate the wine whether or not the bottle is kept in a horizontal or vertical position. To top