Wine tasting is not drinking. Although wine is made to drink and enjoy, there are also times when it has to be judged and assessed. Mastering the art of tasting is essential in order to get the most out of your wine drinking.
To the uninitiated, the thought of attending a wine tasting can seem
daunting. We are used to drinking our wine with meals, usually in a
relaxed and convivial setting. The thought of joining the professionals
as they sip and spit and talk about bouquets that bring to mind tar and
rotting compost may be a bit off-putting. But mastering the art of
tasting is essential in order to get the most out of your wine drinking.
The good news is that not all tasting sessions are taken as seriously as
you might think, and that the essential elements of tasting are easy to
learn and will help you to learn about what kinds of wines you enjoy –
or dislike – and why. As time goes by and you gain more experience, you
will grow more confident in your assessment of the wines you taste. Some
people have a remarkably good memory for tastes, and can sometimes even
pinpoint the origin of a wine as well as the variety of grapes that
have been used to make it.
The important thing to remember is that anyone can be a good taster, as
long as they have an unimpaired sense of smell and taste, and are
prepared to concentrate.
While the majority of tastings – which take place on a daily basis all
over the world – are for professionals, there are plenty of
opportunities for enthusiastioc amateurs to taste wines. In their
efforts to attract and keep customers, many supermarkets now run
tastings. In doing so, of course, they are following in the footsteps of
the more established wine merchants like Oddbins or Majestic – who
often provide their customers with the option to try something new
before they buy.
Another alternative is to join your nearest wine society – have a look
in the local newspaper. Visits to wine regions the world over also
provide plenty of opportunities to sample the products of the individual
winemakers on site. This is a great, if biased, way to taste, as the
producers are often keen to give detailed information about their wines
to any visitor who shows a modicum of interest. Finally, you could get a
group of like-minded friends together and start regular wine tasting
sessions. Although these evenings tend to be fairly unstructured,
they’re also great fun.
The ideal conditions for tasting are easy – a quiet room and good
lighting. The glasses should, of course, be clean, and of the correct
shape to allow you to indulge fully in both the aroma and taste of the
Keep notes as you taste – this will provide you with an invaluable
source of reference when it comes to buying wines. Professional tasters
keep their notes for years – Bordeaux expert David Peppercorn has
tasting notes going back to the late 1950s.
Spotting faulty wines
There are several wine faults. Most come from poor winemaking or from
defective materials, especially corks. Faults vary in intensity -
merely lessening the potential pleasure from a bottle, others
Not all tasters are equally sensitive to particular faults –
a corked wine in seconds, while others may pick up on too much
Corked – the wine smells and tastes musty and sour.
a fault in the cork whereby a chemical called TCA destroys the
Oxidised – a wine that has had too much contact with
It has a sherry-like smell. Oxidised white wine is curiously
dark in colour
for its age while red is abnormally brown for its age. All wines
oxidise as they get older. This is an essential part of the
However, some wines are prematurely old. This may be due to poor
of the grapes after they have been picked, faults in the
because the cork has provided an imperfect seal.
Over-sulphured – a wine that smells of burnt matches
a sour taste in the back of the throat. It will often leave you
foul headache the next morning. Sulphur dioxide is widely used
as a necessary
‘disinfectant’ in wine-making. Many winemakers now, however, try
as little sulphur as possible. Today sulphur levels are
lower than they were twenty or thirty years ago.
Hydrogen-sulphide – bad egg smells that come from
not paying sufficient attention during fermentation. Equally,
occur if the wine has not been racked adequately while it
Unclean barrels (‘barrel taint’) – can give wine an
musty taste which is often very similar to a corked wine.
any that are empty for a while, have to be kept scrupulously
avoid tainting the wine. Where possible winemakers prefer to
barrels full with wine.
Acetic acid – common to all wines. In excess it will
wine smell and taste vinegary.
Assessing the wine
After you have sampled a wine with your eyes, nose and mouth, you
then be in a position to assess it. Is it simple and easy to
is it complex, with many different layers of flavours that will
themselves over time? Is it ready for drinking now or should you
it for a while? Does it offer value for money? Most importantly,
A wine that gives immediate pleasure and doesn’t have any
need to soften is ready to drink. If a red has a lot of tannin,
may well need several years to soften and to show its best. A
feels closed or tight at the back of the palate will generally
with time. Some young wines that taste very oaky, especially if
and the fruit seem separate, may just need time for these
One of the continuing fascinations of wine lies in determining
will be ready to drink. The optimum moment depends upon the
drinker – some enjoy their wines young, when the fruit is to the
others prefer to wait until the wine has developed the richness
characteristic of age.
Whatever your budget, getting value for money is very
if a wine costs
‘Alcohol is ultimately stronger than anyone’s constitution,’ as
wine expert Jeff Morgan said. You should always spit out the
taste – any taster who didn’t would become incapable after half
Spittoons are provided at all tastings. They may take the shape
metallic funnel, a box filled with sawdust, or any other
At seated tastings, individual receptacles like ice buckets or
jugs are provided.
You should spit the wine firmly and accurately in a single jet
pursed lips. Practising at home beforehand in front of a mirror
help. Etiquette dictates that precedence is always given at the
– you should never spit diagonally across another taster. You
try not to address a question to a taster who is obviously
on a mouthful of wine.
Tasting 100 wines over three or four hours has some effect on
No matter how carefully you spit, you are absorbing alcohol
nose, your sinus and your throat.
Decanter.com consultant editor Steven Spurrier, who routinely
500 wines a week in the tasting season, is in no doubt of the
effect of tasting.
‘I get pretty light-headed,’ he says. ‘I can see by the quality
handwriting between note 1 and note 100 that it’s had an
Tasting the wine
Important as the senses of sight and smell are when it comes to our
of a wine, the ultimate test is its taste. Take a mouthful of
and swish it around in your mouth quite vigorously. Breathe as
so, as this helps to aerate the wine and increases its flavour.
holding the wine in your mouth for 15 to 20 seconds, spit it out
swallow it if you’re not intending to taste more than a couple
Your tongue has a range of taste receptors in different places -
will taste sweetness most at the front, acidity along the sides
at the back. High acidity will make your mouth water, while
tends to be most pronounced in young red wines intended for long
will have the opposite effect.
When you evaluate the wine, first take into account its
weight. Again, these qualities will depend on many factors,
the grape varieties used and the age of the wine: a fine aged
will be far denser than a young Beaujolais.
Certain characteristics are associated with the various types
and even with the area where a wine is grown – an Australian
might be described as having tropical fruit flavours, while a
from Alsace would be lighter and have a more mineral/citrus
In Old World wines, certain grape varieties tend to be
particular areas. One could say with a reasonable degree of
that a wine made from Pinot Noir grapes probably comes from
This is now increasingly the case in the New World as well.
in New Zealand, for example, is now concentrating white wine
on its famed Sauvignon Blancs.
There is no right or wrong conclusion to be drawn about any
wine. Describe it according to your own perception – after all,
is meant to encourage you to create your own frame of reference
wines you drink. Learn about the tastes that you enjoy – and
don’t – then follow the instincts that you have developed when
to buying wine in a restaurant or for drinking at home.
Smelling, or nosing, the wine
The sense of smell and the sense of taste are so closely intertwined
one could not exist without the other. For this reason, your
tell you a great deal about a wine before you even taste it.
A properly designed glass can help capture a wine’s aromas and
them in the right direction. While glasses intended for use with
tend to have a larger bowl than those made for whites, both
taper towards the top, ‘steering’ the bouquet towards your nose
than allowing it to dissipate from a large surface area. Swirl
in the glass so that most of its interior surface is coated in
as this helps to release the wine’s aroma. Put your nose well
glass and sniff.
As with the colour of a wine, its perfume will vary according
age and composition. The region where it was made can also
aroma, as can ageing in oak barrels. Think about the smell. Is
and complex or simple and light? Does it linger or is it soon
Grape variety has a profound influence on a wine’s perfume. The
of Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, is classically described as
on a gooseberry bush’, Cabernet Sauvignons are often
having a blackcurrant quality and Pinot Noirs have something of
As a wine ages, its aroma may change – white wines often become
honeyed over the years, while young whites are often described
to fresh flowers, fruit or newly cut grass.
A good sniff will also give you clues about a wine’s condition -
is corked it will smell musty. A whiff of burnt matches is the
of a wine to which sulphur has been added as a preservative
(this is quite
common in cheap white wines). An oxidised wine will be given
away by a
rich burnt scent, similar to that of Madeira wine (an additional
comes with looking at an oxidised wine, which usually appears
Be as poetic as you want in your evocation of a wine’s bouquet
confidence in your ability to judge its qualities. After all,
no right or wrong in anyone’s description of a wine – it is just
personal reaction to the scent released from the glass.
Examining a wine
Just looking at a plateful of delicious food increases our enjoyment
and appetite – and it’s the same with wine. Apart from the
that our appetites are whetted by the anticipation of what
come, looking can also tell us an awful lot about what
to put in our mouths. You should tip the glass away from
an angle of 45 degrees and hold it against a white
a piece of white paper is fine – to see the true colour of
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of wine is its
Is it white, red – or a rose? Having determined the
a closer look. The colour of your white wine could range
pale straw and rich golden yellow, depending on its age,
its degree of oakiness and, of course, the grape variety
it was made. As a rule, lighter wines such as Sauvignon
to be paler than heavier Chardonnays, and the gold tinge
of an aged
Chardonnay will be more pronounced than that of a younger
Red wines can also be analysed in a similar way. The
colour, the more concentrated the flavour. Stand a glass
Noir next to a glass of Syrah and you will easily see the
between the two – the Pinot will be an almost transparent
ruby red, while the Syrah will verge towards a dense
A mouthful from each glass is bound to confirm the visual
Tilt the glass a little and take a look at the meniscus
upper surface and rim) of the fluid – as a red wine ages,
take on an amber-brown tinge, and this is most easily
at the rim.
As you tip your glass back towards you, you may notice
of liquid sticking to the side of the glass as they slide
back into the body of the wine – these are called tears or
and indicate high alcohol or residual sugar content.
Finally, looking at your wine will give you advance
any major defects – if you find white filaments floating
wine, reject it outright as these are almost certainly
to unclean bottling.