Taste Test: Three Basics of Wine Tasting

Food & Drink

Start with these three building blocks for building your wine foundation

We’ve all see a parody of the wine snob: an erudite personage, probably fancily dressed, holding the stemware just so and making declarations of numerous aromas and flavors—many of which are unfamiliar or improbable. River rock? (connoting minerality) Cat pee? (yes!) Barnyard? (Yes again and this is even desirable in some wines!) Or garden hose, a term which appeared in the original SOMM movie documentary in which a master sommelier candidate describes a wine aroma as freshly cut garden hose (now, that’s specific!) and also a freshly opened can of tennis balls.

If that sort of thing turns you off to learning more about wine, take heart knowing the art of wine tasting needs to be neither pretentious or ridiculous. You can start with the basic, every-day aromas and flavors found in your local grocer or maybe even your kitchen and, once bitten by the bug, work your way to the more esoteric descriptors. Heck, in no time, you may be smelling barnyard or forest floor, tasting umami and iodine. Here are three basics to get you started:

AROMA. Next to a visual inspection for color and clarity, this is your first step to understanding wine. Wine aromas will present in a few ways—fruit, herbs, floral, spice, wood and, in the case of spoiled wine, unpleasant mustiness. Some aromas can also sound weird but be pleasant and transforming, such as petrol (common in aged Riesling) or sulphur like a struck match (some white Burgundies, Chablis). In general, most white wines, depending on where and how they’re made will give off whiffs of citrus (common lemon, grapefruit), orchard fruits like apples, peaches, pears or apricots and, if aged in wood barrels, oak, hazelnut or walnut, some sweet spices like vanilla. You might pick up herbs like anise or tarragon. Or green notes like tomato leaf or bowwood. For red wines, the fruits will go into the red and black berries, maybe into plums or currants. If the wine has been aged in wood, you’ll pick up more spices and wood char—called secondary notes as they come from the winemaking rather than the primary fruit or herb source. And if the wine has a bit of age on it, you could be moving into “tertiary notes” and this is where you get into some funky and delicious territory—mushrooms, cedar, leather, more spice, coffee, chocolate, balsamic, umami! At this point “aromas” become the “bouquet” of a wine, signifying a deeper sensory experience.

TASTE. In most wines, what you get on the nose, you’ll get on the palate, too. That is to say, it would be a disconnect to smell lime and then taste apricot. So, if the wine is redolent of strawberries, for example, you’ll probably taste that on the palate, too. Ditto other fruits, including citrus and hanging orchard fruits. In time, you’ll pick up on the different seasons or preparations of fruit, so today what’s just a strawberry, with some practice, could later be discerned as a fresh baby or wild strawberry, or a stewed strawberry. Lemons aren’t just lemons any more: they’re Meyer or candied or roasted or compote. You get the idea. Other common fruits include the dried fruits that show up with a little more age on the wine—figs, dates and raisin. You get these tastes on both red wine and aged or dessert (sweet) white wines.

On a more advanced note, it’s common to say “what grows together goes together,” and while that’s commonly applied to food and wine, it also pertains to aroma and taste. In southern France, for example and famously, wines often smell and taste like the wild floral and herbal scrubland, called garrigue (in South Africa, it’s fynbos), growing in the same area of the vines. So if you’re feeling stumped by an aroma, think about what else might be going on in that region—either plant life or saline-inflected breezes in maritime regions (or even fossils in the ground) and go back to the wine to see if you can pick up those notes.

TEXTURE. How a wine feels in your mouth is so often linked to fabrics: silky, velvety, satin/sateen, wooly, flax or linen-like. These sensations are at the hand of the winemaker and the decisions they make such as how to handle the grapes in the production process (include stems or not, how long to macerate the juice on the skins) and how long to age in what kind of vessel (wood of varying sizes, ages, toasts and formats), stainless steel concrete or clay vats. The aging vessel is important for either integrating or eluding tannins, which are derived from the stems, pits and skins of the grape, and add bitterness and/or astringency. There are also wood tannins extracted from the barrels that have a taste of their own (spice, char, fruit or sweetness, and they help give a wine structure and complexity.

On the other spectrum, a texture can be jolting—zesty and fresh. This is the style of many high-acid white wines such as dry Rieslings from Alsace and Germany, Assyrtiko from the island of Santorini, Chablis and some Sauvignon Blancs. Though on the austere side, these are among the freshest and food-friendliest wines, showing a purity of fruit and, for the most part, a slight of hand (word play intended) of the winemaker.

There are numerous terms associated with texture: racy, round, mouth filling, creamy, waxy, even tense, taut or nervous. The next Taste Test installment will explore those and tried and true methods for honing your wine tasting skills.

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