Wine Tasting 101 - Getting Started, Tips and Techniques ...
 
http://www.mcnees.org/winesite/labels/bottles/img_rick-champagne_dom_chan_2k_salm.jpg I often encounter folks interested in wine who lack comfort or confidence or are even intimidated by their feeling of inadequacy in their wine knowledge. For those that ask how to learn more about wine the answer and process is simple - practice, practice, practice!

This site is to help folks unwindwine! To share my passion to make wine simpler, easy to learn, understand and enjoy. One must start somewhere. Start now, or even go back to earlier wine memories. Use every wine encounter as a learning experience. Start to develop a consciousness about your wine experience - make at least mental notes, or even written notes such as a
wine journal, about what you see, smell, taste, and feel about the wine. What you like and don't like. Start, and then continue to build a wine inventory of wine sensation memories - those observations. Over time you'll start to relive and repeat earlier notes and soon be able to anticipate a wine before you try it! 
There are many useful, invaluable reference books and enjoyable, entertaining books about wine from every perspective. My wine book library is featured here.

Visiting wine country is another great way to learn about all aspects of wine. Many of our wine country experiences are chronicled here.

The dimensions of wine

Realize that wine encounters are multi-dimensional - they exist not only in breadth and depth of color, body, smell, taste, alcohol content, and feel, but they evolve in time too. The timing of smelling and tasting - the first few seconds of the wine on the tongue, across various parts of the tongue, and in the mouth initially and after it is swallowed all reveal different sensations. That same wine will evolve throughout the evening as it opens up and 'breaths'. And that same wine will reveal itself differently the next day and perhaps the day after that! And age-worthy wines will evolve over years or even decades! See my blog Collecting and Aging Wine - Buy the Case. (That's what those vintage charts area all about - to help track the age-worthiness and subsequent drinking window as wines from a given region and vintage mature, or reach and eventually pass their prime. That window will be different for wines of different varietals, regions as well as vintages. No wonder it gets complicated. More on all that below.)

We'll often taste a wine and put it away for later - saving some for later in the day or evening, the next day, and the day after that! Much will be revealed in this and patience will often be rewarded! (The drinking window for a bottle once opened however is days).

Next, another bottle of the same wine from the same producer from the same vintage will evolve over time and reveal itself differently as it ages. And finally, other vintages of that same wine from the same producer will reveal themselves differently, at a point in time and over each of these sensation dimensions and time.

Multiple wines from the same producer (or region) from different vintages are known as a 'vertical'. For example a 'vertical' tasting of Opus One would be a comparison from the different vintages, such as the 1990, 1991, 1994, and 1995 vintages of the same wine. Each vintage will have its own characteristics for each growing region, for each type of grape or varietal, and wine.

Examples of gala vertical wine tastings:
Gaja vertical tasting - An Evening with Angelo Gaja

An evening with Edouard Moueix - Dominus Vertical Tasting
An evening with Delia Viader

Multiple wines from the same vintage from a different producer or growing area or region are called a 'horizontal' tasting. For example one might do a horizontal tasting of a number of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons from the 2004 vintage.

See full size image
Horizontal Selection of 1981 Bordeaux
from Rick's Cellar
And a Vertical Selection of Dunn Vineyards
Cabernet Sauvignon

As you encounter more tasting experiences, your 'vocabulary' or inventory of wine memories or conscious sensations will build, providing a broader, deeper, richer, more learned, extensive basis for appreciation and comparison. And of course all these dimensions are ever changing for each wine. And of course every year, each vintage for each region for each wine starts the process all over again. No wonder it becomes overwhelming! Hence the need to focus. Keep it simple. Don't try to master all wines from all regions from all periods. Experiment, find one you like, focus on that wine type and region, and then later, slowly branch out from there - same or different varietal, different vintage era, different producer and so on.

Focus

Another reason wine can be intimidating if not overwhelming is the sheer magnitude of choices - old world, new world, regions, appellations, varietals, vintages - it can be confusing at best.  Bordeaux has over fifty appellations and almost 10,000 producers. Even California's Napa Valley has seventeen different appellations and close to five hundred producers. While experimentation is part of the fun, its also valuable to zero in on what one likes. Once you find a wine that you like, make note of the identifiers of that particular wine - country, region, appellation, producer, vintage - (listed in order or sub-classification). Then, branch out from there within that wine-type or category. Indeed, having collected and tasted thousands of bottles of wine over three decades, 95% of our cellar is US, Australian and French - and the majority of those wines are Napa, South Australian Shiraz, and Bordeaux - areas of focus naturally gravitating to wines we enjoy. I find an Italian wine list as bewildering and confounding as the next person for the most part since that's outside our 'comfort' zone or area of focus. In the end - its all about enjoyment - at which point it becomes intimidating or stressful, back off - simply realize your outside your comfort zone, and carry on! 

Wine Types and Wine Glassware

Ever notice that or wonder why different wine glasses are of different shapes? Tests have shown that the shape and construction of wine glassware can significantly improve the exposition of the bouquet and/or flavor of wines. The size and shape of different wine glasses are meticulously tailored to a particular type of wine and the variety of grapes in that wine, to showcase its partnered

wine so that flavor and bouquet are transmitted in a truly "authentic" manner. The shape of the bowl and its flare are matched to a wine's bouquet and and tasting profile to present that wine to its maximum potential. the unique shape of different wine glasses' result in a specialized tool which will expertly present the wine to the palate - delivering the wine to that part of the tongue that best represents that wine's characteristics. The various popular wine glasses are featured on this page. (By the way, ever wonder why wine glasses have stems? The reason wine glass have stems is for holding the glass without warming the wine which one does when they hold the glass by the bowl).

White wines:

  • Use a wine glass with a narrow bowl to retain subtle flavors and nuances. This ensures that the surface area of exposed wine to oxygen is reduced.
  • The wine will remain cooler for longer, therefore retaining its bouquet.
  • A younger, fresher wine is best in a slightly taller, thinner glass. i.e. champagne is always served in a tall, fluted glass which contains the bubbles and slowly directs them gently upwards towards your nose.
  • A fuller, fatter wine like a mature Chardonnay is best out of a slightly shorter, wider rimmed glass. As there is an abundance of flavor already in the wine, it is beneficial to have a wider surface area in your glass. A Chardonnay does not require so much chilling - unless of course it is very young and high in acidity.

Red wines:

  • Use a glass with a wider bowl, increasing the surface area, enabling the wine to breathe.
  • Exposure to oxygen will soften the tannins and allow the stronger flavors in the wine to show through.
  • The wine will be served at or slightly below room temperature, therefore it is easier to warm a wider glass than a tall, narrow one as you hold it in your hand, this in turn releases more aromas.

Only fill glasses one-third full. This helps to leave room in the glass to swirl the wine around, so you are able to enjoy the aromas as they are released.

Wine Prices

Oh, yes, - one more dimension is price. The good news is, as you practice and develop a more learned or experienced vocabulary, it will become more discriminating. The bad news is that you'll start to recognize and appreciate the difference between a cheaper wine and a more expensive wine! This means as your palate becomes more experienced and discriminating, you'll start to recognize and appreciate more expensive wines. The good news though is that there is a limit to this calibration. You might 'hit the wall' at fifteen dollars per bottle, or twenty-five, or fifty. Further good news is that you'll soon realize that there is not a complete direct correlation between price, value, quality, and your personal preferences. The ultimate fun and reward is finding that diamond in the rough - an inexpensive, affordable wine that you truly enjoy, regardless of price.  They are out there. Now go find them!

Wine Resources

There are many websites devoted to wine which offer a wealth of information, advise, and insights. There are also many wine books available to cover all aspects of wine for the neophyte to the oenophile. There are also many wine reviewers and reviews who write about wine to aid and guide tasting, purchasing and collecting. A useful on-line resource is WineSearcher.com - an search engine for finding wine by in stock at over ten thousand participating merchants - great for checking prices and availability. You can access WineSearcher on this WineSite main page here.    

Remember at all times, this is supposed to be fun. At any point it becomes work, back off. Also, contain your enthusiasm. I try to always be mindful that a wine-snob is someone who talks about wine more than those around him/her wish to hear about it!

Tasting

If tasting more than one wine, always start with the lighter and simpler wines first. A heavier or heartier wine will overpower lesser wines and you'll lose all sense of discrimination or calibration for them.

 

More precision on tasting order is:

Dry before sweet: This is probably the most important of the following rules, so if in doubt - opt for the "dry before sweet" rule.  Sweet wines typically carry a long finish - drinking a dry wine with a short finish following a sweet wine with a long finish will almost always leave the dry wine tasting sour. 

Old before young: Mature wines tend to provide the most subtle, elegant, and finessed nuances and should be sipped first to honor the complexity of the flavors that aging provides.  Younger wines bear more tannin and fruit and will often wipe out some of the subtle qualities of older wines if tasted first.

White usually before Red: White wines are usually more delicate than reds - which is why many presume that red should always follow white. However, in some cases (ex. light pinot noir vs. full-flavored voigners) sweeter wines pack a longer finish than dry wines, so save your sweet syrupy whites to follow drier reds for optimum flavor.

Light-bodied before full-bodied: The delicate flavors and aromas found in light-bodied wines will be missed entirely if consumed following tannic, robust reds.

When tasting more than one wine, don't drink serially! In other words, don't drink one wine then the next and then the next. Taste one, and then move on to the next, then go back and revisit the earlier wine for a basis for comparison. Also, remember, that first or earlier wine is going to evolve and reveal more of itself differently over time so it will change! You don't want to miss it! If this concept seems in contrast to the first part about lighter to heavier, do it for classes or categories of wines. The whites , and then the reds for example.
 

Spit or swallow

One doesn't have to drink wine to taste wine. If you are concerned about your consumption, don't hesitate to spit the wine out rather than swallow. Its acceptable and appropriate. Especially for longer or broader tastings - spit so you can enjoy more, or at least spit those you are less interested in and and savior and swallow only those special wines!

If you are tasting several or many wines, it is normal to reach palate 'fatigue' or overload. Pace yourself, take your time, and refresh or cleanse your palate in between wines. This can be done with water, cheese, fruit, bread, biscuits or some combination of such.

Serve wines chilled - whites at 40-50 degrees. Yes, reds too, but only slightly less so. We like to taste and drink our reds at 12-20 degrees below room temperature. Too often reds are served too warm - even in fine restaurants. Tell them so! We routinely find ourselves setting our red bottle next to and in between our glasses of ice-water!

Observe - color, thickness, opacity, and aroma.

Swirl the wine in the glass (remember to hold the glass by the stem, not the bowl - so as not to 'heat' the wine - that's for cognac! - that's why they have stems!), and observe further - the color, body, structure, opacity. Note the 'lines' in the glass as the wine drains back from the edges into the bowl. These are called 'legs' (or my British friends call them 'curtains';) and reveal the body and structure of the wine.

Observe again, the aromas as revealed after being exposed to the air through swirling.

Smell.

Smell again. One typically can only sense a few aromas with each sniff, so repeat this two or three times. Wait a moment or to in between. Repeat this step too many times and the aromas (and your nose) will get confused.

You want to smell the wine in this order - Fruit and Earth (natural), then Oak (manipulated). This is how your nose is conditioned to pick up scents.

The more you expose your olfactory senses to the aromas in a glass, the more you will get when it is time to taste it.

Sip and 'feel' the structure or body of the wine on the tongue and in the mouth.

Sip just enough to taste as the wine rolls across each part of the tongue. Taste the wine over a period of time. Note the 'beginning' or front, 'middle', and end or 'finish' of this process as the wine crosses the tongue and is swallowed. Note the finish can go for a minute or more after the wine is swallowed - a big or long finish!

These 'dimensions' are about where the wine meets the different tasting parts of the tongue and time in the mouth. Did you know that is why different wine glasses have different shapes? Differently shaped wine glasses are specified for different types of wine to reveal the aroma in the bowl of the glass, and to deliver or deposit the wine slowly or more quickly, narrowly or widely to the front, middle or rear of the tongue - all to marry the wine with the olfactory and tasting sensation parts of the tongue best suited to that wine's characteristics! 

What am I looking for? Start with obvious or more discernable tastes or aroma's. Over time you'll expand your 'vocabulary' to more subtle nuances. General characterizations of tastes are:

    • Herbs and Spices: cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, orange and lemon zest, black pepper, anise
    • Dried Fruits: prunes, raisins, apricots
    • Fresh Fruits: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, cherry, peach, apple
    • Fresh vegetables and vegetation: bell pepper, mint, eucalyptus, cut grass
    • Canned Vegetables: asparagus, black and green olives
    • Nuts: walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds
    • Other: coffee, tobacco, strawberry jam, honey, tea and chocolate
    • More olfactory senses that can be manifested in wine: cedar, earth or dirt, leather, pencil lead

Characteristics of the wine can be revealed through the 'mouth feel'.  

    • Wines that contain a high alcohol content will often be referred to as "hot" due to the warm and sometimes burning sensation left in the mouth. 
    • Acidic wines provide you with mouth pucker.
    • "Chewy" refers to a full-bodied wine so dense and tannic that you feel like you could actually chew it. This is a product of high glycerin content.

Hold the wine in the mouth and if you can, suck in air, or swirl the wine in your mouth to mix it with air to allow it to 'breath' in order to reveal more of its aroma and tastes. Amazingly, the wine will reveal different sensations and tastes at each of these various parts of the process!

Note that wine tasting notes often are indicated with numerous different descriptions! These are reflections of different parts and time of the process.

Swirl the wine in the mouth, and as you do, try to feel the texture, structure and once again sense the aromas and tastes sensations of the wine.

If the wine has exceptional olfactory sensations, hold the wine in your mouth and suck in some air (really). It'll create a slurping sound but will reveal the bouquet further as taste sensation.

Note - some wines have it and some don't! Lackluster, non-sophisticated, dull, or lifeless wines are just that. They won't reveal anything more than wetness and some flavor - good, bad or somewhere in between. And with age, they will only likely deteriorate.

Try a more 'complex' or sophisticated, wine or style of wine, pay attention, and begin the journey! Most such wines have an aging profile that will evolve and improve to a peak, then plateau, then start to deteriorate. The shape of each wine's aging profile will be unique to that wine.

Look at my section on wine reviewers and reviewing wine to get a sense of how to characterize and calibrate tasting. 

Remember, the only assessment of a wine that matters is yours! Only you decide what you like and don't like.

Always taste and drink responsibly. Enjoy!

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