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Wine Tasting Techniques

proper way hold wine glassLesson Goals:

  1. Master basic wine tasting in 3 steps
  2. Know the proper way to hold a wine glass
  3. Be able to write basic tasting notes

Executive Summary:

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Proper Way to Hold a Wine Glass

It is important to hold the wine glass by the stem (as per the picture above). When holding the glass by the bowl, we will warm the glass up with our body temperature. As we want to serve each glass at its optimal temperature, the unintentional warming is undesirable.

Wine Tasting Techniques

Professional wine tasting can be decomposed to 3 easy steps:

1. Appearance

How: Tilt the glass so you can take a good look at the color of the core as well as the color of the rim. Do this against a white background to get an objective view.

What to look for:

Clarity -- Is the wine clear? Haziness or cloudyness can indicate an undesired fermentation occuring in the bottle, so a faulty wine.

Color -- Is it lemon-green, lemon, or gold? Is it purple, ruby, garnet or brown? A young red wine should be purple or ruby in color. A young white wine will have hints of green on its rim.

If a dry wine is brown in color. Be cautious when tasting. It is either very old or may be oxidized (which you will want to return if you are in a restaurant).

Can you see legs or tears running down the side of the glass? Despite common beliefs, legs are not an indicator of quality. It is a phenomenon caused by the alcohol evaporating at a faster rate and having a lower surface tension than water. The legs get pushed up the glass by the increased surface tension before being pulled down by gravity.

Are there sediments, dark residuals in the glass? Sediments are very common in a developing or mature bottle. As red wine ages, it shreds color in the form of pigmented sediments. While it is safe for consumptions, most sommeliers and wine lovers prefer decanting the wine to filter the sediments.

If it is a sparkling or Champagne, observe the bubbles in the glass? Are these tiny beads or large bubbles? Is it a consistent pertillence? A good quality sparkling tends to have tiny beads (dot-like) and a consistent pertillence.

2. Aroma

wine aroma chart

How: Give the glass a swirl (you want to do this in a circular motion and stick to one direction to avoid jotting the wine too roughly).

Swirling the glass increases interaction of wine with oxygen, which will release aromatic molecules and enrich the tasting experience.

What to look for:

Take a quick sniff to test for cleanliness. This is expected of you when you are the host in a restaurant. Ask yourself the following questions to determine if the bottle is good:

If the wine is clean (not faulty), take a generous sniff to get a good sense of its aroma character.

Common aroma categories are fruit, floral, herbal, vegetal, and oak. Examples of specific impressions are blackberry for fruits, rose for floral, cedar and nutmeg for oak influence.

Don't worry if in the beginning you cannot identify a particular impression. Begin familiarize yourself with the broader aroma categories and eventually work towards specific impressions.

3. Palate

tongue structure

How: Take a generous sip and swirl the wine around your tongue. As shown by the figure on the left, our sensors for bitterness, sourness, saltiness, and sweetness are located at different areas of our tongue. Only via swirling the wine in our mouth can we fully pick up its different flavor profile.

Professional wine tasters would purse their lips and suck in air and let the wine opens up a bit in their mouth. The drawing in of the air allows the aroma to hit the olfactory receptor which is located at the back of the nose, enhancing the tasting experience.

What to look for: There are several elements you want to consider in order to write a descriptive tasting note:

wine body

Body: What is the weight of the wine on your palate? Is it light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied.

I often ask students to compare with milk. Light-bodied is like skim-milk, watery and light-weighted. Medium-bodied is like full milk. Full-bodied is like cream, rich and comes with a solid feeling of weight.

Sweetness: The word "Dry" is commonly misused. Dry in the wine world does not mean bitter, it simply means not sweet. Most red wines are dry.

Alcohol: How much heat can you feel the heat at the back of your throat? Wines made in a warm climate generally have a higher alcohol than wines made in a cool climate.

How alcohol stands out can reveal quality. For example, a high alcohol level (15%) Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that is very well made will not feel burning hot. Its alcohol will be well integrated and balanced with its concentrated fruits, intense flavor, structured body, solid acidity.

Tannin: Is there a puckering feeling in your mouth? Is your mouth drying up? Are your lips stuck to your gum? These are the feelings of a highly tannic wine.

Tannins come from grape skins, stalks, pips, as well as exposure to oak. As white wines have minimal contact with grape skins/ stalks, they do not have much tannins. Big whites that have undergone maturation in new oak (e.g. a White Burgundy Grand Cru) would have some tannins.

Tannins give structure to a red wine. It also is the natural preservative in wines, helping them age. Grape varietals have different level of tannins. Pinot Noir, for example, is less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Acidity: Can you feel your mouth watering? Great wine generally have good acidity which serves as its solid backbone, giving its feelings of vibes and freshness. Wines made in a cool climate tends to have higher acidity than wines made in a warm climate.

Flavor: Think of intensity and flavor categories. What impressions can you pick up? Do they align with what you smell?

Length & Finish: How long does the wine linger in your mouth after you have swallowed (or spit) it? Count in seconds. A good wine will last 10 seconds; A great wine can last 30+ seconds! A wine's finish describes the nature of the length. Is it clean, is it bitter, or is it menthol?

Writing Tasting Notes

While you can always keep your tasting note simple, writing detailed tasting note will help improve your senses and make you become a more acute wine taster.

A good, detailed tasting note includes: color, aroma intensity, aroma categories / impressions, body, acidity, tannins, alcohol, length and overall impression on quality. Often we would use a scale [low, medium (-), medium, medium (+), high] to help us describe and remember the details.

An example of a detailed tasting note:

Pale lemon in color, intense bouquet of citrus (grapefruits, lemons), gooseberry, elderflowers, with hints of melons. Dry on the palate, medium (-) body, medium (-) alcohol, high acidity, with flavors of lemon, grapefruits, and gooseberries. Good length (10 seconds). Overall balanced, refreshing and crisp. Perfect for enjoyment now.

Many wine lovers keep a detailed wine tasting journal so they can remember and relive their best wine moments.

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Interesting Knowledge...

A common wine tasting mis-perception is that the drinking part (step 3) is more important than the smell (step 2). This is far from the truth. Our tasting experience is heavily dependent on and affected by the aroma. Our nose can recognize over 100,000 impressions while our tongue can only recognize 10,000 impressions. Some wine critics would say nose accounts for 90% of the wine tasting experience. Remember the feeling that nothing tastes good when you have a cold? It is exactly for this reason that great chefs insist on serving their masterpieces immediately when hot so that the guests can savor every aroma profile.

In a blind-tasting game, the color can reveal a lot. Red wine loses color as it ages while white wine gains color as it ages. It is important to factor in the grape varietal, as the color at bottling would differ by varietal. In its first year after bottling, a young Shiraz could be purplish red whereas a young Pinot Noir could be ruby. When matured, the Shiraz could become garnet in color.

It is important to keep sniffing your wine to get a holistic tasting experience. The bouquet or nose of a wine will change over time. For example, the bouquet of a grand cru Bordeaux can start off with blackcurrants, blackberries; progresses to vanilla, cedar, nutmeg, cinnamons, violets; before opening with impressions of roses, redberries and eventually dried flowers.

Next lesson: 3 Must Know Red Wine Types