If you’re reading this post you probably love wine. If you’re like me, you love the smell, the taste of all wines and uncovering gems while wine tasting. I’m a bit of a nerd about it but I also love the stories behind specific wines i.e. their history – the human element.
So as you can imagine one of my favourite trips each year is my visit to the vineyards of France during harvest time. During these visits, I hear of the trials and tribulations of the growers, the challenges of the winemakers and the excitement of the owners.
I am heading to the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux in a couple of weeks and I thought it would be helpful to you if I outlined how you might go about becoming a pro at wine tasting (if you’re not already). I will also outline some basic flavours that I use to judge a wine’s characteristics while I’m over there.
Before I start writing about how to approach wine tasting I would just like to recap some of the steps involved in winemaking.
What are the Steps involved in Winemaking?
At the very base of the winemaking journey is what happens in the vineyard. During the winter period, the vines are pruned back which is a vital element of controlling the quality of the growth in the subsequent season. Then in Spring, we have the bud break which is both a beautiful time and a nervous one for all vineyards (e.g. the frosts in spring of 2017 caused carnage in many Chateaux).
During the growing season, an activity called canopy management (cutting back the leaves) is very important to ensure that grapes receive the correct balance of sun and air. Determining when to harvest (c.1 month after the leaves change colour) is crucial which is done by constantly checking the grapes for colour, how brown the seeds and stems are, the plumpness of the grapes (sugar) and their flavour.
There is also a scientific element to determining when to harvest so, in essence, it is a mixture of one part chemistry and another part intuition. The last element of what happens in the vineyard is obviously, harvesting the grapes. This is a magical time (but also hard work) and if you get the chance to visit during this time – definitely accept the offer.There is a scientific element to determining when to harvest grapes - in essence, it is a mixture of one part chemistry and another part intuition #dicoverwine #greenacresirl Click To Tweet
Then the magic moves inside, to the winery. This can be a technical time so I am just going to outline the steps rather than explain them. There will be punching down the must that rises to the surface of the fermenting grapes. The liquid will have to be fined to clear the juice. Finally, a decision will have to be made whether to use commercial yeast vs native yeasts.
Other decisions will include the choice of fermentation vessels i.e. large vs small tanks, barrels etc. Then the final leg of the journey is the bottling. Of course, it is great for the producers to get to this stage but they then enter the logistical stage and of course the administration side of selling etc.
To summarise, the above steps described could be classed under one heading – vinification. I have written about vintages on a previous occasion here: Should Wine Vintages be Important to You?, so for the rest of this post I want to describe what, as a seasoned wine taster, I will be encountering during my forthcoming harvest sojourn in France.
The Wonderful World of WineTasting
OK, I know my day job is tasting and selling wines. Whilst this may not be an aspiration for many people, at least they will have the ambition to be knowledgeable somewhat, amongst friends. As I’ve often purported in these blog posts, increasing your knowledge of wine in any way will increase your positive experience when drinking it.Increasing your knowledge of wine in any way, will increase your positive experience when drinking it #discoverwine #greenacresirl Click To Tweet
When in France, I will be looking for these wine flavours which help me to judge the progress/quality of the styles and vintages. I will outline some basic tastes that you should start with on your journey to becoming a wine tasting pro.
We are all aware of the 5 basic tastes that our tongue can identify: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter and Umami. If tasting wine was as simple as determining each of these tastes, my life would be a lot less stressful. However, as wine tasting involves all your senses (including. sight, smell, touch etc.) the impression that a specific wine can leave in your mouth may be complex and indeed person specific, due to personal preferences.
Here are the five main characteristics to note when tasting a wine. Try and spot these when next drinking a bottle of wine. Over time you will hone your palate to distinguish between different styles and preferences.
- Alcohol: expressed on a label as a % of the total volume of liquid. Gives wine its characteristic ‘weight’. Described as (from inadequate to excess): watery, thin, light, medium-bodied, full-bodied, ample, generous, heady, heavy, alcoholic and hot.
- Acidity: is the zesty or tart taste in wine. Acidic wines tend to taste lighter with a tingling on the sides/front of the tongue. This gives life/freshness to the wine. Describes as (from too little to too much): flat, flabby, soft, supple, fresh, lively, crispy, firm, hard, sharp, green, tart and acidic.
- Oaky: wine aged in oak barrels/casks will impart a distinct flavour to the wine (depending on the length of time in the vessel). Wine aged like this smell of vanilla, cedar, wood, caramel or toast. Sometimes there is a slight dryness of texture.
- Sweetness/Dryness: all grapes have an element of natural sugar. During fermentation, the yeast breaks down this sugar into alcohol. The amount of residual (not fermented) sugar left in a wine is up to the style of wine the maker wished to produce. The less residual sugar – the more dry the wine. You will taste this sweetness at the tip of the tongue with a slightly oily feel at the centre.
- Tannins: very often confused with a wine’s dryness. Tannins come from grape skins (and stalks/seeds) that give red wine its dry, mouth puckering feel. The best description of this taste is that of a used tea bag. Described as (from a little to a lot): fine-grained, soft, matt, dry, rich, firm, tough, course, vegetal, stemmy and astringent.
I fully appreciate that there are many other flavours in wine but the basic ones above will help to fine-tune your tasting ability en route to becoming a pro.
Do You Need to Know the Wine Speak for Tasting?
My immediate answer to this question is no. As explained by James in this post: How to Improve Your Wine Experience by Ignoring the Jargon, wine vocabulary helps professionals describe a wine and its quality. By no means does the amateur or hobbyist need to learn the jargon but a little knowledge will help appreciate what wine you’re tasting.
You are probably aware of the descriptive words below but it will do no harm to your progression as a wine taster if you can educate yourself on some extra ones:
- Aroma – this is the odour, scent or smell of the variety of grape
- Blend – the mixture of different grape varieties to produce an individual type of wine
- Crisp – refers to white wines with discernible acidity. The opposite of soft.
- Dry – the opposite of sweet wine
- Estate bottled – a wine that is grown, produced and bottled by the one vineyard owner
- Finish – the final taste of wine that lingers (or not) in the mouth
- Mouth-feel – another word for the texture of the wine in the mouth
- Nose – this refers to the smell, aroma or bouquet of the wine
- Terroir – Mainly in France, it describes the entire environment where the vine grows
- Varietal – is the specific type (variety) of grape
- Vintage – this identifies the year in which the grapes were harvested (not bottled)
Allow Green Acres Help You to Become a Pro-Wine Taster
From time to time we host wine tasting dinners here in Green Acres. This might include a winemaker or owner hosting a tasting of their wines and pairing them with food. Check our website for such events or sign up to our newsletter (or our soon to be launched mobile app). We also cater for customised wine tastings for groups in our exclusive wine-tasting room. Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any of these options.
Wine Tasting Etiquette
I would like to finish this post off with a quick reference to wine tasting etiquette. Such etiquette is to display an appreciation for others rather than a stuffy tradition that has survived. We have broached this topic before, Wine Tasting Tips, but here are a few reminders:
- Absolutely no smoking
- Try to avoid wearing strongly scented products (perfume, aftershave etc.)
- Don’t bring a pet or your children (it’s boring for them)
- Don’t be the loudest to voice your opinion and hog the limelight
- You don’t have to swallow every glass tasted – learn how to spit.
- When tasting – remember:
-Hold the glass up to the light to observe clarity
-Swirl the wine gently in the glass to allow the aroma escape
– Sniff the wine
-Swirl it in your mouth
-Concentrate on how it tastes (remembering the tastes mentioned above)
-Spit or swallow
Although pro wine tasting requires knowledge and experience, it is an enjoyable experience where you’re always learning – and the best way to learn is to keep tasting.
We look forward to engaging with you again soon – Cheers, Donal.