Personally I drink wine because I love the social interaction that comes along with wonderful flavors and the opportunity to do something with my hands in awkward social situations. I taste wines to discover their characteristics and to try to guess what extra dabs and dribbles the winemaker puts into them to make them unique. I enjoy the discovery part of the process and being able to understand why I like it or not. I really don’t care if I can taste or smell what others taste and smell because I have a unique palate. We all do and to understand wine tasting we all need to start with that recognition. I read reviews and when I taste a new wine, I look for the aromas and smells I read in the reviews, some are easy for me to get (Vanilla, Raspberry, Smoke) and others not so much (Applesauce, Plum, Rosemary). The fun part for me — trying to find flavors and smells that others didn’t find and I do frequently; it’s all part of having a unique palate thing.
One of the funny parts of tasting wine comes with the “keeping up with the Jones” mentality that seems to permeate the process. Starting from the premise that there is no right or wrong way to go about it, there are all sorts of gimmicks and gadgets out there to spice up and guide the process. One (actually two) that really do help the process are the “aroma wheel” and the “tasting” wheel” which do similar things and actually probably evolved from the same tool. The experts posit that we only taste four flavors and the rest is smell. These gadgets simply spread a lot of common tastes and aromas around a wheel to help tasters understand where they fall in the flavor smell spectrum. I actually find them quite interesting and useful especially on very dry acidic reds. UC Davis has a pretty detailed wheel that I like a lot and I think it has good science behind it. If you are in a hurry to ramp up your tasting acumen (greatly overrated) you can go on line and buy a tasting sample kit that allows you to add a few drops to a glass of water and identify most of the common flavors people find in wine. The upside of this process is that the canned flavors will be tuned to your individual palate. If you want to get really serious about wine tasting, the American Sommelier Association offers courses you can pay a lot of money for and get a title. Or you can spend the same amount of money on lots of wine and learn pretty much the same thing, not get the title and enjoy some great wines.
On the fun side of the tasting process, I always find tasting more fun in a group and find that having a rating sheet to help people stay on the same page can be useful. They come in all sort of forms, but one of the better I’ve found is actually a placemat. To get an Idea what some of them look like check out Bing images and to get a printable one go to the Wine and Good Spirits site. As a companion I like the wine tasting checklist found on the Wine Tasting Guide site. It provides a lot of good guidance and a pretty good road map for the process. Use these tools or don’t as the occasion warrants. The object in group tastings (my view) is to have fun and enjoy others company; the wine is secondary
Now on to the reality of tasting. What the heck are we trying to find and to what end? For me I taste for two reasons: fun and to be able to review a wine so others can get a sense of what I think and help people buy wines they will like and enjoy. When tasting with friends as a social event, I can kill two birds with one stone—enjoy good friends, good wine and good food and for those that get into tasting, enlist the help of other palates to sleuth out the mysteries of the wines we taste. As a general rule group tastings are most fun if you taste three or four similar wines (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay), because in addition to the particular characteristics of the individual wines, conversation will surely migrate to comparisons of age, color, tannins, etc., and at the end of the evening it’s always fun to have a secret ballot and see which wine won best in class. These situations really lend themselves to using checklists and placemats so you can keep them all straight. Selfishly, at the end of the night I’ll collect all the notes and use them to help with written reviews for my blog or other places I tend to post them.
When I sit down to review a wine by myself the process changes and I look at the wine in a vacuum as if no other wine existed. I intentionally don’t compare it to other wines as I am trying to create a characteristic review of only the wine in front of me. I am not trying to imply that reviewing wine needs to be stuffy or even serious, but I do believe that if I am going to publish a review, it needs to be fair, impartial and represent that wine as I see it. I am not about slamming wines that I just don’t like, because at the same time they may be just to someone else’s taste. If a wine is not poorly crafted, corked or past prime (vinegary and dark), I want to provide feedback that represents how I see the wine for quality, crafting, flavor, color and smell. I also tend to be a bit long winded in my reviews as I want to provide as complete a picture as possible of the wine with plenty to guide a reader as to whether to try it or not. If you want to see a really abbreviated style, check out the reviews on “wine is my life.” His reviews are great without much fanfare. Neither style is right or wrong just different.
As to what I think “review tasting” a wine involves, it is simply getting a little understanding of the wine before I write the review. I don’t use fancy checklists or rating sheets, but rather just make notes as I go on the back of scrap paper before it goes into the shredder. I break my notes down into four parts: Color/clarity, Smell/aroma, Taste and Value. If I get all these down in my notes, I can paint a pretty good picture of a wine. As to each of the components, I approach it in order based on how I open the bottle.
Color and Clarity: This aspect entails looking at the wine in a glass deciding its color (ruby, claret, golden etc.), its clarity (is it clear or cloudy), and its viscosity (how thin is it — long legs means it’s not). What we want to see is a wine that has a glint in its eye (sparkles in the light) and has a color consistent with its variety. We don’t want a white wine that looks like pure water and we want our reds to be reddish or purple consistent with the type of wine and not deep brown (bad sign). Also having a good color description in a review tells the reader what to expect if they are looking for a particular characteristic in a specific variety of wine. For example, I generally expect my Merlots and Zinfandels to be a dark purple, my Cabernet Sauvignons and Malbecs to be redder, my Pinot Noirs to be more claret colored, my Chardonnays to be on the golden to straw side, and my Sauvignon Blancs and Chablis to be more of a lighter straw colored to in some cases almost clear.
Smell and Aroma: What do I smell when I bury my face in a glass? Technically (I am told) the aroma will be the fruit you smell and the smell will be the acidity (mineral, smoke, black pepper) produced by the fermentation process. Together they are referred to as “the nose.” Frankly, I have a hard time keeping the distinction straight so I seldom distinguish between them in my reviews. I will also tell you that what you sense in a wine’s nose is never wrong. I may find different characteristics, but it doesn’t make either of us right or wrong. We are all unique and “viva la difference.”
Taste: This part can get snobbish if you let it so don’t, unless you are into impressing people. How you taste a wine and what you taste is just as distinct as the nose and do it the way that works for you. I break the tasting process down into four parts: (1) the tip of the tongue, (first impression of the flavor), (2) the spill to the sides of the tongue (sloshing gently as in mouthwash), (3) the swallow (moving the wine onto the back of the tongue and down the throat), and (4) the waft to the nostrils (what you sense when you suck some air back into your nose right after you swallow. These four actions produce, in order, (1) the fruit and taste characteristics of the wine, (2) the acidity of the wine, (3) the tannins in the wine, and (4) the finish of the wine. I like a red wine, for example that displays nice fruit and spice on the tip of tongue, shows good but not too strong acids, light to medium tannins and a clearly identifiable finish. Lastly, I’ll note what decanting will do to the wine so people will get a sense of how to handle it if they decide to try it based on my review. This is how I taste, but it is not how you need to do it. The important part here is your ability to get acquainted with the wine and begin to understand how its characteristics impact you.
Value: This is totally subjective and factors in how you enjoyed the wine and what it cost. Did you get a good deal when you bought the wine? It is not about how cheap the wine was, but rather the qualitative evaluation of would I buy it again at this price based on my enjoyment of the wine I just tasted. Again, there is no right or wrong answer and a sweet wine drinker’s value proposition will differ greatly from one who likes big dry wines.
Now I’ve shared my thoughts on tasting, go out and develop your own. Try my approach if you like and even adopt it if it works for you, if not build your own. I would really love it if my readers would share their unique tasting ideas as comments about this post s it will significantly improve the lesson value to new wine tasters to see other perspectives in the same place. Stay tuned for a sequel to this post. I am working on one that will demystify the wine rating process for us simple folks. What does it actually mean when a wine has a 91 pt. rating from Robert Parker, or an 89 pt. rating from Wine Enthusiast? Well if I can I will explain it all (as soon as I figure it out myself) so we can all be more knowledgeable when we pay too much for a bottle of wine simply because it has a high rating.