How To Taste Wine Like A Pro
Now that Dry January is finally over, here’s a five-step guide to getting the best from your bottle.
Wine tasting, like tax returns, is something most of us leave to the professionals. Isn’t life just too short to learn about all that etiquette, all those grape varieties, all those mildly absurd-sounding flowery French terms? Who needs an expert to tell us that the bottle of Petrus 1989 in our cellar is superior to the supermarket own-brand pinot grigio 2016 in our fridge? All of these points are good ones, of course, but with a little bit of knowledge you will enjoy your Petrus more if you can note its key notes with authority.
To help you get the very best from your bottle, MR PORTER consulted Mr Michael Schuster’s new book Essential Winetasting to bring you the key points to tasting wine like a Parisian pro or one of Soho’s finest sommeliers.
Sight is very important when it comes to wine tasting. Without being able to see what we are drinking, we feel much less certain about judging it. Colour may reveal little about quality or flavour, but it does offer an insight into grape variety, origin and age.
The first step is to look into your glass, noting the brightness and clarity of the wine. If a wine is bright, it indicates it is likely to be healthy and fresh. Are there any bubbles and/or sediment? Tilt the glass, then hold at eye level and assess it. Bubbles are residual carbon dioxide from the fermentation process, which gives the wine zip and and perhaps a touch of spritz. Sediment, though uncommon in most wines, is something to be aware of. You find it mostly in old red wines, and it mars appearance and sometimes flavours, too. If you have tannin and tartrate crystals in your glass, you have the dregs of the bottle. (Consider decanting old wines.)
By swirling the glass you can also get some idea of the alcohol content of the wine. Wines with a higher viscosity have a higher alcohol content and will cling to the sides of the glass. These are called “tears of wine”.
Smell the wine, breathing in the bouquet. Note its cleanness and intensity and whether the wine can be described as: floral, vegetal, fruity, mineral, spicy, animal (eg, gamey), dried fruit, burnt, or chemical (one you definitely don’t want to recognise in your wine). By thinking in terms of these categories you are more likely to be able to identify the subtleties of the wine in your glass.
Now give the wine a good swirl and smell again before it settles. Note the difference in the two. It should smell weightier now – and you may pick up new notes in the bouquet.
Wine in the mouth (“on the palate”, in winespeak) is a more complex experience than smell alone due to the extra tastes perceived there, as well as the additional aromas perceived in the mouth. The primary tastes – texture, temperature, spiciness – and the manifold facets of alcohol all connect to a much wider network of the brain than that for the “orthonasal” nostril pathway alone.
Take a sip of wine and suck it into your mouth as if you’re drinking it through a straw. This will aerate the wine. Swill it round your mouth. To actually “taste” the wine you need to “move” it, to “feel” it, to aerate it and get its aromas (the principal source of “taste”) to your olfactory bulb. Without doing that, you quickly notice the limitations of taste buds alone.
What you are trying to discover is the wine’s balance – neither too sweet nor too astringent – and also attempt to further identify attributes you noted in the first two steps.
To spit or swallow is a decision everyone concerned with getting the most out of wine must consider. There is a temptation to sip and swallow immediately. In that instance, though, you barely taste the wine at all. Keep it in and work it round your mouth to maximise contact with your taste buds, palate and smell-receptor system – and give you time to think about it. You will find all the sensations it has to offer magnified thus.
Do swallow a small amount, as there are taste buds in your throat, but then consider spitting the rest. Purse your lips and form a small, O-shaped pout. Using your cheek muscles and tongue, spit out the wine. You’re aiming for a thin jet, rather than a wide-ranging spray. And no dribbling, please.
05. Sip again
Recent scientific studies tell us that there is a significant variation in the number of taste buds that each of us has. Those blessed with a very large number are called “supertasters”. The thing is, taste-bud incidence is a poor indicator of whether you will make a good taster. What counts is not so much your potential sensitivity to the the wine you have in your mouth, but the way you mull it over before you swallow or spit. To make a success of tasting wine, what you need more than anything is to focus your attention on what is in the glass before you. To taste wine properly, you don’t need to be a super taster, you simply need to give it the concentration that it deserves.
Take your next sip and concentrate this time on the intensity of the individual flavours and how the wine develops in your mouth. Finally, note the finish of the wine. In other words, the balance between scent and taste. You may need several sips (or indeed glasses) in order to do this.
Illustrations by Mr Nick Hardcastle