Wine Tasting 101: A Winemaker’s Perspective

Ahead of the holidays, learn how to taste wine from a man who makes it.

insets-rec-winetasting

Photo c/o Dolphin’s Bay

Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sometimes it feels like the wine world has become overrun with information. Online wine “experts” are now omnipresent, providing information that is often inaccurate.

Certified “sommeliers” are coming out of the woodwork, trying to tell you what you should like and when you should drink it. As a winemaker, I thought I’d try and add some clarity to what has become a confusing discussion. There is a better way – it starts with you and your inherent ability to taste and think for yourself. After all, who knows better about what you like than you?

First and foremost, tasting wine and drinking wine are two very different things. Drinking, of course, is something most of us know how to do. Tasting, on the other hand, is something many people believe they know how to do—but, well, don’t.

Tasting is the process by which we evaluate and analyze wine in order to determine quality. Little goes in your mouth and even less should be swallowed. For a winemaker, it’s an essential tool that helps guide the creative process. For a consumer, tasting helps you find out what you really like. It’s an exercise in perceiving subtleties; the characteristics that make one wine different from another can be extremely minor.

Carbo in the glass today

A photo posted by Richard Olsen-Harbich (@rolsenharbich) on

When tasting a wine, we look at the color and clarity, smell aromas and identify flavors. While doing this, little should actually be imbibed. This is an important point as the more wine you ingest; the less your taste buds will function properly. Ever hear someone say that wines they “tasted” while visiting a winery are often better than when they drink them later at home? This is probably because the visitor had already exhausted their taste buds and couldn’t accurately judge the wine. Once home – and with a fresh palate – the experience can be quite different.

Here’s the secret: to get the most out of any tasting experience – whether at a winery or at home – one must learn how to become a spitter.

I’m often surprised at how many winery tasting rooms I visit do not provide a spittoon or “dump bucket.” These establishments are no longer tasting rooms – they’re bars. Spitting is an essential part of tasting wine. I know, it’s not charming and your mother probably told you not to do it – but if you want instant “street cred” as a wine connoisseur, start learning how to spit when tasting.

Here are a few more tips I’ve learned over the years.

Do:

  • Taste in a place free from off odors, cleaners, smoke, etc. A room full of cigar smoke, perfume, cologne or cooking aromas is not conducive to real tasting. Think of it like trying to listen to soft music at a low volume. If there is other music playing, outside noise or people talking to you while you try to listen, it can be very distracting.
  • What you eat or drink right before tasting wine can affect your taste buds. Try to avoid spicy food, coffee or tea at least an hour before tasting. The ideal time to taste wine is midway between meals – 10-11am or 3-4pm for example.
  • Swirl the wine around in your glass before smelling it. It’s not just a pretentious trick, it actually allows a wine to open up and express more aromatics.
  • Sight and smell are also part of the tasting experience. Look at the wines clarity and color. Is it the color you’d expect that particular wine to have? Is it clear? Does it have an off odor that is unpleasant to you? Your own opinion is all that matters.
  • Think of the inside of your mouth as a “globe” – the areas around the sides of the globe sense acid, the part below sweetness and the top of the globe (and the front of the gums) tannin. Once a little bit of wine is in your mouth, slosh it around and try to get it in contact with all parts of the “globe.” Many tasters like to pull a little air into their mouth while doing this, making a slurping sound similar to pulling on a straw at the completion of a drink. This helps aerate the wine releasing aromatics and also tumbles the wine around the “globe.”
  • Start with dry white wines first and then work up to reds. If you go straight to reds, the tannins will make it harder to taste the subtleties in white wines and will over-emphasize their acidity. Taste lightest to darkest. Sweet wines of any color should always be tasted last.

Don’t:

  • Never pour wine directly into a glass without smelling the empty glass first. I like to condition my glasses before tasting – ideally with the same wine or something similar. Just swirl a little around in the glass and dump it out. Clean glasses that have been sitting on a shelf may not be totally odor free. Soap residue and cabinet/furniture smells can invade an empty glass, affecting a wine’s aromas and flavors before you even have a chance to evaluate it.
  • Don’t pour too much wine in a glass for tasting. It’s hard to swirl a glass that’s too full and many wines often benefit from more room to aerate. Plus it’s embarrassing to swirl a red wine onto your clean white shirt.
  • You don’t need to smell the cork after it’s pulled. A cork can smell bad while the wine in the bottle can be great. Conversely, a nice smelling cork can just as easily come from a poor bottle of wine. If a server in a restaurant presents a cork to you, just put it on the table and ignore it. The most important thing to do is taste the wine in the glass – and bask in the glory that you know more than the person that just handed you a cork.
  • Talking about a wine’s “legs” is a waste of everyone’s time. Legs are the drops that run down the inside of a glass after swirling. Wines that have large, slow moving legs are wines with more alcohol, which generally indicates . . . that they have more alcohol. This is not a quality indicator. The best method to determine a wine’s quality is putting it in your mouth and tasting it. A wine that has too much alcohol is said to taste “hot” (as in boozy) and this can certainly be a negative attribute.

In the cellar, tasting is the most important tool a winemaker has. It can determine which wines make the cut in a certain blend or perhaps need to be combined with another wine to help it become something more. Much of the time, winemakers taste in order to find defects. As always, spitting is mandatory. We look for off-odors and flavors – signs that a wine may need to be moved or if a fining might be needed. In a way, it’s like checking in on your kids while they’re out playing. You want them to grow up, be their own person and have fun doing it – but you also want them to be healthy, successful and safe.

Another day at the office. Tasting Cabernet Franc from NY

A photo posted by Richard Olsen-Harbich (@rolsenharbich) on

Contrary to what many people will lead you to believe, the ability to taste wine is not a God-given trait inherited by a select few. If you have the ability to discern what kind of food you like to eat (which most all of us do) you also have the ability to taste wine. It can be learned by anyone through practice and by believing your own taste buds. After all, there is no wrong answer to your own experience. Just remember to trust your own palate – farther than you can spit.

Our society is often too busy for introspection and reflection. By focusing on things that appear to be “important” at the moment, we often overlook the many opportunities we have to enjoy and savor the things that can bring us joy. Tasting wine is about taking the time to appreciate one of the finer things in life. To paraphrase an old saying, slow down, breathe deep and take some time to taste the wine.

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Richard Olsen-Harbich is the winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, N.Y.