Entire books have been written on wine tasting. One of the best known and most influential is Emile Peynaud’s The Taste of Wine. While you may never earn your living tasting wine, we want to share a few techniques used by our winemakers that can increase the pleasure of everyday drinking.
Your sense of smell is most acute and least influenced by food just before lunch or dinner. Because most of us are not at our best in midafternoon, mid- to late morning is the ideal time to taste. The wine should be cool, but not cold. With a young wine, the bottle can be opened in advance and decanted to awaken the flavors, but because the wine’s aroma will open in the glass over the course of the tasting, decanting is not strictly necessary.
Using good glassware is crucial for accurate tasting. Wines are tasted and compared in groups, called “flights,” of six to twelve. Each taster must have sufficient identical glasses. If you are tasting several wines, say six whites and six red wines, ask your guests to bring six of their own glasses—few households have enough identical glasses to provide for a table of tasters.
The glasses need to be absolutely odor free. The best way to accomplish this is to rinse them in hot water and hand dry with an odor-free cloth. Most dishwashing and laundry detergents are scented so use a “clear” or “scent-free” detergent. Because a surprising number of glasses, both in restaurants and at home, have some form of flavor contamination, it is a good idea to smell the empty glass before beginning to ensure it is absolutely clean. Another trick we use to eliminate odors is to pour a minute amount of the wine you’re going to taste and swirl it around the first glass, then pour it into the next glass, repeating the process until all of your glasses have been rinsed with wine. Don’t taste the wine but pour it into the dump bucket on the table.
Glasses should be filled no more than one-quarter full for tasting purposes. A two-ounce pour is sufficient, so up to twelve glasses can be poured per bottle. The glasses should be arranged in a line or semicircle on a large piece of white paper approximately eighteen by twelve inches in front of each taster. The paper gives a neutral background as an essential aid to observing the wine visually, and provides a way for the guests to label the glasses and easily reference the contents. Most pros list the wines alphabetically instead of numerically. The first wine is labeled “A,” the next “B,” and so on. At professional tastings we often assign a different starting letter to each person to randomize the results in case the taster is influenced by the wine being either the first or last wine tasted.
The wines in an ideal flight should have as much in common as possible so that the differences in nuances are highlighted. For example, it is far more enlightening to taste eight California Chardonnays from the same vintage than to taste either Chardonnay of various vintages or a mix of different varietals. If you are tasting a mixed varietal flight, we recommend starting with the lighter bodied white wines (for example, a Sauvignon Blanc) then progress through the heavier whites (a rich, buttery Chardonnay) to the lighter bodied red wines (a Pinot Noir) and finishing with the heaviest red in your flight (a Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon).
Once the wines are poured, there are three steps to analyzing the wine. It is helpful to take written notes at every point in the tasting. This forces the mind to objectify the subjective and mostly non-verbal flavor information and helps the taster develop a language for flavor that is more specific than “This is good.” It is best to taste and take notes silently. Tasting is subjective, and it is easy to have someone else’s perceptions cloud your own. After everyone is done, compare notes and impressions. Comparing helps broaden your flavor vocabulary.
The first step, visual, is the most straightforward. Look at the color and clarity of the wine. This is best done under bright, natural light on your white paper mat. Wine should be free of hazes and suspended solids, and the color should be appropriate for the wine’s age. For example, a young red wine should not have brown tints.
The second step is to focus on aroma. Aroma is the expression of flavor that is perceived by smell alone. Begin by swirling the wine in the glass to increase the surface area and cause more of the aroma to be released from the wine. Take a single hard sniff. The aroma receptors are well back in the nose and gently wafting will not do it. Then pause and think, or more accurately, remember. Aroma is evocative. What does this aroma remind you of? It sometimes helps to think about when you first smelled something like this before. Write down your aroma descriptors; see if you can write three. For a young Pinot Noir, for example, you might write “strawberry,” “smoke” and “brambles.” Pause between smelling the wines. It takes at least thirty seconds for your nose to recover its ability to smell accurately and fully.
The final step is actually tasting the wine. Repeat the smelling and then take a small sip into your mouth. Don’t swallow! Move the wine around in your mouth to warm and aerate it, then spit it out. You perceive both structure and flavor in your mouth. Structure is the framework of the wine, its alcoholic strength or warmth; its acidity or sourness; its tannins, which are astringent or drying; and its sweetness as a result of sugar. You also perceive nuances of flavor from aromatics that escape from your mouth to your nasal passages. These are usually most apparent immediately after the wine leaves your mouth. The lingering flavors and textures are called the finish of the wine. Writing down your flavor impressions is a great learning tool. For instance, Pinot Noirs often have a berry-like fruit impression. Is it strawberry, raspberry, or perhaps it shades towards a riper plum-like note? Pause between tastes. A strong red wine may take two to three minutes to clear from the palate. At professional tastings, we always spit out the wine into a cup or spittoon so the accumulated effect of tasting many wines doesn’t dull our senses.
After all tasters have completed their flights, discuss your flavor descriptions. You won’t agree with each other, and because each of us has very individual perceptions and preferences, you shouldn’t agree in every case. Wine tasting is one of those rare and wonderful activities where everyone gets to be correct.
We believe the discipline of structured or technical tasting can bring added focus and enjoyment to the casual wine drinking associated with living and eating well. Of course, the most important thing is to relax and have fun.