Staying Classy: Tasting Wine
If you're like most home winemakers, you love your wine, enjoy making it and sharing it with family and friends, but you may not be as confident in your general wine knowledge as you are with your vinting skills.
You can tackle the book learning part of your knowledge base pretty easily. For decades I've recommended one book for everyone getting started, Joanna Simon's Discovering Wine. (If you're out there Joanna, I'm still waiting for my thank-you card . . .) If you get really ambitious and you're the sort of obsessive winemaking geek that thinks reading reference manuals is fun, The Oxford Companion to Wine is pretty much the gold standard (full disclosure: I'm a contributor to that book).
But once you've done the theoretical, what about the practical? Tasting wine analytically is surrounded by an aura of mystery, with trained sommelier's whose decades of experience and knowledge enabling them to tell you not only the varietal and the region, but the vintage, and which side of the vineyard the grapes were harvested from, and whether it was a sunny day or not.
News flash: blindfold a sommelier and they can't tell white from red in any reliable fashion.
It's true! They hate having this fact repeated, because sommelier does not mean what you think it means. A sommelier is the waiter in charge of wine sales in a restaurant, not some celebrity in a documentary on Netflix. The fact that publicists want to bamboozle you into worshipping them like a celebrity chef depends on the pretence that they have something you don't.
But you do have exactly the same set of tools and abilities as the world's most famous sommeliers: your palate, your sense of smell, and the ability to write things down. With these three things you can conquer any wine challenge.
The real goal of structured tasting is not some party trick of identifying wines and vineyards, but rather is developing your ability to identify flavors and aromas. Once you can quantify them you can decide whether or not they constitute what you think is good wine. This will not only help you evaluate not only your own wine, but also any other wine you drink and will make you a better winemaker.
Learning to Taste in Five Easy Steps
One: Start Slow
You don't have to taste a dozen wines at a time. In fact, one or two is the most you should concentrate on at a time. You can drink as many different wines as you want at any time, but focus your tasting down to just one or two so you can concentrate your attention.
Two: Be Prepared
Don't skip this step! Being prepared means being ready to fully appreciate the wine. That means a good tasting area with plenty of light, and no intrusive smells (no perfume, cologne, food smells or tobacco, etc). Be rested and hydrated and if you just ate something really spicy or garlicky, go brush your teeth with baking soda--toothpaste is really intrusive--to clean up your palate. It might seem finicky, but this will really help center your palate.
Don't worry too much about glassware. As long as your wineglasses are clear (no patterns or frosting) and big enough to hold a couple of ounces of wine with room for a vigorous swirl, they'll do just fine.
Three: Have a Look
Pour a couple of ounces of wine in your glass and tilt the glass sideways over a white surface (see why you need lots of room?). Check out the wine's color, clarity and hue. Lighter colors in red and white generally mean lighter flavors, darker usually means higher levels of extract and more intensity, and young whites appear greenish-white while older ones are more golden, while young reds have a purple-y tint, while older ones are true red, verging on brick red.
Put the foot of your wine glass flat on the table and move it back and forth about two inches each way until you get a swirl going in the glass. It doesn’t have to be a tornado, but shake loose the aromas so you can smell them.
A note here: lots of people think that the drips that run down the inside of the glass show the level of alcohol or the viscosity of a wine. It's actually meaningless, and is a product of the Gibbs–Marangoni effect, the mass transfer along an interface between two fluids due to surface tension gradient--it just indicates that wine is a solution of water and alcohol together. Ignore the 'legs' and move on to the next step,
Five: Sniff Hard
Stop your swirl and stick your nose right into the glass, inside the bowl, and have a good, hard sniff. Don't be shy: you need to pull out those aroma molecules and get them into your nasal cavity. Your brain can identify tens of thousands of aromatic compounds, but you'll probably only come up with a few at first. Don't worry about it: just write down your first impressions--is it fruity? Which fruit? Is it flowery? Which flowers? Spicy? Woody?
If you have trouble coming up with descriptors for what you're smelling, you can grab an aroma wheel, they're massively useful in narrowing down what smells you're perceiving.
Six: Have a Taste
Take a small sip, about half a tablespoon, no more. Swirl it around your mouth until it coats everything, from gums to tongue and all the way back. Go ahead and swallow it: unless you're already a professional taster running a table of forty wines, it won't hurt a thing.
Seven: Stop. Think. Write.
Wine is balanced between sweetness (from fruit character, sugar or alcohol) acid from the grapes, and tannin, from grapeskin or oak. If any one of these stands out, that's going to give you your general impression of the wine: lots of sweetness, it'll come off as 'rich' or maybe cloying. Lots of acid, sharp or zesty. Too little tannin, flabby, too much, astringent. Let the flavors warm up on your palate and evolve, think about how they balance out, and write down your impressions.
Eight: Repeat Often
If you want to sharpen your tasting skills, do this with every single wine you taste, every time you open a bottle. You don't have to make a big deal out of it, but keep your wine notebook handy and run your steps on your first glass wherever you are, even if it's just at home with dinner. It's never the wrong time to learn!
If you're part of a winemaking club, encourage everyone to taste analytically at every meeting. Comparing notes will make it all the more fun!
If you hear of wine tastings, or festivals that are within easy travel of your home, always go to every one of them that you can make (please don't drive to them--even if you're spitting, it's not a good idea!). Wine festivals are awesome, because there's no other opportunity like it to improve your skills--for the cost of a festival ticket you can taste dozens of wines. In most cases you can even 'theme' taste, singling out a single varietal to concentrate on, or even taste all of the different varieties from a single country or region.
My own skills developed exponentially after I discovered the International Wine Festival near my home--for the first five years I went on three consecutive days, and tasted over 100 wines, an education that you just can't get any other way.
Nine: Don't Forget to Have Fun
Wine tasting isn't a chore, it's a great part of the hobby. Taste, learn, share and remember to enjoy every glass you raise.