Wine 101 – How to Taste Wine

“Learning how to taste” seems like one of the more patronizing of statements, doesn’t it? After all, we’ve been tasting all of our lives. Everybody tastes, and everyone has their favorite tastes, so why does one need to “learn how to taste”?

The answer to that is that since we taste so often, we tend to take the act for granted. How often do you think about why a painting draws us in? Or why a sound strikes us a either beautiful or harsh? Or why a movie excites us? A lot of us can say we liked The Matrix, or Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, but fewer people can explain why they like it.

So learning how to taste isn’t really about learning to taste…which you already know how to do. Rather it’s about giving the appropriate vocabularly to express why you like (or dislike) a specific wine.

I order to do this, let’s revisit our second grade health class, where we were first taught the physiology of taste.

There are five acknowledged tastes our there. Some folks list six or even seven, but these are the ones that are most often recognized. They are:

  • salty – sodium chloride (Na+ Cl-)
  • sour – acid protons
  • sweet – glucose, sucrose or fructose often bound to other carbohydrates.
  • bitter – dozens of items
  • umami – glutamate, aspartate and related amino acids

Often people think that these tastes can be mapped out on a taste map that specifies that an area on a tongue is more receptive to a specific type of taste (salt on the tip of the tongue, bitter can be found on the back of the tongue, etc, etc). But recent research has shown that this is incorrect. Rather, a single taste bud is thought to contain 50-100 receptor or taste cells representing all taste sensations.

Another thing to remember is that taste is mainly smell. This is another reason on why one should appreciate the nose of a wine. The flavor of a wine is a combination of taste, smell, texture and other physical features such as temperature.

So how to use this knowledge when tasting wine?

Take a drink of your baselined wine. Let it sit there for a second or two and ask yourself if the wine tastes sweet, bitter, salty, etc. Primarily, you’ll be looking for sweet (sugar) and bitter (tannins) flavors, although others tastes may be present depending upon what kind of wine you are drinking.

When tasting, keep in mind that there are three tastes times to note:

  • - Initial taste: This is when the wine first hits the tongue.
  • - Taste: After hitting your tongue, allow the wine to coat it. If you want a more “advanced” tasting, clench your teeth and suck in some air to help aerate the wine. Expect weaird looks if you do this in any place but your private homes and public wine tastings.
  • - Aftertaste: The taste that remains in your mouth after you have swallowed the wine.

So what should one look for during these three stages? A wine you find pleasant to your palate that has an extended aftertaste. And so you can sound like a wine snob, aftertaste is also referred to as “finish” or “length”.

So now that you have had the wine in your mouth what do you do?

Simple…ask more questions. Did you like it? Why or why not? Was it sweet? Was it bitter? Besides grapes, could you taste other flavors? If so, what?

Who knew that tasting wine involved giving yourself the third degree?

Sweet vs. Dry:Fruity vs. Non-Fruity

Before going into the “reds vs. whites” discussion, one should know what to look for when tasting. From what I could discern, it comes down to the following four questions:

  • 1. Did you like the wine?
  • 2. Was the wine sweet, dry, or somewhere in between?
  • 3. Did the wine taste fruity, like something else, or a combination of flavors?
  • 4. Is this a good wine?

Question one you should figure out on your own. Only you should answer that. Avoid wine peer pressure when possible.

The second question takes some explaining. A wine can have any amount of sugars in it, from ample (sweet) to none(dry). If someone says they have a dry wine, think of a dry martini. What makes a martini dry? A martini with less vermouth (a sweet wine) than a typical martini, hence, dry wine = less sweet.

For example, my Riesling? Very sweet. Think apple juice sweet, and you’ll have a good idea on what I’m talking about. It’s probably on the far end of the spectrum of sweet vs. dry.

The final question is the one that many people trip over, as they don’t know necessarily what to expect. But most assuredly, the better wines have tastes other than grapes. I’ve had chiantis that have had the taste of cloves and ground black pepper. My benchmark Riesling has the taste of pear.

It’s also here that the tannins will be apparent (if there are any). What are tannins? Technically speaking, they’re the bitter taste that nature provides some plants (grapes, teas and others) to prevent animals from eating them. But in order to provide a sense memory for you: Have you ever bitten into a grape seed and flet your mouth pucker? That was a concentrated amount of tannins you tasted.

Tannins can provide a balance to the sweetness of some wines. They can be natural (from the skins and seeds of grapes) or added to the wine (from the barrels wines are aged in). The puckering of your taste buds is often due to tannins.

How do you find these non-grape tastes? That’s a difficult question to answer, because in my experience is that if you go looking for it, it’s probably not there. So, as an exercise, do the following. Take a drink of wine and note what imagery goes on in your mind at each of the three tasting stages mentioned above. Note any taste that’s there, regardless of how silly it may sound. If you got the image of a flower, guess what? you may have a floral wine. Ice cream? There may be a vanilla taste.

It’s important to note that there are no wrong answers here. Others might dispute this, but the fact remains that if you taste apple when everyone else tastes grapefruit, doesn’t mean you are wrong. It means that the wine may be a bit more complex than others.

As for the final question (Is this a good wine?), you are indeed able to answer that, regardless of how experienced you are in tasting wine. There may be some dispute to your answer, but if you can defend your position, who’s to say you’re completely wrong?

Look at it this way. When you see a movie, anyone can answer if it was a good movie or not. Let’s take for example “Pulp Fiction”. Some critics hated this film, others liked it. Me? I enjoyed it on several levels, because I enjoyed the action, the cartoonish violence, and the way it played with linear story telling. But I thought that “Million Dollar Baby” was predictable, and the characterization simplistic but I respected the movie for what it had to say, and the techinical way in which it was said. I was able to gain these opinions because I see a lot of movies.

Now apply this to wines. I can respect a good wine. I can acknowledge that it was well made. It doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Conversely, I can look at a wine that other people dislike and find something in it that others don’t. Yes, it may be nothing more than grape juice, but y’know, sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.

My point here is that the more wines you drink, the more you’ll be able to determine what you like versus what is good. The more wines you drink, the more you’ll be able to taste just what went into a wine. You’ll be able to use words like “complex”, “subtle” and “understated” and know what they mean in the context you put them.

As you first start to explore wines, a good wine will be simply one you like. As you become more educated in the different varietals, regions and wineries, your definition of “good” will apply more broadly.

There’s more to talk about when it comes to wine, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Soon, I’ll discuss about how to compare your benchmark wine against similar wines.

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