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Wine Tasting in 5 Easy Steps

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There are tons of books out there on how to properly sip and savor your wine, but for those of us who haven't dedicated our lives to learning every nuance in wine tasting, those books can be pretty intimidating.

Our simple step-by-step to tasting wine will leave you informed and ready to go the next time you find yourself involved in a formal tasting, but it's easy enough to follow you'll actually remember what to do!


First, Look.

Always begin a tasting by asking, "What does the wine look like?"

The best way to get an idea of the color of a wine is to use a white background such as a napkin or a table cloth, and hold the glass of wine in front of it. 

Here are some of the typical colors you may see:

White Wine: Pale yellow-green, straw yellow, yellow-gold, gold, old gold, yellow-brown and brown.

Red Wine: Purple, ruby, red, garnet, brick red, red-brown and brown.

Color can tell you a lot about a wine. For instance, as white wines age in the bottle, their color goes generally from lighter to darker. Aged Chardonnay may take on deep golden hue, though they generally start out with a lighter straw color.

On the other hand, as red wines age they tend to go from a darker color to a lighter one. Cabernet Sauvignon, generally starts out with a vivid, deep purple color in its youth, may develop a tawny, even brownish color as it ages.

It is important to understand that color change in wine is a natural occurrence that takes place with age. Because a wine's color has evolved over time from light straw to a golden hue, does not mean the wine has gone bad.

In addition to color, you may notice other visual aspects of the wine.

A wine that shows "legs" - rivulets of wine that seem to run down the sides of the glass after you swirl it - indicates a high level of viscosity. This results from a higher level of alcohol and thus glycerine in the wine.

Sediment is another visual aspect. When sediment accumulates at the bottom or side of a bottle, or in your glass, it is not something to be concerned about. This kind of accumulation is usually due to the wine undergoing only a very light filtration or no filtration at all prior to bottling. Total clarity may imply heavier filtration which can have the effect of removing some of the wines character as well as it precipitates.


Next, Swirl.

Why do we swirl the glass of wine?

Swirling your wine glass allows oxygen to get in. Swirling releases the esters, ethers and aldehydes - some of the components that make up a wine's aromas.

When these components combine with oxygen they yield the bouquet of the wine. In other words, swirling aerates the wine and helps the bouquet emerge.

There really isn't a right or wrong way to swirl wine.


Then, Smell.

Now that you've swirled the wine and released the bouquet and various aromas, what does the wine smell like?

This is one of the most important steps in the tasting process. Without the smell, the palate is left stranded because the nose gives your taste buds specific attachments to the more general categories of taste. Here are some keywords to remember for this step:

Nose: Is a word used to describe the bouquet and aroma of the wine.

Aroma: Refers to the pleasant or desirable odors characteristic of the unfermented grape. Quite often wine will smell like other fruits that we are familiar with. Distinct aromas reveal sufficient characteristics to differentiate this wine from other wines, but they are not intense enough to produce varietal identification.

Bouquet: This refers to odors produced by the interaction of aroma substances with the container, with small amounts of oxygen, and with one another. These odors that develop in wine after fermentation are called tank aging bouquet and bottle bouquet.

A good example of the differences between aroma and bouquet are those descriptors found in the "fruity" category versus those found in the "woody" category.

Another is that aromas are more often simple scents found in nature, such as mint or pine, while bouquet is often the result of the processing of the wine, such as oak or butter.

Another interesting point is that you're more likely to recognize some of the defects of a wine through your sense of smell. Below is a list of some of the negative smells in wine:

Vinegar: Too much acetic acid in the wine
Sherry, nutty: Too much oxidation
Musty, corky: Defective cork
Burnt: Too much sulfur dioxide


Now, Taste.

To most people, tasting wine means taking a sip and swallowing it immediately. When you sip and swallow immediately, you bypass a lot of important taste buds. By tasting properly and allowing the wine to reach all of your taste buds, your nose is also able to help your brain pull together specific pictures which accurately reflect the different aspects of a wine's taste.

Here are some of the tastes of wine:

Sweetness: This is tasted on the tip of the tongue. If there is any sweetness in a wine, you'll taste it right away since the tip of your tongue is highly sensitive.

Fruit and Varietal Characteristics: These are tasted in the middle of the tongue after the sweetness has been established.

Acidity: Tasted at the sides of the tongue and on the insides of the cheeks -- acidity is more apparent in white wines than red wines.

Tannin: This is also tasted in the middle of the tongue. Tannin frequently is much more prominent in red wines or wood-aged white wines. It can "dry" the palate to excess when too much tannin is present. Tannin tends to feel astringent on the palate. We like to call it the "wool sweaters on the tongue." Tannins are frequently apparent in bananas, and walnuts and teas.

Finish: The finish, or aftertaste, is the overall taste that lingers after you have swallowed or spit the wine. How long does the taste linger? Usually a sign of a high quality wine is a long, pleasing aftertaste lasting from 15 to 20 seconds after you've swallowed the wine.

We recommend having a cracker or two (unsalted), or another bland substitute, in order to cleanse your palate between tastes. The taste of one wine can influence that of another.

Keep in mind too, that your palate can be influenced by seemingly unrelated things such as what you ate for lunch, or what you smell cooking nearby, etc.


Finally, Savor.

After you've had a chance to taste the wine, sit back for a few moments and savor it.

Sometimes it's easy to get too caught up in the clinical aspects of wine tasting and forget that this is supposed to be above all fun!

Equally as important is what you take away from your tasting. In order to learn the most from your experience, it is necessary to interpret your impressions of the wine. A good place to start is to ask yourself some important questions. This will help to focus your impressions. Like anything else, ambiguity in wine tasting can be frustrating.

Here are some questions you should ask:

Does the wine have a light, medium, or full body?
Is the wine's acidity noticeable? How about the tannin?
Is the wine balanced and well integrated or is it too strong or astringent?
Is the finish long and lingering, or does it fade abruptly?
Most importantly, did you like the wine and would you drink it again?

This last question is really the most important point. The first thing you should consider after you've tasted a wine is whether or not you like it. Is it your style? The style of wine you like will evolve and become more personal with every wine you taste.

You may never be able to (or want to be able to) tell the difference between a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and one from Bordeaux, but you will probably know right away whether or not you like a particular wine.

And remember, the most important definition of a good wine is one that you like - not your friends or a particular wine critic.

Check out some fun facts about wine as well! 

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