Becoming a master sommelier takes a lot of time. But drinking like one is easier than you might think. Simply put, in order to taste and understand wine like a sommelier, you need to follow 5 steps; See, swirl, sniff, sip, spit. These steps combined with a general knowledge of varied wine varietals and their regions will have you acing blind tastings in no time!
Lets break it down:
A quick inspection of a glass of wine can reveal a great deal about it – to the well versed sommelier, it may even reveal the wines identity. Body and color tend to go hand in hand – a light colored wine is also likely to be light in body or viscosity and visa versa. A wine’s color also changes as it ages. The general rule of thumb is white wine deepens in color as it evolves (and can turn a deep gold) while a red wine loses color (turning an incredibly light brownish red). If a wine is clear of particles, you will immediately know the wine is filtered, conversely, if the wine is cloudy or has particles floating about, it is likely unfiltered and/or unfined.
Swirling is of paramount importance, as it aerates the wine and allows it to open up and release its bouquet. Swirling also reveals the downward drips, or legs of the wine, which can reveal even more. The thickness and speed at which the legs slide down the glass, hint at the levels of alcohol the wine has. Thick and slow moving legs let a taster know the wine has a higher ABV, or Alcohol by volume. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, lower quality wine makers struggled to achieve 12.5% by volume, and thick slow legs were a sign of quality. This is no longer the case.
The next step is to stick your nose deep into the glass of wine, close your eyes and inhale deeply. Pay attention to anything you may smell. Wines may have aromas that are savory, herbal, fruity, or floral, or sometimes even chemical! These flavors vary drastically by varietal and region. Often times, wines are aged in oak barrels; this is evident by smelling aromas of smoke, toast and sweet baking spices. As a wine opens up in the glass, it may develop secondary aromas. As a rule of thumb, a wine with complicated, changing aromas and flavors is thought to be of better quality.
Sniffing your wine will also reveal if the wine has spoiled or gone bad. If a wine smells of vinegar, musty cardboard, or smells baked (raisiny), there is a high chance the wine is corked, or oxidized. And finally…
Here you can confirm all of the things you noticed in earlier steps. Are the primary and secondary fruit flavors you’ve already smelled in the glass the same on the palate? Does the wine taste as as light or dark as it looks? (Hint: A light-bodied wine will have the same texture and weight as non-fat milk, a medium-bodied wine the same as half and half, and a very full-bodied wine the same weight as heavy cream.) Along with the body, the dryness or sweetness, and flavors of the wine can confirm the varietal of the wine. Mineral and earthy notes lend complexity to a wine and can help pinpoint the wines identity.
Sipping will also help you determine the structure of a wine. Tannin, acidity and alcohol must all be present, but balanced for a truly spectacular wine. Tannins, or tannic acid, are derived from the grape skins and the barrels used to age the wine. In moderation, tannins add structure and complexity to any wine, they also act as a natural preservative. In excess, tannins can be abrasive, bitter, or even undrinkable (think a long oversteeped cup of tea).
Acidity is another crucial element found in all wine. Without acidity a wine would be flabby, dull and flat. However, too much acidity can leave a wine tart and acidic. With too much alcohol, wine can taste hot (burning the back of your mouth) and unpleasant. Once again, balance is always key when evaluating fine wine. A wine’s finish is the amount of time a wine lingers on your palate and throat after you sip it. The longer the finish, the better the wine is considered.
While this step is optional if you are tasting just for fun, as a professional it’s not uncommon to taste upwards of 100 wines a day. When that is the case, spitting becomes necessary; At professional tastings there’s little, if any, drinking of the wine.
So take notes when you drink, get to know which varieties you like and why. Do you enjoy bracing acidity or full bodied, fruity wines? There’s so much to learn. The best way? Just start sipping, smelling and swirling!
-Pauline Fink, Staff
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