So you know that you swirl it in the glass with your pinkie finger pompously thrust out from your hand. And you know that you’ve got to take a long, slow whiff before sipping just the smallest bit and swishing it over your tongue. And you know that all this must be done with an impeccably smooth frown. But what exactly is it that you’re looking for when you taste a good wine? What do things like “vintage” or “tannins” mean – and how does that affect what you taste?
I’d like to explore what makes one wine different from another and what distinguishes a good wine from a bad one. Below, you’ll find some basic principles and vocabulary words which will be useful when further discussing wine.
What is wine?
Wine is fermented grape juice. In the process of fermentation, the sugar in the juice of crushed grapes is converted to alcohol, producing wine.
Ok. That was easy. Next question.
What is good wine?
Good wine is the result of different factors including soil, grapes (many wines are a mix of different varieties of grape), climate, and vineyard care. Not all wine grows better with age. Unlike a vintage store, where the older the ugly sequined dress the more expensive, vintage in the wine world simply denotes when the grapes were picked and the wine made.
How do I tell whether it’s good wine?
The process for determining the quality of a wine is as simple as look, smell, taste.
When you look at a wine, look for color and clarity. Hold the wine up to a white surface and check its color. Red wines can run the gamut from brick, ruby, purplish, or brownish, while white can be pale yellow, almost clear, or deep amber. Now check the wine’s opacity. A wine can be dense, bright, cloudy, or clear among other things. Swirl the glass to see if there are bits of cork or sediment. When you swirl the wine, rivulets will run down the side of glass – these are called tears or legs and determine the wine’s body and viscosity by the size and speed at which they form.
Swirling the glass also mingles oxygen with the wine, helping to vaporize some of the wine’s alcohol and release more of its natural aromas. Take a quick whiff of the wine for a first impression. Now, sticking your nose as far into the glass as possible without dipping it in wine, take a deep breath for a second opinion. Here is where a wine showcases its unique characteristics. Some wines are oaky, others smell like peaches, vanilla, or citrus. My favorite wine review once characterized a wine as “woody, with a hint of moss, grape leaves, and bacon.” Swirl the wine and sniff again.
Smelling a wine is important, because the taste of food or drink is only half determined by the tongue. The retronasal passage connecting the nose and mouth is actually responsible for most of the flavor of food – tasting is primarily re-smelling food in our mouths. Not to say that tasting a wine is not important.
There are three phases to wine taste, so take a sip of wine and roll it over your tongue. First is the attack phase, a wine’s first pungent punch on the palate. Alcohol content, tannin levels, acidity, and residual sugar all play critical roles in this phase. Too much alcohol will give the wine a harsh taste or make it overwhelmingly strong, while too many tannins, which occur naturally in the seeds and skins of grapes, will give the wine an astringent quality. Similarly, too little sugar will make a wine excessively dry while too much will make it overly sweet. A balanced acidity makes a wine crisp; too much will make it sour or harsh and too little will make it lifeless and dull. In the attack phase, you should get an idea of a wine’s intensity and complexity, but not necessarily its full flavors (like fruit or spice).
These full flavors should come out in the evolution phase. A red wine may taste like berries, plums, figs, pepper, cinnamon, cedar, or smoke, among other things, while a white wine may reveal hints of honey, herbs, butter, or earth. Feel for the body, or fullness, of the wine, how light or heavy it feels as you drink it and also the texture, whether it feels rough or smooth when you swallow.
The last phase of a wine taste is called the finish. This is how long the flavor lasts after it is swallowed–the aftertaste. Here, try to discern the difference between the length of time a wine remains in the back of your throat, whether it had a bitter kick, or whether a new flavor developed in your mouth after you swallowed. Ideally, the aftertaste should be refreshing and linger on the palate.
But I still don’t know whether it’s a good wine.
So you’ve read the basics of wine tasting, and you realized that there’s no pithy statement at the end of all that telling you exactly what makes wine good. And you’re right, there is no pithy dictum. The best advice I can give is to taste as many wines as you can and figure out what suits you best, whether its sweet wine or dry wine, heavy or light wine, white or red. And that’s not such a bad homework assignment.