Wine in a wonderful and complex beverage. Each new bottle has its own nuances and characteristics that make it unique. The first step to learning how to taste like a professional is knowing what to be looking. Below are the main characteristics that tasters use to describe a wine.
Dry vs. Sweet
At the front of your tongue are the taste buds responsible for detecting sweetness, which leads to most people’s first impression of a wine – how sweet is it? If sweet, you’ll notice it on the tip of your tongue. This sweetness in wine predominantly comes from the amount of residual sugar and alcohol. You may have heard the term "legs" when a wine is described. This is a word used to describe the way the liquid slides down the side of the glass. The longer the legs (slower the tears of the wine drop down the side of the glass), the more likelihood of sweetness.
The opposite of sweetness in wine is dryness (in fact, typically a wine is characterized by “dryness”, with very sweet wines lacking dryness). A complete bone-dry wine contains zero residual sugar, and thus is not sweet.
Note that this dry vs. sweet characteristic is based on the amount of sugar in the wine, detected by the tip of the tongue. A dry wine does not mean it dries out your mouth, a common confusion. A wine that makes your mouth feel dried out is one that is high in tannins.
Try this: grab a black teabag and make a concentrated hot tea – lots of steeping in little water. Take a drink. See how dried out your mouth feels? Congratulations, you’ve just experienced the effects of tannins.
Tannins are a natural compound found in grape skins, seeds and stems. These natural compounds are released into the grape juice (the future wine!) as the grape skins soak with the juice. The result is a bitterness that hits the back and sides of your tongue and the dry mouth feel.
Bitter and dry mouth, sounds horrible doesn't it? I guess it’s a matter of preference, but tannins do really good things to wines. They act as a natural protector by acting as an antioxidant (which is also believed to be a health benefit), allowing the wine to safely age and build structure. A high tannic wine can age a really long time when stored properly.
When it comes to tannins in red vs. white wines, higher tannins are found in red. The reason for this is the different methods of production. Red grapes soak with the grape skins for much longer than white grapes, and it is the skins and seeds that are the prominent supplier of tannins.
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Similar to how dryness and tannins can get mixed up, the effects acidity in wine can get misconstrued to alcohol. The acidity is the tartness that triggers the taste buds on the front and sides of your tongue. Think of biting into a lemon – that tart, crisp, puckering sensation is from the acid. It causes your mouth to salivate and each drink feels so refreshing.
A wine with too much acidity will taste overly sour or tart, while one without acidity might come across as dull or flat.
The level of “fruit” is a general categorization of the wine’s flavor. We start by deciding if we think the wine falls on either the side of savory or fruit flavor, and from there we get into what specific flavors we notice.
If it lands on the savory end we may pick up flavors like dirt, mushrooms, herbs, tobacco, minerals or less sweet fruits such as cranberries, sour cherries or grapefruit.
A fruit forward wine is going to have a flavor impact of sweet fruits – strawberries, raspberries, peaches, mango, or blueberries (among many others).
Consider your first impression when tasting the wine – does it taste like a mouthful of sweet, fresh fruit or does it have hints of earthy, plants, or tart and sour fruits?
Wines have legs and body. Weird. Putting your finger on the body of a wine takes a little more time and practice. The body is the overall feel when it is in your mouth and the extent of a lingering effect or aftertaste (aka “finish”). If you’re a coffee drinker, you might relate the body of coffee to how dark it is – a light roast vs. a medium roast vs. a dark roast. Or think of milk – skim vs. whole vs. cream. Each has a different feel in your mouth and varying degrees of a lingering taste.
Alcohol plays a big influence on a wine’s body. The higher the ABV the fuller or heavier bodied a wine tends to feel. This goes back to the “legs” – the higher the ABV the longer the legs (or the slower the wine drips down the side of the glass). Again, the legs can hint at some of the wine’s characteristics but does not tell us anything about its quality.
At some point in our individual journeys we come across a bad, corked wine. This occurs when little tiny microorganisms make their home and begin feasting on the cork. These nasty rebels produce a chemical substance that ruins the wine. The end result? A wine that smells like a wet dog and has zero to little body, no fruit flavor and is just plain dull. It also leaves a frowny face on anyone who drinks it.
Practice Practice Practice!
Getting a handle on each of these characteristics takes time and it takes enough experience to begin comparing one wine for another. The more you taste and drink the larger your repertoire will become, which is the biggest advantage of professional wine tasters - they have tasted thousands of wines! Grab a bottle, pop the cork and start drinking, but do so thoughtfully and deliberately.