ave you ever watched wine aficionados during a tasting? They swirl. They note color. Noses sniff away and tasters proclaim “cherries, eucalyptus.” Only then do they actually taste the wine. Baffled onlookers may arch their eyebrows and wonder, “What’s in the glass?”
My 80-year-old cousin drinks sweet red jug wine and is among the happiest people I know. He sat across from me at a recent tasting, shocked and dismayed as I stared at the wine in my glass, swirled, sniffed, tasted and spit (not ingested). The wine’s color and nose didn’t enter into his wine appreciation equation.
I don’t use dirty words like nose, tannin, acidity with malice, though my editor may believe the contrary. Wine knowledge and wine terminology don’t equal the pleasure one gets from a good glass of wine. There are no rights or wrongs in wine appreciation. It’s subjective. Never feel that you “should” like or dislike a wine.
That said, here are the ABC’s of wine tasting jargon in a few steps. Grab a glass of wine, bring a clear nose and open mind.
Step 1 Observe the color of the wine in your glass against a white background (a tablecloth, say). Tilt the glass and note the density of the color. Is it opaque, like flavored water, or murky, like squid ink? Color can give you clues about grape varieties, age and alcohol content. As they age, white wines generally turn from clear to yellow and brown. Red wines with a purplish hue are usually young. Age makes them veer toward orange.
Swirling comes next. Does the wine cling to your glass like maple syrup, which is viscous and leaves streams? In wine terms these are “legs” or “tears.” They tell you if wine has a low or high alcohol content and also suggest its sugar levels. Thick legs usually indicate more alcohol or residual sugar.
Step 2 Smell. The line between smell and taste is blurry. We smell with our noses and taste with our mouths. When I have a stuffy nose, food tastes bland. When a chocolate cake is baking, I feel like I can taste it.
Swirling helps vapors and compounds make their way toward your nose. Closing your eyes can help. Aromas tell you about grape variety, or whether the wine was aged in oak. Aromas are based on life experiences. I might smell cranberries and raspberries while you pick up on pomegranate. They all fall into the “red fruit” category. There are no incorrect aromas. The best way to expand your aroma library is to consciously smell objects, whether fruits, flowers, food or even stones.
Aromas have primary, secondary and tertiary categories. Primary aromas are determined by grape variety and the climate where the grapes were grown. Most fruit flavors in wine are primary aromas. We’ll save discussing secondary and tertiary aromas for another time. Vigneto Saetti, Lambrusco RossoViola IGP is a good example of a dry sparkling red with a nose of raspberries and violets.
Step 3 Tasting. This is where sweetness, acidity, tannin and body come into play. As we taste, the vapor of a liquid — in this case wine — travels up our retro-nasal passage (hence the fuzzy line between smell and taste). Swish the wine around, ensuring both your tongue and mouth come in contact with it to detect sweetness, bitterness, and so on. The front section of our tongues is its sweetness detector. A dessert wine, such as Fenech Malvasia di Lipari Passito DOC will give you a better understanding of sweetness.
Acidity gives wine a zing and crispness. Wines with high acidity taste less sweet and that’s no coincidence. As grapes ripen, sugar increases and acidity decreases. We mostly sense acidity with the edges of our tongue at the back of our mouth. A wine with high acidity may make us salivate and produce a puckering feeling. Ever bitten into a lemon? High acidity wines are described as tart. They suggest grapes were harvested early (low sugar, high acidity), or that the wine came from a cool climate where sugars develop slowly — or both. Wines with low acidity are creamier.
Tannins are generally a red wine characteristic and can help in identifying grape variety. Tannins can also tell us if the wine has been aged in oak and its potential lifespan. We sense tannin like a cold unsweetened black tea — it’s astringent and dries out our palates. Tannins come either from the skins and seeds of the grape or from oak barrels, sometimes both, and tend to turn softer with age. To get a sense of a red wine with low acidity, try La Stoppa Trebbiolo Rosso .
Alcohol, which can add body, sometimes tells us about the ripeness of the grapes that went into a wine. Its levels are tied to the sweetness of grapes prior to fermentation. The riper and more mature or sweeter a grape at harvest time, the greater the chance of a wine with a higher alcohol content (unless the wine is adjusted during the wine making process). Alcohol levels do not dictate whether a wine is tasty or not.
On to body: does a wine feel like skim or whole milk or half-and-half? In wine lingo this equates to light, medium and full-bodied. Body is typically related to alcohol but other processes can intervene.
After you’ve tasted, ask yourself these questions. Were the components of the wine balanced and complimentary? How would you describe the wine? Fruity with low tannins, or maybe zippy with no tannins? Yet the most important question may also be the simplest: did you enjoy the experience?