The first thing is to start out with a clean glass. That would seem obvious but it isn’t. By clean I mean NEVER use a glass straight from your cabinet without first rinsing it with water. All cabinets impart aromas to glasses in a matter of minutes. These aromas taint the wine instantly. Not to mention that many soaps and dishwasher detergents leave noticeable aromatic residues. This is the single most prevalent mistake made.
There are some out there in the wine world who think that rinsing a glass with wine is enough to season a glass but they are wrong. Detergents and their residues are formulated to dissolve in water, not wine, and wine doesn’t get rid of cabinet smells either. Tap water is fine to rinse a glass; if you can then use a little wine in the rinsed glass to remove the water residue and season the glass, even better.
Now how to taste. Start off by selecting a glass that’s generous (at least 8 oz); this gives you enough surface area to swirl the wine and expose it to oxygen without spilling it all over yourself.
Pour about 1 to 2 ounces in the glass. Use a sheet of white paper, holding it behind the glass to try to get a real sense of the wines’ clarity and color.
Is the wine clear or cloudy? Wine in the glass should always be clear and translucent.
Tilt the glass and observe the color to the rim. Is it consistent or does the color or hue taper off. Young wines have less color variation. Oak aging also fixes color in both reds and whites. The more new wood the deeper the color. Older red wines can take on a brickish tone, while whites become golden.
Not all wines are deeply colored. Malbec, cabernet and merlot-based wines are blue to purple, while pinot noirs, gamays, nebbiolo and sangiovese-based wines have less color naturally and are more red in appearance.
To get started, swirl the wine in the glass to release the aromas. Tilt the glass and really get your nose in there. This is perhaps the most complicated part of the process. The nose tells you many things.
The aroma of the wine should be identifiable as coming from a particular grape variety, for example plums for merlot or lime for sauvignon blanc. The nose also tells you if a wine has been aged in oak and if so what kind of oak was used: spice/vanilla aromas from French oak or coconut aromas from American oak. Keep in mind that the aromatics contributed from the oak aging should never dominate the aromatic profile.
The nose is also the first place to pick up defects in a wine such as:
- Cork taint, which imparts an earthy, cardboard-like smell, akin to a wet basement
- Volatile acidity, or a vinegar smell
- Excess sulphur, like a burned match
- Oxidation, or a sherry-like aroma
- Mercaptan, smells like skunk
- Brettanomyces, which has many unpleasant variations such as barnyard, leather, mouse or band-aid like smells.
Tasting the wine:
Take a sip large enough to cover your palate and hold it in your mouth, yet open your lips and inhale slightly to oxygenate the wine. Is the wine dry or sweet? Smooth or coarse? Notice the weight of the wine, what we call the body. Is the wine thin/watery or thick/oily? Are the acids in balance? Is the wine refreshing to drink or fatiguing? Are the flavors complex or simple? After spitting the wine out (yes, you have to spit if you’re tasting), do the flavors of the wine stay with you or do they evaporate immediately? Are all the flavors in balance or as I like to say, is the wine a circle with nothing protruding? What flavors come to mind? Get creative!
Throw a party:
The best way to learn about wine is to taste several wines at a time. The most educational approach is to (for example) try several chardonnays from Burgundy; better yet from one a village like Chasssagne Montrachet but from different vineyards in the village. Or chardonnays from around the world: one from California, France, Australia and South Africa etc. That’s fun and educational. Invite some friends and pull some corks!