This article originally appeared on www.hotelclub.com/blog. which is now part of hotels.com
The great novelist and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson once declared that “wine is bottled poetry”. It’s an excellent metaphor for two reasons. Firstly, much like poetry, good plonk is a thing of beauty. Secondly, much like poetry, the nuances of the wine world aren’t necessarily easy to interpret without a basic understanding of the fundamentals. With that, Australian wine writer and raconteur David Bone brings us his Guide To Wine Tasting. And in the great tradition of sharing what’s beautiful, HotelClub members receive a special discount on their first order of Naked Wines exclusive range of wines, hand made by independent winemakers.
So about the title; I wanted to get in early to demystify the incredibly snobby process of tasting wine. We have made an entire industry of putting wine on a throne that all of us mere peasants are expected to bow to and laud over. If any of you have been to some of the top white table-clothed restaurants and watched the more serious Sommeliers, some of you would recognise this hierarchy of pompous and the process of tasting wine as quite intimidating. I’m here to tell you it’s not.
Wine is a beverage and it’s for everyone’s enjoyment; just like beer or cider or a Cottee’s cordial. It is a subjective thing, too – you like what you like and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the first and most important step to successful wine tasting: relax.
It’s not the inquisition, it’s drink. Don’t be intimidated by it. From there, we can get to the three main steps in tasting wine, and with a mind free from pressure or expectation you will be a much better wine taster.
Sight. I don’t know about you, but my eyes are drawn to wine being poured. Particularly into my own glass. I am not too worried about anyone else’s. Watch the wine as it’s poured and think about the colour as it’s splashed around the place, move it around in the glass to give you a bit more insight into the depth of colour and also get a bit of air into it (this will help wake the aromas for the next step, too) . These colour cues will give you a hint even before you’ve put it in your mouth.
With whites, you’ll note that if the wine is clear and light, this is probably a hint to what it’s going to be like on the palate. Wines like dry Riesling, young Semillon or the often flavourless Pinot Grigio are all light on the palate with crisp acidity; but a big oaky Chardonnay is going to have a golden colour.
For reds too, the lighter styles like Pinot Noir often have a transparency whereas a monster, ball-busting big Barossa Shiraz will be dark and bitumen black. Similarly, this can be an indication of age. When white wines age they get fuller, toasty flavours and these are matched by a darker, honey colour. Reds lose their colour with age gaining a dusty, brick-like colour, and become more subtle and integrated than in their youth.
So these are your first hints towards looking like a pro, but with wines there are always a few exceptions to the rule, so don’t let the book trick you with its cover.
Smell. Now this one is important. The ol’ honker is really important and a big component of taste. This is also the bit where freeing your mind is important. Stick your nose in the glass and say the first thing that comes to your mind. Don’t say “red wine” – think more laterally and you’ll be surprised at what comes to mind. Often we link these aromas to place or time.
This is where eventually wine pros get a bit tricky with editing and language, but early on just yell it out.
If it smells like your grandma’s linen drawer, that probably means lavender or potpourri (or at least I hope so). If it smells like wet dirt, the pro would say “forest floor”; and if you get a memory twig of vodka, lime & soda, the expert might call that “citrus blossom”.
Taste. This one is pretty important. Do you like putting it in your mouth or not?
Take a sip (not a swig) and move it around your mouth. If you want to attempt the semi-pro slurp, this is the time to do it by pulling air over the wine on your tongue – just like whistling backwards. Just don’t waste wine by sending it to your lungs.
Think about where the wine is on your tongue, we generally taste sweet at the front of the tongue and acid along the side and bitterness at the back. For example, if you were tasting a young, dry Riesling from the Clare Valley, you’d notice it misses the front of your tongue (sweet) and continues with laser-like precision along the tongue. Here is where you can also think about biting into fruit. That Riesling is like biting into a lime, pith and all. That oaked chardonnay is like baked apple and toast. That Pinot Noir is like cherries and that thick, black shiraz is like chocolate and spiced plums.
Again, let yourself yell out what comes to mind immediately, like with the aromas. It’s a bit like an ink blot test and can tell you a lot of truth.
Expert commentary courtesy of David Bone of Cuttings Wine.