Beginners guide to drinking wineWine wasn’t made to wet your throat
Anyone can enjoy a glass of wine – but can you actually explain what it tastes like? Wine can be mysterious and illusive if you don’t now what you’re looking for – or how to look for it.
To enjoy wine in its full capacity, follow these simple steps to prepare yourself for the flavours, aromas and mouth-feel of a wine. To really hone your senses, start writing tasting notes to get yourself used to vocalising your experience!
1) Look at your wine
The colour of a wine does not affect the taste of the wine, however it can give you some insight into what you will taste. Tilt your glass and hold up against a white background – for example a serviette or tablecloth, and look for the intensity of colour.
Colours in white wines
The colour of a white wine can give off a number of hints to the age, flavours and sweetness of a wine. Young wines tend to be a light, crisp pale straw colour, however aged wines tend to cast a dull hue, dim gold colour that looks a lot richer. It is important to note with dull, gold or dim white wines that there could be a number of causes – they could be aged in oak, they could be intensely sweet with a lot of sugar and colour extraction, or, worst case, they could have a wine fault such as being corked, which also changes the colour of bright, young wines to dim, yellow-brownish hues. On the other hand, wines that exhibit green hues tend to be younger wines with grassy green notes including white pepper, green beans and limes. Wines with a pale straw/light gold hue usually have more fruity notes such as peach, pineapple, apricot and orange.
Colours in red wines
When looking at the intensity of the colour in a red wine, pay attention to the pigment of the wine – is it pale with little pigment, or is it a denser colour that looks like it is staining the side of the glass? If it is the latter, it is likely that the red wine is a bolder, highly tannic wine. Tannins come from the skins of a grape, and the darker and more intense the colour of the wine, the longer the grape skin has been left in contact with the juice.
Also make note of the colour and rim variation of the wine. Blue hints at the edge of a wine glass can indicate a high acidity of a wine, and a rim variation can show the age of a wine. If the colour of the rim is vastly lighter than the body of the wine, this can be an indication of an aged wine, whereas if your wine has a tighter rim with little variation, this indicates a younger, fresher wine.
2) Swirl your wine
After assessing the colour of a wine, we then swirl the wine to reveal two factors: to reveal hints of the alcohol content, and to aerate the wine. We can assess the alcohol content of a wine by swirling the glass to reveal the legs of the wine. The legs of a wine refer to the streaks on the inside of the wine glass that appear after swirling. As a rule, the thicker and larger the drips, or legs, the more alcohol you can expect in the wine. We also swirl wine to allow oxygen into the wine, as the mixture of air and wine releases and intensifies the aroma of the wine.
3) Smell your wine
We often hear of wine-o’s talking about the “nose” of the wine – this refers to the overall smell of the wine – the aroma (scent of the wine), combined with the bouquet (layers of smells and aromas perceived in a wine, usually referred to in aged wines). When smelling a wine, it is important to swirl the wine first to allow oxygen to come into contact with the wine and release the aroma of the wine.
Then, take a big, quick sniff – what do you smell? Do you smell the grassy, herbaceous whiffs from a Sauvignon Blanc, the strawberry and wild cherry from a Pinot Noir? Or do you smell cardboard, gym socks or damp hay? Smelling a wine can give a great indication of the health of a wine. If you smell any of the latter, your wine may be spoiled or have wine faults.
If your wine doesn’t smell fishy, chances are your wine should be ok. When smelling a wine, take note of the intensity of the wine. Are the aromas delicate, light, strong, intense, pungent, or non-existent? Different varieties of wine exhibit different levels of intensity in the aroma. For example, a Gewürztraminer or Riesling will be much more aromatic than some Pinot Gris. If a wine is not aromatic, it could mean that the wine generally does not have intense aromas, or, it could mean that the wine is either not ready to drink, mass-produced, made from overcropped and diluted grapes, or that there is not enough air in the wine (in this case, give it another swirl!)
You can also tell a lot from the aroma of the wine when assessing its complexity. The more aromas and characteristics a wine has, the more complex the wine is. This is usually a good indication of a high quality wine – one that portrays a number of flavours, aromas and characteristics that open up over time. This isn’t to say that wines without complexity are not enjoyable – sometimes it is nice to just enjoy simple, fruity aromas and flavours without thinking too hard about the wine!
3) Sip your wine
Now, the fun part! There are three stages to tasting a wine – the Attack Phase, Evolution Phase and the Finish.
The Attack Phase
The attack phase refers to the initial impression that the wine makes on your palate – mostly comprised of four key factors: Alcohol, Tannin, Acidity and Sugar. Ideally, these are well balanced and one will not be more prominent than the other. To see how much alcohol, is in a wine, pay attention to how warm the wine is in your mouth. The warmer your mouth feels, the higher the alcohol content. Tannins are the furry, dry sensations that have a similar mouth-feel to cold black tea – it makes your mouth dry up and pucker. Acidity can be felt by the way the mouth salivates after drinking the wine, and residual sugar, well, tastes sweet! The attack phase doesn’t necessarily offer individual tastes per se, however they do meld together to offer impressions in intensity and complexity, soft or firm, light or heavy, crisp or creamy, or sweet or dry.
The Evolution Phase
The next stage is the evolution phase – also called the mid-palate phase, as it is the wines actual taste on your palate. During this stage you begin to look at the actual flavour profile of a wine. If it is a white wine you may start to taste citrus and tropical fruits, apples, or perhaps floral notes, minerals or herbaceous notes. If it is a red wine, flavours such as plum, berry or cherry might start to jump out at you, or perhaps some of the oaky characteristics like cedar, smokey or charred wood.
The final phase, the Finish, is the how long the flavour impression lasts on your palate once the wine is swallowed. Generally, a wine with a long finish is regarded as a higher quality wine, as it allows you to savour, reminisce and embrace the flavours the wine encompasses. During the finish stage you may also start to think about the aftertaste and the body of the wine. Body refers to the weight of the wine – a light bodied wine may have a consistency similar to water, a medium-boded wine has a consistency similar to milk, whereas a full-bodied wine has a consistency similar to that of cream. Take note of whether you can taste the remnant of the wine in the back of your mouth and throat. Would you take another sip, or was the last impression too bitter or acidic at the end?
Consider these stages when tasting your wines, and write your impressions down to build your wine-tasting confidence. It will help you decide whether you liked the wine overall, what you did and didn’t like, and whether you will buy it in the future. If so, make sure you record the wines name, producer and vintage for your future reference!