The Joy Club member Clive Hook gives us some tips and tricks on how to taste wine in a way that’s fun and free from pretension.
You can read part one to Clive’s series of wine, ‘A down-to-earth introduction to wine tasting,’ here.
So let’s get tasting. Unlike in my wine exams, you’ll have the bottle in front of you, so you’ll know a thing or two before you start. Remember – we’re wine tasters. It’s not about whether you like it or not and it’s not yet about whether it’s worth the money or not. Right now, it’s about how the wine appears to you using four of your five senses – it doesn’t make a noise (although you might) so you won’t require your ears for this one.
Red, White or Rosè?
Each has massive differences within its own colour family – a Pinot Grigio is a far cry from a Chardonnay – but is distinct from the others. For example, there’s almost certainly no tannin present in white wine but it will be in red and some rosès. Most grapes, whatever their colour, produce colourless grape juice. Tannin is in the skins, pips and stalks. The colour comes from the skins – so to get red wine you leave the skins in the mix, to get white you don’t. Rosè wines may stay in contact with the skins for two or three days, so may have fewer tannins than a red wine.
Tannin is the thing that has a drying effect on your tongue and mouth – a sensation which is technically called ‘astringency.’ If you’ve ever tried a sloe or an underripe blueberry or raspberry, you’ll have experienced this lip puckering effect. This is not a bad thing; tannins are preservatives so play a vital part in ageing.
Okay –let’s get that bottle opened and then…wait for it, wait for it – we’re tasting here not yet drinking. If you’ve just had prawn vindaloo or a cheese and pickle sandwich then your palette will not be ready to taste. A glass of water is useful and a couple of plain crackers – no not Cheese and Onion crisps, thank you. Before your lips touch the glass you will need a clean glass (well rinsed so it doesn’t smell of Fairy liquid) and a white surface, a sheet of white paper will do nicely.
We’re going to pour some wine into a wine glass – oh come on , you know what one of those looks like – bowl shaped and with a stem. There are professional tasting glasses which I use, but any plain wine glass will do. Pour about a quarter of a glass…and relax. We’re taking it easy, remember? We’re going to look at it, sniff it and taste it (before swallowing it, which is drinking not tasting).
We’re going to do it in two ways. First pick up your glass and tilt it away from you over your white piece of paper. There are two things to look at and judge:
Intensity – Put your glass down on your piece of paper and look straight down through the bowl. Can you see the stem or the foot of the glass? Deep, inky black wines will probably hide both. If you’d like a starter example – try a Pinot Noir and compare it with a Shiraz or a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Colour – Now, look at the edge of the wine as you tilt your glass against that white surface. Generally speaking, in red wine, the browner (less bluey purple) the wine, the older it will be. Some white wines also darken with age but that doesn’t mean a golden wine is older.
Sniff time. But don’t start at your nose. Swirl the wine in the glass a bit (gently – that’s one of the reasons we only quarter-filled the glass) at about chest height. Can you smell it yet? If not move the glass up a bit to shoulder level? Anything? If not up to your nose. You’ve just tested for nose intensity. If you can smell it at chest height that’s a pronounced aroma, shoulder, that’s medium and if it had to be up to your nose, that’s light
Aromas and Flavours
This is where the pretentiousness can strike and arguments begin – not all taste buds are the same. Don’t read what they say on the back of the bottle – that’s marketing. Ask yourself, what can you smell? You’re going to do the same for taste as well – and they will probably be different. Too many options to describe in a paragraph. I’ve included a possible list of options in the appendix but your smell or taste (we’re using the same list for both) may not be there. That’s not wrong – it’s just how you experience it.
If you want an easy win on this, get a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It’s gooseberries on the nose – no discussions, but there could be something else with it. That’s what it smells of. The taste may be different too.
Stand by – the wine has finally reached your mouth. This is where the swooshing and slurping starts. Try not to look at each other because one giggle and it’s all over the furniture and carpet. This is not about what it tastes of – this is about what the wine feels like in your mouth and how it affects your teeth, gums and tongue. So, you’re going to roll it around in your mouth and (this is the dangerous bit) breathe in some air through the wine by pursing your lips and sucking through an imaginary straw. Great – given that the wine made it through your mouth and down your throat (not on the carpet) – what’ve you got?
Sweetness – You can work that one out without me
Acidity – How much does it make your mouth water? Raw lemons and oranges are both acid – one much more than the other.
Tannin – Do you get that mouth drying, lip puckering feeling on your tongue and teeth?
Body – Has it got a kind of thickness to it in the mouth – like the syrup in a tin of fruit or granny’s cream sherry at Christmas – or is it thin and watery?
These last three I find you can only really notice when you swallow:
Alcohol – How much heat or even burn do you get?
Flavour Intensity – The strength of the taste
Finish – Does the taste of the wine linger?
Next time we’ll look at what quality means in wine – if you’ve done your tasting as above you’ll be pleased to know you’re almost there. I’ll also give you some pointers that increase the probability of more quality wine for your money. Meantime, get sniffing, swirling, swooshing and slurping (and mind the furniture).
Look out for the third instalment of Clive’s series on wine next week, when he’ll be serving up some tips and tricks on how to buy good wine without breaking the bank!