Ever been given a glass of wine, and worried about what to say while your host waited expectantly for your ‘tasting notes’? Here’s my Cheat Sheet!!!
The next time you pour a glass of wine, take a closer look at the wine and take note of the following three points, the last being the most prominent.
- Appearance – colour
- Nose – smell/flavours
- Palate – taste
Appearance: is the wine in a good condition? It is clear and bright? Is the wine displaying colours typical of the grape variety and age of the wine?
All wine whether white or red should look clear and not cloudy. If the wine looks cloudy then there is a fault with the wine. The colour of the wine will indicate the age of the wine. White wine deepens in colour as it ages – i.e. pale yellow or lemon-green is a sign of a young wine. Gold or amber, a sign of ageing.
What about red wine? Well, it becomes paler with age. So a young red wine is purple or ruby colour where as an older wine is garnet, brick red or brown.
Nose: Smell the wine. Swirl it in the glass to release as many aromas as possible and then take a sniff. Do you smell a fault such as cork taint, which will make the wine smell musty? Assuming no faults, how intense are the aromas? Are they pronounced or light and hard to detect?
Do you smell:
- Flowers such as honeysuckle, chamomile, elderflowers, rose, and blossom? Not only are they recognised wine verbs, your host will be very impressed.
- Fruit such as apple, pears, grapefruit, lemons, peach, banana, melon, and pineapple? Are these fruit notes, ripe or unripe, dried or cooked? For example, a fresh apple smells very different from a cooked one.
- Spice such as pepper, mint, liquorice, ginger, clove, cinnamon? You are either a promising wine expert, or shopping for a curry.
- Other smells such as yeast, cheese, tobacco, rubber, tar, smoke, and wet wool? You are not only becoming an expert, but you are also in danger of being very pretentious!
If you smell, vanilla, charred wood or toast then this will indicate that the wine has been aged in oak barrels. Some wines, especially expensive reds, will improve with barrel ageing. (Lucky you, if your host has splashed a few quid on booze!)
Palate: Subjective but there are usually certain components you can agree upon – which wines are sweeter, more acidic or tannic.
Different parts of our mouth and tongue have different levels of sensitive to sweetness, acidity and tannins. Consequently swirl the wine around the mouth so that every part is exposed to it.
SWEETNESS: the tip of the tongue is most sensitive to sweetness and indicates how much sugar a wine contains.
- Very ripe grapes can have a slightly sweet flavour even where there is no sugar.
- Almost all red wines and most wines are dry…no sugar detected.
- White wines that taste slightly sweet are described as “off-dry”.
- Of course, no wine is ever described as “wet”!
ACIDITY: acidity is strongly detected by the side of the tongue and will make your mouth water. Acidity makes wine taste vibrant and refreshing. It is present in all wines to different degrees.
- White wines will have higher acidity than red wines.
- Certain grape varieties such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are particularly high in acidity.
- Cool climates (like northern France) result in higher acidity than hot climates (South Africa).
- In sweet wines, acidity is very important as if too low, the wine will taste oversweet like syrup.
TANNIN: This is what makes strong black tea taste bitter with a strong aftertaste at the back of the tongue and around the gums – a mouth drying affect.
Tannins come from the skin of the grape and their presence in the wine depends on whether the wine has had contact with the grape skins while fermenting. They can be ripe/soft vs unripe/green and stalky.
- Rose and white wines will have little contact so very low detectable tannins. Guess Germany and nobody will laugh at your error!
- Red wines particularly made from certain grape varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon will have thick skins and the resulting wines are more tannic. Just guess France.
- High levels of soft ripe tannins may indicate a wine from a hot climate. If in doubt, South Africa is always a safe bet!
ALCOHOL: All wine will contain alcohol – it’s sort of the whole point, isn’t it? But it’s often difficult to detect unless the wine contains high levels of it, which you will feel as a warming sensation at the back of the mouth. (Of course, you will feel other effects later…)
How much alcohol depends on the variety and ripeness of the grape, and the chosen wine making process.
In general, most wines from cool climates will have lower levels of alcohol because the grapes won’t ripen enough to produce enough sugar to turn into alcohol.
A hot climate on the other hand, produces plenty of ripened grapes and thus a hell of a lot more alcohol! Think big-bosomed southern Italian wines?! This is also why dessert wines often contain a higher level of alcohol than normal wine.
BODY: ‘mouth feel’ is the sensation of richness and weight of the wine –a combined effect of acidity, alcohol, fruit, sweetness and tannins.
A light mouth feel is described as “light bodied” and heavy feel is referred to as “full bodied” (How you feel after a whole bottle is called “dead bodied”.)
LENGTH: The finish of the wine, or how long the flavours linger in the mouth after the wine has been swallowed or spat out. (Most girls are spitters, but I’m a swallower.) A long complex finish is an indicator of quality. For inferior wines, the flavours may disappear almost instantly leaving no lingering impression.
OK, lesson over. Spit or swallow, it’s up to you but no one likes a wine snob so be gracious if the wine you happen to have just blindly tasted is Blue Nun. Different strokes for different folks… and remember, as a last resort you can just twirl your glass in the light and say the catch-all, “highly quaffable!”