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How to taste and talk about wine?

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Drinking a good wine means, above all, taking pleasure in tasting it. Quite often in these moments, we are transformed into an apprentice sommelier, describing the color, aromas, or tannins detected in the precious nectar. “Sharp”, “full-bodied”, “astringent” … Wine connoisseurs, whether in training or fully-fledged, will often slip in a few specialist words. Appreciating a wine is a truly personal experience, and learning to taste and describe wine requires mastering a few basic essentials. 

With time and regular practice, you will refine your senses and soon excel in the art of tasting. Generally, this ritual has three steps – observing the wine’s appearance, smelling the aromas and tasting in the mouth. We will go through each with you.

Prepare for your tasting in advance

Before you get started, here is some advice to be well prepared for your tasting. First of all, it’s best to plan your wine tasting before a meal, so as to have full recourse to all your senses. Set yourself up in a light-filled, temperate and, preferably, odor-free place.

To display your bottle in the best possible light, you can place it in a bottle-holder, which will add both refinement and elegance.

Given that the container is just as important as what’s inside, we would recommend using tulip-shaped tasting glasses. The wide bottom gives the wine a good amount of contact with the air, to develop its aromas. Then, the narrower, slightly elongated top concentrates the bouquet in the glass and softens the wine’s attack in the mouth.

Fill each glass up to the widest point and ideally, use a no-drip aerating pouring spout to oxygenate the wine and avoid any stains on your nice white tablecloth.

Step 1: observing the appearance

The first thing to do is to taste the wine with your eyes, by gently tilting the glass in front of a white surface. A wine’s appearance can in fact reveal several precious clues as to its character and quality.

During this visual examination, four main parameters should be taken into consideration:

  • Opacity – the wine’s visual character. We can determine opacity on a scale, from most transparent to most opaque. Some of the words used to describe this aspect include clear, watery, transparent, pearly, milky, hazy, foggy and cloudy.
  • Shine – this indicates the wine’s ability to reflect light. We can say that a wine is luminous, brilliant, sparkling, glistening, dull, lackluster or oxidized. This usually speaks to a wine’s level of acidity. For example, a very bright shine is normally a sign of strong acidity.
  • Color (and intensity) – a wine’s color changes over time. Depending on its age (and/or other intrinsic qualities), the shade of a red wine varies between vermilion and mahogany, whereas that of a white wine varies between yellow-green and amber. As for the intensity of a wine, it can be pale, light, dark or intense. As a general rule, this indicates the wine’s origin (and variety in particular) as well as the vintage.
  • The viscosity (also called the tears or legs) – this refers to how the wine drips down the sides of the glass when tilted one way and then the other. The tears can be viscous, fat, runny, thick or fluid, and are an indication of the wine’s smoothness, as well as its alcohol and sugar content.

Step 2: smelling the aromas

There are two parts to smelling a wine, the first nose and the second nose.

The “first nose” refers to the first time you sniff the wine, without swirling the glass. This will give you a relatively good impression of the wine’s condition and aromatic intensity. At this point, if you are already able to determine certain aromas, the wine is said to be “open”. If not, it is considered “closed”. Usually, the first nose allows you to identify any potential defects in the wine, such as cork taint or oxidation.

For the “second nose”, you need to delicately swirl the glass to aerate the wine. This will make it open up and release all its aromatic compounds. 

At this stage, we can distinguish three major aromatic families:

  • primary aromas, which mainly come from the variety and can be influenced by the climate and terroir where the vineyard is located;
  • secondary aromas, which come from the wine’s fermentation (one of the steps in wine-making);
  • tertiary aromas, also known as the “bouquet”, which are more complex. They can be smelt after the wine has been aerated for half an hour or in an empty glass. They are connected to the kind of aging used for the wine, with aromas coming from oxidation or reduction.

To sum up, the key aromatic groups are the following: fruity, floral, vegetal, woody, spicy, animal, milky, mineral and empyreumatic (burnt).

Step 3: tasting in the mouth

To finish the tasting, all that’s left is to take a sip. You can use two different techniques to taste wine in the mouth:

  • chewing on the wine as if it were food, for at least ten seconds. This process mixes your saliva with the wine and reveals its texture.
  • aerating the wine, which involves breathing in a small stream of air to increase the wine’s aromas and flavors.

Good to know: it is important to swirl the wine around your mouth to activate different zones on the tongue and detect sweet, acidic, savory or bitter flavors. As for the tannins, they are mostly detected by your gums.

Tasting in the mouth is split into three phases:

  • The attack – this is the moment where you sip a small amount of wine while breathing in a stream of air for a couple of seconds to release the first aromas. The attack can be aggressive, rustic, elegant, rounded or even insipid, depending on the wine.
  • Mid-palate – During this phase, it’s important to swirl the wine around your mouth. The flavors develop. You might notice the temperature of the wine, its viscosity, the acidity of a white wine and the tannins of a red wine, or maybe its astringent character. We can also assess the body of a wine at this stage.
  • The finish refers to how the flavors evolve in the mouth. Even after being swallowed, a wine can reveal its structure and flavors. This is when you will know if a wine “lasts in your mouth”, the all-important question.

Tasting in the mouth involves five criteria in total:

  • sweetness – dry, medium, sweet;
  • acidity – low, medium, high;
  • tannins (only for red wine) – low, medium, high;
  • body – light-bodied, medium-bodied, full-bodied;
  • aromas, similar to those in the smelling stage;
  • finish – short, medium or long.

Good to know: if a bottle of wine has been opened, you can keep it for two to eight days by limiting its oxidation using a wine pump. Perfect for a second round of tasting.