Tasting the Wine

When tasting a wine, take a sip about the equivalent of a good teaspoon.  Don’t swallow right away.

Swish the wine around in your mouth to make sure it reaches all your taste-buds.  Think about how the wine feels in your mouth.  You can aerate the wine a bit by sucking in a little air through your mouth.  Sure, it sounds funny, but don’t worry, all the pros do it.  This will also send compounds of the wine up to your olfactory bulb, from where messages are sent to the brain.

Try to pick out a few flavours.  See if you sense any tannins or acidity.

Then spit or swallow the wine.

There are a few tastes and sensations you should focus on when thinking about the wine.

The primary tastes are sweet, acid, bitter, and salty (umami is perhaps a 5th).

I won’t go into describing where you can taste these on your tongue because the tongue map that has been used as a teaching tool in wine classes for decades is scientifically inaccurate.  It describes taste buds located on specific areas of the tongue as only being able to taste either sweetness, acidity, bitterness, or saltiness.  It seems that taste buds are able to respond to each of the primary tastes, although some may be more sensitive to certain tastes than others.

Sweetness:

A dry wine is one that contains very little residual sugar, leaving you with an absence of any impression of sweetness.  Residual sugar is any sugar left over after alcohol fermentation has completed naturally, or has been artificially arrested.   A sweet wine has more residual sugar which will be perceptible on your palate.

Alcohol, itself, also contributes to a perception of sweetness, as do ripe fruit flavours and glycerol, a by-product of fermentation.  Wines can range from being bone dry to very sweet, and all points in between.

Acidity:

Acidity gives a freshness and crispness to a wine.  Wines made in cooler climates will tend to have higher acidity than wines from warmer climates.  There are also some grape varieties that naturally have higher levels of acidity.  Riesling is but one example.

Acidity also acts as a preservative in wine, allowing them to age much longer.  It is especially important in white wines which contain no tannin to act as a preservative. This is why a good quality Riesling can age for decades.

Wines with higher levels of acidity are great aperitifs as they get the mouth watering and they are also great when paired with food as they can cleanse the palate.

A good way to determine the acid level of the wine you are drinking is to count how many times you swallow after you have drunk a sip.  As I already mentioned, higher acidity wines make your mouth water.  The more times you swallow, the higher the acidity in the wine.

Of course, the acidity in a wine should always be in balance with the fruit and alcohol or the wine will taste tart.  Sweet wines need acidity to keep them from being cloying and unpleasant.

Salty:

The taste of salt in a wine is rare, although it can sometimes be detected in fino Sherries.  I also, surprisingly, noticed it in an aged Barolo I recently tried.

Bitterness:

Bitterness in wine can come from a number of sources: unripe tannins in red grapes, damaging the skin and pips during winemaking, too much oak contact, excessive extraction during the maceration time in red winemaking.

Different people perceive bitterness at very different levels, some being very sensitive to the taste.  Unlike acidity, it plays no important role in the quality of the wine.  It may be present in some young red wines that require further bottle ageing and can be pleasant if in balance.

Umami:

Umami is a Japanese word meaning “savoury” and refers to the flavour of monosodium glutamate.  Many Western and European people, such as myself, have not had much experience with this flavour, so it is difficult for us to identify it as a taste.

Identifying Flavours:

You should also try to identify some flavours as you taste the wine.  Use the list of aroma and flavour characteristics you used to identify aromas back when you were smelling or nosing the wine.

The more flavour characteristics you can identify in the taste of the wine the more complex the wine is.  A complex wine is a wine of good quality – one that is constantly changing and evolving in the glass, with each taste revealing something different.

There are several sensations you should also take note of: alcohol, tannin and carbon dioxide.

Alcohol:

When the sugars in the grape are fermented by yeasts, the main product is ethyl alcohol.  Most table wines contain somewhere between 8% and 14% alcohol.  Alcohol can taste sweet or bitter, but it also has texture.  It can be perceived as warmth, and when it is in excess and unbalanced it can make the wine hot or even fierce in the mouth.  Alcohol, when compared to water, has a viscous texture and is an important component in the body or weight of a wine.

Tannin:

Tannin can be detected as bitterness, but it is really a sensation of astringency that gives a drying, furring, or puckering sensation in the mouth.  The effect varies in intensity in relation to the quantity and quality of the tannins in the wine.

Tannins are extracted from the grape’s skins and pips during the time when the juice from the grapes is left to macerate with the skins and pips, during red winemaking.  White wines will not obtain tannins this way as they do not spend long enough macerating with their skins.  Wine, including white wine, may also pick up tannin from the oak barrels they age in, especially new oak barrels.

Tannins affect the texture of a wine and can add to its richness, especially when the grapes are exceptionally ripe, and from careful winemaking practices.  Underripe grapes and harsh handling of the grapes during winemaking can lead to herbaceous and harsh tannins with an excessively astringent character.

Like acidity, tannin acts as a preservative in wine and is an essential component in red wines meant for laying down.  Over time the tannins will soften, making the wine’s texture softer and smoother.

Carbon Dioxide:

Good quality sparkling wine should have persistent bubbles creating a creamy mousse in your mouth.  Carbon Dioxide is another bi-product of fermentation and young wines, even those destined to be still wines, tend to have quite a bit.  Most of it will disappear naturally or with racking and bottling.  However, there are some young still white wines that are deliberately bottled with a little CO2.  Think of Vinho Verde with its delicate little prickle.  You can usually see the bubbles in the glass and if you can’t see them you can sense a little prickle on your tongue.

Length:

Some wines disappear the moment you swallow them making you suspect that you just had a sip of water, while others leave a pleasant taste in your mouth for what seems forever.  The longer the taste of the wine remains in your mouth the longer its finish or length.  Wines that have a long length are considered to be higher quality wines.  To determine if a wine has a good length you can count how many seconds from the time you swallowed the wine to when its taste is no longer evident in your mouth.  A wine with a length of 20 seconds or longer has a good length.  A wine with a length of 60 seconds is amazing!

Go back to How to Taste Wine – Introduction

Go back to Looking at a Wine

Go back to Smelling the Wine

2 responses

  1. This is a great article. Very thorough. One of the ways I evaluate the alcohol content in wine is when I exhale after I swallow. If I feel a bit of a “sting”, it’s usually due to higher than expected alcohol content.

    Cheers!

  2. Hi HonestWineReviews,
    Thanks very much for your comment! And thanks for the idea on how to evaluate alcohol levels in wine. It’s much appreciated.
    Sarah

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