So you know you like wine, and you’d like to get to know more. The first big step is making the choice to refine your palate, training it to learn how to taste wine like a pro. The following are some steps to get you started.
Friends with bottles
Learning to taste wine is a commendable experience, but it ought to also be a social one. Besides not drinking alone, choosing to go down this path with friends will make it both more enjoyable and easier. First, for a practical reason: having more bottles open will allow you to make comparisons between wines (be they between regions, grapes, producers or whatever you choose). Second, because talking through the experience with people at the same level as you will make learning more fun – just like a study group for exams used to make school more bearable. Try to set up a wine study group, or ask about tastings and opportunities at your local vintages shop. Or plan on an intensive self-guided course “in residence” by spending your vacation right in a winery, like at Dievole, which offers both hospitality and of course wine tasting!
The right environment
If you want to truly learn how to taste wine like a pro, you’ll need to dedicate a bit of special time and place to it. Tasting at a late night party, especially if you are eating or smoking, probably isn’t ideal – but neither is a hospital-like setting. You will want to create a pleasant environment with natural light, and possibly approach your tasting mid-morning or mid-afternoon, away from meals. There may also be better days for tasting – some people swear by drinking wine by the lunar calendar, avoiding “root days” (when the moon is in the earth signs). No matter what day it is, ask your guests to avoid perfume and smoke, as both will intrude upon your all-important sense of smell.
Look first, then…
Just like when you were learning to cross the road safely at elementary school and they said “look first, then…”, the same applies to tasting wine. Using a good quality, egg shaped glass with a wide top, pour in the wine, and take the time to consider how it looks. You should observe the wine from the side, held up to natural light, hoping to find a wine that is clear, with a naturally brilliant sparkle.
Tilting the glass will help you better understand its colour – is that white wine hay coloured or more amber? Is the red closer to rust, wood or ruby? Is there a secondary colour you can spot at the edges that might indicate greater age and complexity?
Finally, a swirl will allow you to evaluate the wine’s “legs” – if they hold together well, the wine is generally more corpulent, if they are light and abundant, the wine has a lower alcohol and glycerin content.
Follow your nose
Some people are more sensitive to smell than others, which may be due to natural proclivity or to different habits – for example, an allergic-type non-smoker will be able to sniff out a smoker’s sweater from across the room. You should be able to start understanding the wine by starting to smell from further away, hovering your nose first above the glass. In this phase you can look for any “off” smells that might indicate a fundamental problem with the wine.
Then you can go deeper, sticking your nose well into the glass – though not for too long, otherwise you’ll lose sensitivity! Certain fruits, flowers, herbs and minerals tend to be discoverable in wines – depending on the grape. With experience, you will get to know what to expect, as well as to better identify what you smell. For example, an annata Chianti Classico like Dievole’s 2014, made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, smells like fresh red fruits, denoting a young, fresh wine.
Train your tongue
Last but not least, we go to the mouth. Experts recommend using the spittoon if you’re tasting wines – you can always go back and drink the one you like best, when you’re finished with the process. Take in a mouthful and swash the wine around, aerating it by slurping in from the sides of your mouth so that the liquid hits all the right spots.
At this point you’re evaluating a few things (beyond “I like it” or “I don’t like it” – which may also be useful!). Dryness vs. sweetness will be one of the first things that hits you, and one that you cannot determine from smell (ever tried to smell a bowl of sugar?). The other important thing to determine is acidity, which balances sweetness and may be defined by when the back edges of the tongue curl up in response. This is awfully close to the response our mouth has to tannins, which make our mouth pucker up – though the issue is rather more complex and would merit an article of its own.
Then, you can see if you can pick out the fruits, spices and herbs you identified through smell, or determine any more fine elements now that you’re combining all your senses.
In the end, with enough practice, you will be able to determine things like country – down to the region – and grape variety in a blind tasting.
Although tasting is the most important step in learning to taste wine like a pro, reading a few books in the matter can only increase your knowledge. To write The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil went to the trouble of tasting over 10,000 wines (!), which she describes with always fresh adjectives. Her unique voice makes learning the fundamentals enjoyable too. Another perennial favourite is How to Taste – which is a complete wine course – or really anything by Jancis Robinson, who is perhaps one of the world’s most renowned wine experts.