Wine was never meant to be, well, mysterious. Wine is after all just a beverage to be enjoyed, and appreciation is really quite simple, just look, smell and taste.
Getting maximum information from a glass of wine is about using simple but very effective tasting techniques and having the wine at the right temperature. Temperature is critical to the flavor profile of any wine. The cooler the wine the more pronounced the tart flavors. Conversely the warmer the wine is the more you taste the alcohol. White wines that have not been aged in oak barrels should be served around 45ºF to accentuate the fresh fruit, while oak aged whites should be served around 50º F to show their richness. Red wines should be served around 65º F. Any cooler and the wine will seem bitter, but much warmer and it will seem overly alcoholic. In other words “room temperature” and “refrigerator temperature” are not right for either.
Once your wine of the day is at the correct temperature follow this method.
Look: Expectations of a wine’s flavor and intensity are found in the appearance. Lightly colored wines are generally more crisp and refreshing. Darkly colored wines are generally richer and more thickly textured. White wines with green twinges will be refreshingly tart. Whites with a gold overtones are from very ripe grapes, or have been aged in oak barrels, and will have fruits that are less tart. A translucent ruby colored red will be dominated by red fruits and a lighter texture, while Opaque, inky reds will generally taste of jam and be richly textured. Legs, or tears, on a well polished glass indicate the relative thickness, or viscosity. Slow moving, closely spaced tears show the wine to have higher alcoholic content. Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover?
Smell: You have a wonderful aroma memory bank, 10,000 items for the average person. Without aroma taste is nearly helpless as aroma holds the nuances, so invest triple the amount of time with it. Swirl the wine around the glass and then slowly bring it to and from your nose while taking very slight sniffs. This “trombone” method will expose aromas that exist inside and outside of the glass. Wine is made from fruit so look for those flavors first. You will need to reference your aroma library by using a progressive check off list of fruits that move from tart to rich.
When smelling a white start with tart citrus like lemon and lime, move to tree fruits like apple and pear, then look for stone fruits like peach and nectarine, then look for melon, then look for tropical fruit like pineapple and mango and finally look for cooked, stewed or dried fruits like dried apricot. Red wines have a different list of fruits but use the same idea of progression. Begin the search with red currant or cranberry, move to forest berries like raspberry, then to richer berries like blackberry and blueberry, then look for black fruits like black currant and black plum, lastly search for dried fruits, jammed fruits and cooked fruits.
Once you have found lots of fruit, at least three, you want to look for the things that are not fruit. Inspect the wine for things that remind you of flowers, cooking spices, herbs that are fresh or dried, notes of honey and most certainly creative things like tanned leather. An earthy note can indicate origin of the wine so invest some energy in the search for organic or inorganic aromas. Organic aromas fall into categories like tilled soil, mushroom and wet forest floor. Inorganic smells are related to wet stones, wet slate or chalkiness. Finally check for aromas indicating barrel aging. See if you can find notes of vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, cinnamon, clove, dill or even crème brulée.
Taste: Taste combines the perception of 4 basic tastes (sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, and tartness) and the aromas already found to create flavor. Swish the wine around your mouth a bit, think about all the aromas you just found and ask yourself if you taste all of them. After thinking about the way the wine mimics aroma judge the structure.
First judge the dryness. Dryness is the presence, or lack, of sugar in the wine and should not be confused with ripeness. Sugar is detected primarily on the tip of your tongue, therefore a lack of sensation at that spot means the wine is dry.
Assess acidity, or tartness, on the sides of your tongue next to your molars. Acidity makes your mouth water. The more your mouth waters the higher the acidity in the wine. Traditionally New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is high in acid while New World reds are moderate to low.
Tannin is tasted as bitterness and perceived as a drying sensation that makes your gums fuzzy. High levels of tannin are exceptionally drying to your mouth and may temporarily numb your taste buds. High tannin wines are Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Italian Nebbiolo.
Alcohol is the last structural component to judge and is assessed by the warming effect on the back of the throat. High levels of alcohol warm your throat significantly. Alcohol also dries out your mouth and may be perceived as “cotton mouth”. Calibrate yourself by looking at the published alcohol percentage on the bottle. In the world of wine 14% and up is considered high alcohol, 12.5% is moderate and 10.5% and under is low.
Now ask yourself an honest question or two. Is the structure of the wine in harmony with the flavor? Does one of the structural or flavor elements dominate? If elements are working together to form a sum greater than the parts then the wine is high quality. If not, try a different producer next time.