Tips for tasting
Wine tasting can seem like an arcane activity unless you’re a professional, involved in the making or selling of wine.
Some people struggle to find the aromas and flavours that professionals claim to find in wine. Some find tasting more than half a dozen wines at a sitting too much for their palates.
I have a few tips for amateurs who are looking for a way through the maze. Here’s a mixed dozen.
- Practice makes perfect. The more you taste, the better you’ll get at it. Don’t pass up an opportunity to taste wine with someone who knows more than you. You will always learn something, and, like playing tennis against someone who’s better than you, it will improve your game.
- Make notes. Even if you have a reliable memory, note-taking is a great aide memoire. Even the most rudimentary notes help you recall a wine days or even weeks after tasting it.
- Relax. It’s common to ‘run out of sniff’ if you’ve been working your olfactory system hard. When fatigued, you find the harder you sniff the less you can smell. So rest your nose. Even a minute or two’s rest can do the trick. Your sense of smell recovers quickly.
- Score each wine. It doesn’t matter how basic your system – and you can score out of 10, 20, 100, or use one to five stars – or just use ticks. Rating how much you liked a wine counts for a great deal later, when you’re deciding whether to buy some, or even trying to remember how much you enjoyed it.
- Spit! If you want to taste critically, you can’t afford to swallow. Alcohol dulls the brain, and serious tasting requires concentration and acuity. Both suffer the more alcohol is in your system. Ask for a bucket if none is provided.
- Rinse your mouth with water between wines. This is optional. I don’t usually do it myself. But, if you’re tasting several wines of the same type and you’re finding they’re starting to taste same-ish, a rinse between each sample can refresh your palate.
- Swirl the glass. Swirling is not an affectation. It coats the interior of the glass with wine, and this amplifies the aroma that emanates from the glass, making it easier to smell.
- Use a white background and ensure you have a good light source. If there’s no white table, a sheet of white paper is good. This helps you assess colour.
- Always taste ‘blind’ if you can. This isn’t always possible. Not knowing the identity of the wine in your glass keeps you honest. It stops you making subconscious assumptions about style and quality before you actually taste.
- Form your own impressions before you listen to other people’s. Most of us are open to influence by a loud, opinionated person who seems to know what he’s talking about (it’s nearly always a he).
- Use appropriate glassware, which means a fine crystal glass with a stem and a reasonably large bowl. The larger the bowl (within reason), the more intensity and diversity of aroma you’ll perceive. A stem protects the bowl from the heat and grease of your hand, and makes it easier to assess wine’s appearance.
- Expose yourself to other people’s opinions by enrolling in a class, frequenting retailers’ free Saturday tastings, touring wineries or starting your own tasting group. But whatever you do, make it fun.
*First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine, June-July 2016.