Wine tasting 101
By Allegra Angelo
Wine tasting 101-
Whether you’re new to wine or have a few bottles under your belt, it’s important to know what you’re looking for. Being able to describe a wine is the first step to buying a bottle you’re guaranteed to love. This is your guide to the typical characteristics of a few of the world’s classic grapes.
Aromas and Flavors
While there isn’t actual fruit in wine (well, other than grapes), chemical compounds give off aromas that are similar to certain fruits, allowing you to smell green apple, dark cherry or Meyer lemon in your glass. Identifying these traits is essential to tasting and should be one of the first things you focus on when describing a wine.
Think of fruit in wines like a fruit basket, some wines have one category of fruit, while others have a mix and match of styles. The main categories of fruit for white wines are: tree fruit (like apple, pear), citrus (lemon, orange), stone (peach, white cherry), and tropical (passionfruit, green papaya). For red wines, it’s simpler: red fruits, blue, and black. Typically cool-climate wines show leaner fruits and warmer climate wines show riper ones — think of the difference between a tart pomegranate, a fresh raspberry and a fleshy black plum. The subtleties are extraordinary.
Pinot Noir: red cherry, raspberry, strawberry
Tempranillo: dark raspberry, red currant, red plum
Cabernet Sauvignon: black currant, black berry, blueberry
Sauvignon Blanc: lemon, grapefruit, passionfruit
Riesling: green apple, lime, peach, pineapple
Viognier: orange, peach, apricot
Once you’ve got a grasp of the types of fruit, qualify them by asking yourself, “Where do these fit on the ripeness scale — are they underripe, just ripe, ripe, overripe, roasted, stewed, candied, and/or dried?” For instance a Pinot Noir from a classic vintage in Burgundy will show fresh, just ripe cherry fruit while a Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley tends to show very ripe, sometimes candied cherry fruit.
Once you’ve identified the fruits and their quality, think of the other elements that are not fruit by using 5 general categories — Nuts & Spices, Florals & Blossoms, Green Notes, Herbs, Mineral or Earth. Keep in mind, these are guidelines and just like the fruit characteristics, non-fruits are influenced by the vintage, the winemaking style of the producer, and youth versus age.
Nuts and Spice can come from the grape itself or oak. Common spices in wine are pepper (all colors), cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, and clove. More exotic spices are saffron, mace, cumin, and juniper berry. Nutty smells like toasted hazelnut, roasted chestnuts, peanut shell, bitter almond, and cracked walnuts are some of the most scintillating in wine.
Florals and Blossoms are linked to the genetic makeup of the grape itself. Use colors — are these florals white or pink, yellow or purple? Again, try qualifying the florals — are they fresh, wet, dried? Noticeable flowers in wine are gardenia, rose, violet, lavender, jasmine, honeysuckle, orange blossom, and lime blossom.
Green Notes are fueled by the organic compound called “Pyrazine” and are influenced by the vintage and level of ripeness. Cooler vintages can exaggerate a wine’s green tones while warmer vintages move the green notes to the backdrop. The signature pyrazine smell is green bell pepper, but jalapeño, aloe, or moss also crossover into that realm.
Herbs, commonly confused with the pyrazines, are a great way to describe wine. Cooking herbs show up regularly in Italian and Spanish wines, driven by the grape or terroir. Think of all the fresh and dried herbs you keep on hand in the kitchen — rosemary, sage, thyme, basil, cilantro, bay leaf, and oregano. Dill is a tricky one because it can have a pyrazinic quality (noticeable in cooler vintages), but it usually pops with the use of American oak, found in old-school styles of Rioja as well as Australian Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, American Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec from Argentina.
Mineral or Earth is perhaps the hardest element to wrap your brain around; it is the elusive yet alluring “X” factor determined by how a grape transmits its sense of place, its vineyard, its home. Some helpful mineral and earth descriptors are: wet rocks, cold stone, warm stone, crystalline, fresh rain, dusty chalk, seashell, baked clay, terra cotta, damp soil, fallen leaves, forest floor, tree bark, damp soil, worn leather, tobacco, flint or smoke.
Syrah: pepper (spice)
Cabernet Sauvignon: green bell pepper (green)
Sangiovese: thyme (herbal)
Nebbiolo: dried rose (floral)
Priorat: warm stone (mineral)
Sauvignon Blanc: green grass (green)
Albariño: jasmine (floral)
Chablis: cold stone (mineral)
This is how the weight of the wine feels on your tongue when you swish it around in your mouth. Pay attention to how water feels on your palate versus an iced tea, how skim milk feels versus whole milk, how whole milk feels versus a light olive oil. Texture is a fascinating component of wine, but does not always match the alcohol and body level. For instance, a Nebbiolo from Piedmont often has a lean texture, but it is powered by elevated alcohol and tannin, making it feel full-bodied. Texture can also be qualified, good words are feathery, silky, supple, oily, chewy, and concentrated. The best way to figure out texture (and any wine characteristic) is to line-up three to five wines, taste and compare, then repeat. The differences will begin to unfold right in front of you.
Typical examples of texture
Pinot Noir: lean
Cabernet Sauvignon: thick
Tannins are natural compounds that exist in the skins, seeds and stems of the grapes. There is also wood tannin, which is a crucial component of most age-worthy red wines. This term is overwhelmingly used for red wine, however, some styles of white wine show a tannin as well due to skin contact methods or time spent in oak.
To understand what low and high tannins mean, steep 3 tea bags in hot water: one for 3 minutes, one for 10 minutes and one for 20 minutes. The longer you steep the tea, the more tannins you are extracting, resulting in a more bitter, more dry feeling in your mouth. Drinking high-tannic reds makes you feel that you soaked up the moisture in your mouth with a cotton ball. These types of red wines can be austere in their youth, but as they age, the tannins soften and melt-away. Once you’ve established the level of tannin, then think about the quality — are they fine/supple or more coarse/gritty?
Typical examples of tannins
Grenache: low tannins, fine/supple
Pinot Noir: low to medium tannins, fine/supple or gritty
Zinfandel: low to medium tannins, fine/supple
Syrah: medium tannins, fine/supple or gritty
Tempranillo: medium tannins, fine/supple or gritty
Merlot: medium-plus tannins, fine/supple
Sangiovese: medium-plus tannins, typically coarse
Nebbiolo: high tannins, typically coarse
Cabernet Sauvignon: high tannins, fine/supple or gritty
Skin-contact whites: medium tannins, typically bitter
Acidity is probably the easiest concept to understand, as it shows up in the foods we eat. Imagine a lemon, fig, avocado, grapefruit and tangerine. Now, based on their average PH level, put them in order from most acidic to least acidic. If you guessed right, the order would go: lemon, grapefruit, tangerine, fig, then avocado. A bone-dry, high-acid Riesling is more like a lemon, while a California Sauvignon Blanc is more like a grapefruit-tangerine, and Gewurztraminer is your fig. You can apply the same method to red wines. A practical tool is “Remember your Bookends.” To calibrate your palate before tasting wine, think of the tartest red wine you’ve recently had, then think of the most plump and flabbiest one — now it’s easier to fill in the middle.
Typical examples of acidity
Gewurztraminer: low acidity
Pinot Gris: medium acidity
Grüner Veltliner: medium-plus acidity
Chenin Blanc: high acidity
Riesling: high acidity
Zinfandel: low-medium acidity
Sangiovese: medium-plus acidity
Barbera: high acidity
Pinot Noir: high acidity
Alcohol is measured in a percentage of alcohol by volume, or ABV. A typical dry wine ranges from 12% to 15%, but there are outliers like off-dry Riesling Kabinetts (around 8.5%) and fortified wines like Port, Sherry, and Madeira (15% - 22%). When you taste, try to guess the ABV of the wine, then look at the label to see if you were close. It’s a simple game, but an efficient way to educate your palate. You can detect the presence of alcohol by a warm sensation after you swallow the wine. One indication of a high-quality wine is when the alcohol fools us, the wine feels lower in alcohol than it actually is. The wine is balanced — a defining characteristic of the world’s greatest wines.
Typical examples of grapes and their alcohol:
Melon de Bourgogne: low alcohol
Pinot Grigio: medium to medium-plus alcohol
Sauvignon Blanc: medium to medium-plus alcohol
Roussanne: high alcohol
Gamay: medium alcohol
Pinot Noir: medium to medium-plus alcohol
Merlot: medium-plus alcohol
Zinfandel: high alcohol
Nebbiolo: high alcohol
Now, put all the pieces (texture, acidity, tannin, and alcohol) together to determine the overall body of a wine.
Here are our suggestions:
Melon de Bourgogne: light
California Sauvignon Blanc: medium-plus
Pinot Noir: medium
Many wines ferment or age in oak, but the type of oak (from what kind of tree to what forest and cooper) will affect the aroma, taste, and structure of the final wine. Depending on the quality of “juice” you put in the barrel, new oak typically imparts more pungent flavors. With second-use barrels, the oak flavors slip into the background, like the bass in a song, totally fundamental but not as forefront as the lead guitar. As barrels become older and older, their flavors approach “neutral." Again, depending on the type of tree, forest, and cooper, oak is a necessary secret weapon for the world’s iconic wines. Seductive flavors include: toast, brioche, vanilla, coconut, dill, caramel, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, clove, and star anise.
Typical examples of wine and oak usage:
Chardonnay, Chablis: no oak
Chardonnay, Chablis Grand Cru: used oak
Chardonnay, Meursault: small % of new oak
Chardonnay, Meursault Premier Cru: moderate % of new oak
Chardonnay, Montrachet Grand Cru: greatest % of new oak
Traditional Rioja: used American oak
Up-and-coming styles of Rioja: used American oak and new French oak
Modern Rioja: new French oak
First-growth Bordeaux: 100% new French oak
Winemakers are skilled craftsmen, and there are plenty of methods one can use to enhance a wine’s flavor or mitigate its weaknesses.
- Malolactic fermentation is white wine talk (almost all reds go through it). Sometimes the winemaker lets the wine decide whether it will convert its sharp malic acid into a creamier lactic one. Other times, the winemaker decides whether to induce “malo” or prohibit it, usually by playing around with yeasts and/or temperature. Think of a crisp apple as your steely, lean Chardonnay and a baked apple as your buttery, rich one.
- Lees are the precipitates, all the “dead junk” that falls out of the wine during fermentation. They might sound gross, but lees are precious, a fundamental building block of complexity. When a wine is aged on its lees, the wine picks up nuances and texture. It’s like adding in another layer, an extra ingredient to a sandwich or cake, making the final version more complex and hopefully more delicious.
- Extended maceration is when the grape juice spends more time touching its skins. Like most good fruits, roots, and vegetables, the skins are a goldmine of antioxidants, pignments, and minerals. Remember, though, the skins contain tannin, so too much skin contact can be a bad, bitter thing! When used in moderation, skin-contact enhances color, texture, structure, and flavor.
Now the fun part
You’re ready to taste! Make it simple and pick one characteristic. Start with 4 wines and look for the subtle differences. It’s a good habit to take notes, so keep a journal on-hand to track your progress and make way for your new delicious.