It occurred to me recently that while this website is meant to be friendly enough that someone who knows nothing about wine could read it, I do use a number of terms in my wine reviews that may not be entirely intuitive. So whether you’re just starting a journey exploring wine or you’ve been reading along with me for years and would just like to know a little more about some of the terms I use, this post is on wine tasting basics is for you!
Before we begin you’ll need to gather the following supplies:
- A glass.
- A bottle of a wine.
Got ’em? Good, that’s everything you need! Now pour yourself a glass and sit back and enjoy!
Wine Tasting Basics
Wine is very experiential. If you have a nose and a mouth you have everything you need to begin a lifelong discovery process. I wholeheartedly believe the best wine education you can have is through drinking lots of different wines. It can also be helpful to know and understand a few basic wine terms as you begin this journey. Since the next section of our book details many of our favorite wine picks, now is the perfect time to detail a bit of basic terminology you may encounter along the way.
Besides what the wine looks like (the least fun part of the experience) we are going to cover three areas in this chapter on the wine tasting basics: the aroma/nose, the taste/palate and the finish.
Aroma/Nose: This is what the wine smells like. The aroma actually contributes to the taste of a wine more than you may expect; much of what we know as taste actually comes from the smells that go through our nasal passages while the food or beverage is in our mouths. We know this intuitively — it’s the reason kids plug their noses when they are eating vegetables and the reason foods just don’t have as much taste when we have stuffy noses.
The aromas in wine can also be released and enhanced by swirling it in your glass. We’ve all seen people do it, and while often thought of as a sure sign of a wine snob, it’s actually a very beneficial thing that I encourage you to do. Swirling the wine increases its contact with air, which in turn begins the process of oxidation in the wine — sometimes referred to as letting the wine breathe. As oxygen interacts with the wine different flavors and aromas appear. In many wines, it can be a fascinating thing to smell and taste how the wine changes over the course of a couple hours in your glass. It’s easiest to swirl if you put your glass on a flat surface and make small circles until you get the hang of it.
Other common words used when referring to aroma include bouquet and nose.
Taste/Palate: This is the experience of the wine in your mouth — the tastes and textures. There are hundreds of different flavors that can be found in wine, mostly from the grapes, but also from the influence of whatever the wine was aged in (stainless steel, oak, concrete, etc.). You might expect that at some level all wine tastes like grape juice, but fermented grapes result in an amazing array of fruit flavors — blackberry, plum, and cherry are very common in red wines and citrus and tropical fruits are quite common in whites. You may also find more earthy flavors (think mushrooms or vegetables) or even mineral-like characteristics (think of graphite or flinty notes). You may have heard it said that a wine tastes a bit like the soil it was grown in and this indeed seems to be the case in many instances.
Since wine that has aged in oak barrels soaks up some of the flavors from the wood and sap, it is common to find cedar, vanilla, or even chocolate and cinnamon notes in those wines. In addition to these flavors there are several other factors for taste as well:
- The acidity level of the wine. That mouthwatering sensation you get from tart foods is an indicator of high acidity. Acidity can help keep a wine fresh and can also help a sweet wine taste less so.
- The dryness or sweetness of a wine. This is simply an indication of how sweet a wine is and is often measured by the residual sugar in a wine, which is the number of grams of sugar per liter of wine. Generally anything less than 4-5 g/L is considered dry. Some wine producers will include this information on the label, but not many.
- The body of a wine (i.e., light, medium, or full-bodied) is basically how “full” the wine feels in the mouth compared to other wines.
- The complexity of a wine; in other words, does the wine have lots of different layers and depth, or is it relatively simple and straightforward? If you’re constantly finding new flavors and varied nuances to a wine as you drink it, then that’s a good indication of complexity. In contrast, a wine that is more one dimensional would be considered simple rather than complex.
- Tannins produce a dry, bitter sensation, which doesn’t sound that appealing on the surface, but can be used to great effect in wine, especially in helping it to age gracefully. Tannins are actually a polyphenol (usually with strong antioxidant properties) that come from contact with the grape skins and seeds during fermentation. (The grape juice’s contact with the skins is also where a red wine’s darker color comes from.) Oak aging can also impart tannins to a wine.
- The meaning of minerality in wine is an oft-debated topic, but I use the term in this book to refer to wines that have stoney, chalky, slate, flinty or salty notes, even if they don’t necessarily contain minerals. More often than not these wines have characteristics that one would associate with the soils they are grown in. This is despite researchers’ insistence that grapevines cannot take up minerals from the soil, and that many of these minerals have no smell or taste. Yet, somehow, the impression one gets when drinking these wines is unmistakably mineral and so we describe it as such.
Finish: The finish is how a wine ends. It’s what happens in your mouth after you swallow. Do the flavors linger? Do they change? The finish is often described in terms of length (short, medium, long) and dryness (does your mouth feel dry after you swallow).
This article on the Wine Tasting Basics is an excerpt from Reverse Wine Snob: How to Buy and Drink Great Wine without Breaking the Bank available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and most other book retailers!