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Wine tasting – a beginner’s guide

Jonathan Goodall

22 Feb 2018


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Expert Jonathan Goodall uncorks the secrets of wine-tasting to increase your drinking pleasure and point you towards some new wines you might like.

Ever wondered why professional wine tasters make funny faces and rude slurping noises? It’s because there’s a world of difference between tasting wine, which is a job, and drinking wine, which should be one of life’s great pleasures. Yet by honing your tasting techniques – your ability to assess wine critically and methodically – you will take much greater pleasure from the simple act of drinking it. 

Soon you will be thinking – and drinking – outside the box, trying new wines you might never have previously considered, which is what this guide is all about.

Please never forget the first rule of wine tasting: If you like it, it’s good.

What to look for
Tasting
White grapes
Red grapes
Get out of your wine rut

What to look for

Check the brightness

Take a look at the wine in your glass, which should be no more than a quarter full. For maximum visual impact, hold the glass against a white background, like a piece of paper, and tilt it slightly away from you so you’re looking down through the wine at the point where it touches the edge of the glass. 

Young wines have a uniform colour from edge to edge, but if the colour is noticeably paler at the edges or, in red wines, turning a shade of brown, this is a sign of age.

Colour test

White wines darken with age, through various shades of gold to the deep amber of a mature Sauternes; red wines slowly fade from youthful purple to a pale brick-red. A bright, intense colour is an indication of youth and, sometimes, higher acidity. 

Colour is also determined by grape variety and, more specifically, by the thickness of the grape skins, where the pigments are found. For example, thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah grapes produce darker, perhaps purple, wines; thin-skinned Pinot Noir might be a lighter cherry-red. Wines from hotter New World climates (think North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) generally have more intensity of colour than their cooler-climate European equivalents.

Swirl

Next, hold the glass firmly by the base (remember it should be no more than a quarter full) and swirl it around either clockwise or anti-clockwise, but not both at the same time if you value your clothes and/or carpet. This releases (‘volatises’) the aromas before you take a deep inhalation. If, post-swirl, there are viscous, transparent trails running down the sides of the glass, these are called ‘legs’ and are a sign of higher alcohol.

Sniff

It’s called ‘nosing’ the wine because 90% of our sense of ‘taste’ comes via the nerves high in the brain behind the nasal cavity (olfactory bulb). This is why your sense of taste is impaired by a blocked nose. The tongue is a very blunt instrument in comparison, able to detect only four basic sensations: sweet (on the tip of the tongue); salty and sour (at the sides); and bitter (at the back). 

First impressions are most important as the nose quickly wearies of repeatedly smelling the same aromas. Toasty, buttery smells and notes of vanilla indicate that the wine was matured in new oak. Musty, mouldy smells like a damp cellar show the wine is ‘corked’, i.e. sealed with a cork infected by trichloranisole (TCA), an unwanted side-effect of bleaching corks in chlorine solutions.

Did you know? The smelling nerves are adjacent to the memory part of the brain, which is why Proust was always banging on about madeleines.

Tasting

Sip and slurp

Must you slurp? Perhaps not if you’re merely drinking the wine, but yes, you should, if you want the optimum taste experience. Suck in a small amount of air to aerate the wine in your mouth and send those lovely volatile compounds zooming up your nasal cavities. Whether you’re swirling wine in your glass, slurping or decanting wine, the goal is the same, to aerate it, to ‘open it up’.

Now ‘chew’ the wine so that it spreads across all parts of the palate, giving you an indication of ‘mouthfeel’. Is it light and fresh or heavy and full-bodied? Does it have an oily texture or crisp acidity? With red wines, especially young ones, you might experience the alarming drying sensation of sucking on a tea bag. This is caused by tannins, a preservative substance extracted from the grape skins, stems and pips. Such a wine would be described as ‘hard’ or ‘tannic’.

Spit

Professional tasters must spit in order to keep a clear, analytical head. Luckily, you don’t have to. Whether you’ve spat or swallowed, now is the time to assess the wine’s ‘length’. The sign of a really great wine is that it haunts your breath for minutes after it’s gone, receding as slowly as a ship over the horizon.

Did you know? The French have even devised a measure of a wine’s length; one second of flavour after swallowing is called a caudalie.

Spout

Now is the time to pontificate. The holy grail for all wine is ‘balance’, meaning all the constituent parts – fruit, acidity, alcohol, tannins – are roughly in harmony. Before ridiculing wine tasters, consider how difficult it is to describe smells and flavours without resorting to metaphor. Developing your own phrases – ‘wheelbarrows full of ugli fruit’, ‘sweaty gym shoes on hot tarmac’ – is all part of the fun, but here are some acceptable tasting terms:

‘Hot’ – too much alcohol
‘Flabby’ – not enough acidity
‘Dumb’ – doesn’t smell of much; it hasn’t ‘opened up’
‘Forward’ (especially ‘fruit forward’) – it smells very strongly of …
‘Grip’ – firm structure and plenty of tannins (in a good way). Likely to age well
‘Fading’ – lacking in fruit, hasn’t aged well
‘Minerally’ – there are traces of chalk, flint, limestone, etc
‘Nice legs’ – see Swirl
‘Nice nose’ – see Sniff

Tasting tips

  • For best results, wines should be tasted in a rising scale of power and intensity: young before old; light before heavy; dry before sweet; and white before red.
  • The optimum time for tasting is when you are hungry but not tired, when your tasting faculties are at their clearest and most concentrated. So, that’s just before lunch, then.
  • A tasting of the same wine from various vintages is called a vertical tasting; a tasting of different wines (often of the same type) from a single vintage is called a horizontal tasting. Just so you know.

Zen and the art of wine tasting

Wine tasting requires concentration and a clear, open mind. To attain this heightened state of consciousness we must first neutralise the powers of suggestion, which is why professional tasting rooms resemble brightly lit laboratories, devoid of distraction. There are no tasty nibbles to confuse the palate. Smelly cheese is a complete no-no, the preferred palate cleansers being mineral water and biscuits so bland they’re barely cardboard.

Friendly banter is forbidden. The moment someone asks, ‘Does this wine smell of mushrooms?’ the entire room is in complete agreement. The only sounds are sniffing, slurping and spitting – no swallowing.

To remove preconceptions, many wine tastings are conducted ‘blind’, meaning labels are removed or concealed. Burgundian wine trader, writer and philosopher, the late Pierre Poupon, suggested we close our eyes to fully focus: ‘When you taste, don’t look at the bottle, nor the label, nor your surroundings, but look directly inwards to yourself, to observe sensations at their birth and develop impressions to remember.’

Grape expectations

The arrival of New World wines in the 1980s sparked a revolution with the introduction of wines labelled by grape variety. Suddenly we had bottles labelled as Australian Chardonnay and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and wine buying was never easier. Classic European wine labelling focuses on where the wine is made, rather than the grapes it’s made from. 

This follows the concept of ‘terroir’, a concept so inscrutably French that there is no direct translation in English. It basically says that a bottle of wine is an expression of a specific place, being a reflection not only of grape variety but also of the local soil, topography and microclimate. Thus, Chardonnay might be labelled as Chablis or Burgundy.

The various factors of terroir give nuance to the taste of a wine, but the basic building block of flavour is the grape variety. Ampelographers (grape boffins) reckon there are more than 5,000 different wine grape varieties. Here’s a bunch of the most famous and fashionable.

White grapes

Chardonnay

The great white grape of Burgundy and Champagne, super-versatile Chardonnay is a truly global grape, displaying a greater range of flavours than any other.

Taste: From crisp, steely Chablis with green apples, lemon and a mineral, flinty streak, to tropical fruit salad with pineapple chunks, mango, guava and buttered toasty, oaky flavours in hotter climates.

Try: If you like Chardonnay, try wines from these regions: Pouilly-Fuissé, Montrachet, Margaret River. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris.

Sauvignon Blanc

One of the principal white grapes of Bordeaux and the Loire, Sauvignon Blanc has settled in New Zealand with spectacular results.

Taste: French Sauvignon can be quite tart, with crushed nettles, freshly cut grass and pungent gooseberries. New Zealand versions can feature more exotic fruit such as pineapple, kiwi and passionfruit. ‘Cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush’ is wine-trade shorthand.

Try: If you like Sauvignon blanc, try wines from these regions: Graves, Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre, Marlborough. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Riesling, Albarino.

Riesling

The wine buff’s favourite white grape remains largely unscathed by popular demand, which is a great shame. From Germany to Australia, Riesling offers unmatched elegance.

Taste: From the steep banks of the Rhine, Riesling offers crisp green apples and delicate white peach when young; honey, marzipan and a trademark whiff of kerosene with age. Australian Riesling develops ripe lime and toasty flavours.

Try: If you like Riesling try wines from these regions: Clare Valley, Eden Valley. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Müller-Thurgau.

Viognier

Once an obscure grape in a corner of the Rhône, Viognier is now spreading its perfumed charms from Spain to South Africa.

Taste: Luscious apricots, peaches and nectarines with honeysuckle and jasmine aromas and a soft, oily texture.

Try: If you like Viognier, try wines from these regions: Chateau-Grillet, Condrieu. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Albarino, Marsanne, Roussanne, Gewürztraminer.

Gewürztraminer

Alsace was never big enough to contain the intoxicating scents and voluptuous curves of Gewürztraminer; now busting out from Italy to New Zealand.

Taste: Lychees, rose petals and Turkish delight with a heady floral perfume, often described as smelling like a boudoir. Also nutmeg, cloves and spice (Gewürz means spice in German).

Try: wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Viognier, Albarino, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Torrontes.

Pinot Grigio

Italian Pinot Grigio is clean, simple and overwhelmingly popular. In Alsace, where it originated, it’s called Pinot Gris and it’s much more interesting.

Taste: Pinot Gris from Alsace ranges from dry to deliciously sweet and honeyed. We’re talking apples and pears with a touch of peach and white-blossom scents.

Try: wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Crémant d’Alsace, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay.

Albarino

In Galicia, northern Spain, Albarino makes Spain’s most fashionable and expensive white wine. In Portugal, it’s called Alvarinho and it’s the main grape in Vinho Verde.

Taste: Spanish Albarino is loaded with peaches and nectarines, a good citrusy squeeze of lemon and lime, and lovely floral aromas.

Try: If you like Albarino, try wines from these regions: Rias Baixas, Santorini. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Viognier, Marsanne, Rousillon.

Torrontes

Argentina’s unique white grape ripens to perfection in the arid, high-altitude of the Andes.

Taste: Aromatic jasmine and orange blossom with a dash of peach and passionfruit and a crisp, citrusy palate.

Try: wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Albarino, Viognier.

Red grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon

The most famous red grape of Bordeaux, putting blackcurrants and backbone into the lean, muscular wines of the Left Bank (Médoc and Graves). Now grown everywhere. Big in California and Australia.

Taste: Blackcurrant, cassis, black cherry, plum, occasionally green pepper, pencil shavings, cedar wood, cigar boxes, tobacco, mint and eucalyptus.

Try: If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, try wines from these regions: Pauillac, Margaux, St-Estèphe, Napa Valley, Navarra, Coonawarra, Margaret River. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Cabernet Franc, New World Sangiovese.

Merlot

Bordeaux’s number-two red grape, lending softness and approachability to its Right Bank wines. A crowd-pleaser; big in Chile and California.

Taste: Softer and rounder than Cabernet Sauvignon. Strawberry, raspberry, black cherry, blackcurrants, damson, plum. Leather, figs and prunes with age.

Try: If you like Merlot, try wines from these regions: Pomerol, St-Emilion. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tempranillo.

Pinot Noir

The red grape of Burgundy and Champagne is a temperamental traveller, now performing well in New Zealand, northwest USA and Tasmania.

Taste: A lighter, seductive style. Low in tannins with a red-fruit palate of strawberry, raspberry, redcurrants and cherries, developing truffle, farmyard and gamey notes with age.

Try: If you like Pinot Noir, try wines from these regions: Puligny-Montrachet, Vougeot. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Gamay, Tempranillo.

Syrah

The wild, spicy red of the Rhône, aka Shiraz in Australia. Rules the roost in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.

Taste: Blackberries, damsons and plums with a dash of wild herbs, wood smoke and maybe a whiff of violets and liquorice. Developing gamey, leathery, ‘sweaty saddle’ notes.

Try: If you like Syrah, try wines from these regions: Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Pinotage.

Gamay

Light, juicy, fruity grape that puts the jolly in Beaujolais.

Taste: Raspberry and strawberry aromas with boiled sweets, roses and bubblegum. Low in tannins and alcohol with refreshing acidity. Best drunk young and lightly chilled.

Try: If you like Gamay, try wines from these regions: Fleurie, Morgon. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Loire Valley reds.

Grenache

Garnacha in northern Spain; aka Grenache in southern France, where it’s the principal grape in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Can be a bit of a high-alcohol head-banger.

Taste: red fruit, strawberries and raspberries when young, turning spicier and darker – blackcurrants, black cherries, even black olives – with age.

Try: If you like Grenache, try wines from these regions: Navarra, Priorat, Somontano, Corbieres, Fitou, Gigondas, Minervois, Vacqueyras.

Malbec

Originally from Bordeaux, Malbec is a rising star in Argentina and plays a leading role in the ‘black wine’ of Cahors. Successful in Chile and Australia.

Taste: Soft and juicy with dark damson fruit and violet aromas.

Try: wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Shiraz, Nero d’Avola, Negroamaro.

Sangiovese

The archetypal Tuscan grape and mainstay of Chianti. Suddenly sexy and cultivated all over the place, especially in Argentina and California.

Taste: Bitter cherries, sweet-and-sour cranberries with thyme and violet aromas and the savoury quality (sun-dried tomatoes) of Italian reds. Acidity and tannins are high.

Try: If you like Sangiovese try wines from this region: Brunello di Montalcino. Or try wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Tempranillo

The red grape of Rioja, Tempranillo’s supple texture and exuberant fruit has a marvellous affinity with the vanilla and spice flavours of oak ageing. Doing well in Argentina and Portugal.

Taste: Strawberries, blackberries, black cherries and raspberries. Prune, chocolate and tobacco notes develop with age. Softly textured with low-ish acidity and tannin.

Try: If you like Tempranillo, try wines from these regions: Carineña, Navarra, Penedès, Ribera del Duero, Valdepeñas.

Zinfandel

Zinfandel might be the Primitivo grape from southern Italy, or maybe the Plavac Mali grape from the Croatian coast; it is without doubt the signature red grape of California.

Taste: Rich and ripe with a full spice rack of flavours, including black pepper, oregano, clove and cinnamon.

Try: wines made from these similar-tasting grape varieties: Primitivo, Syrah, Pinotage, Malbec, Touriga Nacional.

Get out of your wine rut

If you think you don’t like sweet wines… you probably haven’t tried Muscat de Beaumes de Venise or Muscat de Rivesaltes from Languedoc-Roussillon. Despite their luscious peachy sweetness, these bright, golden wines are neither sickly nor cloying thanks to their fresh, clean citrusy flavours and vibrant acidity. 

The secret is to serve them chilled. They make lip-smacking apéritifs and are wonderful with fruit desserts such as tarte au citron or tarte tatin. But these dessert wines are so good they are not limited to puddings: try them with paté, salty blue cheese such as Roquefort or tangy goats’ cheese such as chèvre.

You won’t buy wines that are oaked. Like using salt in cooking, ageing wines in oak can enhance flavour or smother it. Some grape varieties, such as Chardonnay and Tempranillo (the Rioja grape), have a marvellous affinity with oak, while those with high levels of acidity, such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, simply don’t. 

To best appreciate the difference oak makes with a single grape variety, taste a Chablis (unoaked Chardonnay) before an oak-aged Chardonnay from, say, Margaret River in Australia. The former will be crisp and steely with lovely purity of fruit, while the latter will show the trademark toasty, buttery, vanilla and coconut flavours of oak.

‘I never spend more than…’ How much should you spend on a bottle of wine? Unlike the proverbial piece of string, with wine there is a sweet spot at around a tenner. This is because most elements of a bottle of wine (packaging, transportation, excise duty) are fixed costs. They’ll be the same regardless of the value of the wine. 

Thus, if you spend £5, the value of the wine inside the bottle is just under 50p, whereas if you spend £10, the value of the wine is just under £3. So, for twice the price you get six times the quality.

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Jonathan Goodall

22 Feb 2018


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