Wine Tasting 101

Perhaps you think you have good taste. Chances are, since you’ve visited, that you do. But do you have Supertaste? That’s another question altogether, which we won’t go into now. For the novice wine enthusiast, the perplexing plethora of terms used to describe a wine can be somewhat daunting. That’s a shame, because there is no official dictionary of wine terms, although there are certainly more familiar agreed upon terms (See links, sidebar). Perhaps more important than the ability to describe a wine is the ability to taste it in the first place. And to enjoy it. And then to do it again.

According to modern science, there are three levels of ability to discern taste: Non-tasters, Medium Tasters, and Supertasters. Unless you’re a Non-taster (and you’re probably not a Supertaster, there are not that many of them), you could easily become what we will call a “Good Taster.” All that means is you know how to pay attention to what you’re consuming, you have a good memory for previous experiences with wine, you know what you like and you can approach the subject with a combination of intellectual rigor and hedonistic joy. Combine a Good Taster with a solid command of the English language, and you have one incomprehensible individual, whose experience of a wine comes across more like a geology survey (“…the earthy nose burrows into a concrete dustiness that finishes with a hint of flint…”) than a pleasant libation. Our favorite wine notes come from people who choose a more associative approach, like:

“…this wine is like returning to the womb, swaddling one in rich warm berry hues that comfort like a mother’s voice…”

If that were an actual tasting note, we’d probably recommend a therapist before another glass of wine, but you get the idea. The real point, in our opinion, is to enjoy some wine, and share the experience, as indicated in our taste-off below. Even a novice, however, should know the basics:

Give it a swirl. This helps aerate the wine a bit, it releases aromas by coating the side of the glass with a thin sheet of wine that evaporates quickly. From the grape to your nose, as it should be. You can also ascertain something about the wine’s alcohol content and overall viscosity by examining the “legs” after swirling. Thicker legs means more alcohol. And don’t forget color as an indicator of grape varietal, age, quality, etc. But for the most part, visual appreciation of wine is more or less meaningless. It’s about DRINKING the liquid, yes?

Use a good glass. If you think the shape doesn’t matter, you are seriously misinformed. The shape has a profound effect on the way the wine presents to the nose, as what you’re experiencing, to a large extent, is the release of alcohol molecules, and different shapes concentrate the vapors differently. Different glasses will also present the wine to your palate in different ways, affecting taste and texture. As for thickness, very thin crystal is the best. Use large glasses so your pour doesn’t exceed a quarter or a third of the glass – leaves room for swirling and for the more nasally gifted amongst us.

Give it a taste. In our opinion, convoluted bubbling inhalations of air will help you analyze a wine in depth, but will really only tell youspit how it tastes when you engage in convoluted bubblings. Just bring some wine into your mouth and give it a little taste. You can swish it around to release more aromas – a huge part of tasting depends on the nose. Try tasting anything when you have a cold. It’s hard to really assess the “finish” if you spit (spitting’s okay at Main Wine Club), but in this writer’s opinion swallowing will slowly deteriorate your ability to taste if you sample more than several wines.

Take a break between every few tastes. Drink some water, nibble on some food.