WHEN IT COMES to tasting wine, most consumers want to get it into their mouths as quickly as possible. But there’s a lot you can tell about the condition, age and weight of the wine by studying its colour and appearance, even before you put the glass to your nose.
Whether white, pink or red, wine should have a bright, clean hue. White wines deepen in colour with age, going from straw to golden, while reds lose colour as they age and eventually turn tawny at the rim.
After you’ve swirled the glass, a colourless liquid will slide back to the surface of the wine in a series of "tears." This tells you something about the alcoholic strength of the wine: the thicker and slower-moving these tears are, the higher the alcohol content.
The French call this effect "legs." The Germans call it "church windows," which shows rather a different national perspective on these matters.
The next step is nosing the glass. Your nose is your most important organ when it comes to wine tasting. Your nose will tell you everything you want to know about the wine except how long the flavour will last in the mouth.
Your palate, by contrast, is a blunt instrument. It registers only five tastes: sweet, salty, sour (acidity), bitterness (tannin), and a fifth taste called umami, a savoury taste like soya sauce or tomatoes.
Just to show how powerful your sense of smell is relative to your sense of taste, you can smell 400 molecules of a substance, but in order to taste it, you must have at least 25,000 molecules dissolved in the saliva on your tongue.
In fact, you taste with your nose. Try this simple experiment next time you pour a glass of wine: pinch your nostrils shut and take a sip on wine. Keep your nose closed for five seconds after you’ve swallowed. Release and take a deep breath. You will only begin to taste the wine when your nose is clear.
The taste buds on your tongue transmit those five basic tastes up to the tiny hairs at the top of your nose, where they are decoded so that you experience the flavour of, say, lobster or strawberries.
If your nose is blocked or you have a cold, you’re not going to taste properly. (Remember what your mother used to say when you had to take some disagreeable medicine: "Hold your nose and you won’t taste it." Listen to your mother.)
Next, the smell of the wine. Swirl the glass to activate the bouquet. The action of swirling causes friction that warms up the esters that carry the wine’s aromatics. Give the wine tiny little sniffs and experience what happens in your mouth.
The tartaric acid in dry white wines and champagne will trigger your glands to secrete saliva, which will stimulate your appetite. So, if you want your guests to eat your food, serve them a dry white wine before the meal. If, on the other hand, you have a horde of people descend on you and you have nothing in the house, pour them a sweet wine as this will depress their appetite.
Your first sniff of the wine is like choosing a spouse: you start off negative; you’re looking for faults. Is there anything wrong with it? Does it smell like your son’s hockey bag? Once you’re satisfied that there is no cork taint (swamped basement smell) or oxidation (prunes if red, sherry if white), reductive notes (struck flint) or volatility (nail polish aromas), then you can start to praise its virtues.
Try to deconstruct the bouquet. Does it smell of fruit or berries or vegetables? Are there oak aromas (vanilla or sandalwood)? Certain grapes have characteristic bouquets, for example: blackcurrants (Cabernet Sauvignon); raspberries and cherries (Pinot Noir); blackberries and pepper (Syrah); apples (Chardonnay); gooseberries (Sauvignon Blanc); and grapefruit and lime (Riesling).
Now take some wine in your mouth and let it wash over your entire palate as we experience different tastes on different parts of the tongue. We taste sweet and salt on the tip of the tongue, sour (acid) on the sides of the tongue, and bitterness at the back and on the roof of the mouth.
Here’s a wine professional’s trick. With wine in your mouth, suck in air so that the esters will travel down your throat and up to the top of your nose where you experience smell and taste. Not something you want to do at smart dinner parties as it sounds like gargling, but I guarantee, in the privacy of your own kitchen, you will extract more flavour from the wine. It’s a technique you might want to practise first in the bath.
The mark of a great wine is how long the flavour lingers on your palate. The French have a measurement for this called caudalie. The Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux defines it as a unit measuring the duration of the aromatic persistence of a wine. Derived from the word caudal, meaning tail, one caudalie is equal to one second. A fine wine has a finish of eight or more caudalies.
So, now you’re an expert.
Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.