If you have ever seen a sommelier or a wine professional taste wine, you may have noticed that there is a lot more to it than simply lifting the glass to your lips and taking a swig. Indeed, to get the most out of tasting a wine, a sommelier will follow a specific procedure that is designed to provide the taster with as much sensory information about the wine as possible. This article will go over a sommelier’s approach to wine tasting and give you the knowhow to taste wine like a pro!
Setting the Scene
The environment in which a wine is tasted will have an effect on the experience. When tasting wine, it is important that there are no extraneous smells in the air. Extraneous smells will weaken your perception to the aromas of the wine you are sampling. For example, a kitchen where something is cooking is an unwise place to smell a wine because it will be impossible to separate the smell of the wine from the smell of the food. It is also important to be in a room with good natural light. Natural light will allow you to assess the colour of the wine clearly. Lastly, a quiet space is preferable to a noisy environment. Tasting wine properly requires concentration and noisy environments can be distracting.
The Five ‘S’s
When tasting wine it is important to follow the Five ‘S’s in order: See, Smell, Swirl, Smell again, and Sip twice.
Wine is pleasure. We love wine not only because it tastes good and it makes us feel good (when consumed in moderation, of course) but because it is beautiful to look at as well. It is important to have natural light present to see the wine’s colour uninfluenced by the colours cast by artificial light. Hold the wine up to the light and against a white backdrop (holding a cocktail napkin behind the bowl of the glass works great). Looking at the colour can tell you many things about the wine. Firstly, is it a white wine, a red wine, a rosé, a sparkling wine, or a fortified wine…? All wines change colour with age: whites slowly become darker while reds slowly become lighter, and all wines will eventually turn brown. The hue of the wine can offer an indication of whether the wine was matured in an oak barrel or not (maturing in barrel will darken the wine’s colour). Also examine the wine for any broken cork material, natural sediment, or wine diamonds.
Stick your nose into the glass as far as you can and inhale strongly. Enjoy the many different scents that delight the nose. You may pick up on aromas of fruits, flowers, earth, or other things. When we describe the aroma of a wine, we attribute the smell to the scents of other things that we are familiar with. If you smell “peach” or “blackberry” in the wine, it does not mean that peach or blackberry was added to the wine. It is simply a way of describing the scent to others in a way that can be easily understood.
Smelling the wine is important because it will give you a chance to detect any faults in the wine before drinking it. If the wine smells like “wet dog,” “soaked cardboard,” “damp basement,” “vinegar,” or any other unpleasant smell, it is an indication that the wine contains a fault. A fault is caused by an error in the winemaking process. The most common cause of a fault is tainted cork material which causes a musty scent and stale flavour in the wine after the wine is sealed.
Firmly hold the glass by the base or by the stem and draw fast circles to make the wine swirl in your glass. The shape of the wine glass should prevent any wine from flying out. Swirling your glass of wine is known as “humouring,” and it is done to force oxygen into the liquid. Wine interacts positively with oxygen (to a point), and forcing oxygen into the wine by humouring it will “open” the wine and allow it to express its scents and flavours more intensely.
Smell the wine a second time. After humouring the wine it should smell more intense, and you might be able to pick up on a greater variety of scents as well.
It is important to sip the wine twice before making a judgement on its quality and deciding whether or not you enjoy it. The first sip is used to cleanse your palate. You palate will have residue on it from whatever you ate or drank last. Pass the wine all over your palate by swishing it around your mouth and then swallow. Once your palate has been cleansed, take a second sip of wine. On the second sip, take your time with the wine. Allow the liquid to pass over all the different parts of your tongue. Different parts of the human tongue are sensitive to different flavours. The tip of the tongue is sensitive to sweetness, the back of the tongue is sensitive to bitter and savoury notes, and the sides of the tongue are sensitive to sourness and acids. If you pour the liquid in your mouth and swallow it quickly, you will deprive yourself of the opportunity to pick up on the mosaic of flavours that make up the wine. To get even more out of the experience, try leaning your head forward, making a roll with your tongue, and sucking air into your mouth while the wine is still on your tongue. This will force air into the wine while it is on your palate, further opening the wine’s many flavours to your perception. Finally, swallow the wine. Be sure to note any aftertaste that lingers after swallowing.
By following this procedural approach to sampling, you will be tasting wine like a sommelier in no time! To learn more about tasting wine, as well as pairing wine with foods, and how wine is made, join the Wine Smart Guides at Niagara Vintage Wine Tours on a tour of Niagara’s wine country. Cheers!
Michael Twyman – Sommelier and Niagara Wine Country Guide for Niagara Vintage Wine Tours and Bootleggers