Tasting is a skill we are all born with, and most people are far better equipped to taste than they realise.
If you think about it, almost everyone can describe the aromas and flavours of the food they eat, often with passion too. And if you can do this then you are perfectly well equipped to crack the seemingly daunting task of tasting wine like a professional.
If you have ever seen a professional wine tasting in action then you’d be forgiven for thinking that the assembled gargoyles had lost the plot. With brows wrinkled in concentration, it’s sniff, slurp, spit, followed by scribbled notes, then on to the next, again and again, for 50, perhaps 100 or more wines. Top tasters will repeat this ritual up to 10,000 times a year, honing their palate in an Olympian effort to find the best bottles out there.
By focusing briefly on what’s in your glass however, rather than hoofing it down like there’s no tomorrow, you can actually train yourself to remember what you like – or dislike – about a style of wine. Better yet, you are much more likely to remember the wines you like next time you are faced with a restaurant list or looming wine merchant.
Step 1: Use your eyes
First, look at the wine and give it a small swirl. Is it clear, bright, healthy looking? Richer-coloured whites may be oakier or have more age, or both, while denser reds are again most likely heavier wines, with purple hues suggesting youth, mellowing to gentler red and brown-red colours as they age. The streaks of wine that remain on the glass (‘tears’ or ‘legs’) suggest a ‘fuller bodied’ wine.
Step 2: Use your nose
Then stick your nose in and sniff deeply. All that nonsense about damsons and marmalade with a whiff of fresh tobacco doesn’t sound so ridiculous when you find out that fermented grapes, oak barrels and yeast all impart aromas and flavours that are the same compounds found in other foods. Identifying grassy aromas in Sauvignon Blanc or blackberry fruit in Argentinian Malbec simply helps you to remember a wine style and thus what you like.
Oh, and if it smells bad or off in any way, then reject it. The most common offender is a nasty little molecule called TCA – responsible for what is commonly known as ‘corked’ wine – which pollutes the wine with an aroma and flavor akin to tramp’s toe rags.
Step 3: Take a sip
Tasting a wine often simply confirms what you have sniffed on the ‘nose’. It’s worth thinking about the acidity (without which wine would taste flat like a sickly fruit juice) and, in reds, the tannin (think of the mouth-puckering tannin in stewed tea) which can be coarse and palate-stripping (bad) or still give some bite but if refreshing (good) helps the wine pair with food and age gracefully.
Step 4: Spit or swallow?
It’s at this point that tasting pros and punters differ; the former almost always spit out the wine!
The final questions all those professional tasters ask themselves, though, are these: ‘Do I like it?’ And, ‘is it worth the price tag?’ If the wine ticks all the right boxes – for you – then have a good long look at the label. It sounds so obvious, but without taking notice of what the wine is (Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc; the producer’s name; the vintage) you will never remember what it is you drank among the 40,000 wines currently on the shelves of Britain.
It’s also a great skill to develop if you enjoy buying direct from the producers themselves. On a recent trip to Argentina for example, I visited several wineries that I had little previous knowledge of and, with many of them being young ventures, there was little by way of guidance from fellow ‘experts’ as to what was best to try and focus on.
Dipping in and out of wineries around Mendoza, tasting with a view either to writing about the best finds or buying a few gems for one’s own cellar, a little concentration on the liquid in the glass – sniff, slurp and spit (if you like) – really adds to the pleasure.
Whether a wine taster by trade, or a regular wine lover looking to pick up a great find at the cellar door, a little tasting knowledge goes a long way. It gives you the confidence to decide what it is you really like – and whether it is worth the loot – when tasting. And, like riding a bicycle, once you’ve mastered the basics, it can bring a lifetime of simple yet satisfying pleasure.
By Andrew Catchpole, a contributing writer for TheRealArgentina.com.