Whether the result of the hit documentary Somm, or simply another temporal market trend among millennial consumers, wine drinkers nationwide have become undeniably intoxicated with new “super-somm” culture. Sommeliers and wine professionals have assumed celebrity chef like status in food centric cities across the map, and many everyday drinkers have subsequently made a manic jump onto the swirl & spit bandwagon. How to order. How to shop. How to pair. And most dauntingly, how to taste.
“I don’t know what I’m tasting.”
“I’m really not good at wine.”
“I really should be more educated with what I drink.”
It’s no secret that wine intimidates the majority of its core buyers, but for what reason? As a wine professional, one is expected to understand aromatic components and structural balances and imbalances in a wine. Winemakers, wine buyers, retailers, and distributors are trained to analyze wine because it’s vital to our occupation. We must be able to transcribe what’s in the glass onto paper in order to fulfill our daily tasks and to prove our expertise among other professionals. Tasting is a tool, not a magic trick.
But for the every day drinker and the wine enthusiast, I offer one very simple key to tasting wine: don’t taste on paper.
I don’t buy an album to critique its chord progressions, and I don’t go to football games to chart the receiver’s routes. I listen to what speaks to me, and I buy tickets to see teams I love. For those of us outside of these industries, their correct place is one of enjoyment, not analyzation. And my hope for you is that tasting wine is no different.
So with the ratings, numbers, and hints of sandalwood aside, let’s explore four key steps to tasting like an everyday sommelier.
Whether your wine is white, red, rosé, or sparkling should indicate two things: that the wine is A) the kind you ordered and B) the kind you like. Simple as that. There are, however, a few tricks of the trade to clue you in to the general style of what’s in your glass.
For whites, is the color closer to a platinum color job or a sun-kissed, natural blond? Lighter, more florescent, straw colored wines tend to be more tart, mineral-driven, and refreshing, while richer, yellow to golden hues indicate a rounder, fuller wine that often have ripe fruit flavors or toasty oak properties.
For reds, does the wine show a purple or a red tint around its edges? Those with deeper, cool hues generally yield wines with a more lush, flamboyant flavor than those of red brick color, which typically indicate a drier style wine intended to pair with food. Think new American vs. classic Italy. Cowboy Stadium vs. The Colosseum.
The science behind it? Anthrocyanins. A chemical compound inherent to grape skins that imparts either a red or blue hue to the juice of the grapes, and ultimately the finished wine. Grapes with fewer anthrocyanins typically produce a lighter color and higher acid levels, while those with a higher concentration of the chemical yield darker colors and lower acid.
The biggest fear of the wine consumer. Do I swirl or just sniff? How do I know what I smell, much less communicate it? How do I know if a wine is “flawed”?
First and foremost, don’t be afraid to huff and puff. Biology tells us that 80% of what we taste is what we smell. Our olfactory senses are responsible for all the gorgeous flavors we taste on a day to day basis. So sniff away! But never feel bound by the classic descriptors. When exploring the nose of a wine, ask the questions that matter to you, not the ones regurgitated in The Spectator. Don’t be afraid to express the scents that come to mind as you explore the wine: coca-cola, grandma’s blackberry pie, wet gym socks - sound silly? Perhaps, but these are all valid, relatable descriptors.
Then simply ask, are these aromas pleasant or off-putting? Do you smell more fruit or more dirty earth components? How toasty or sweet does the wine smell? All of these initial conclusions will help you to categorize what styles of wines you like and dislike for the future.
Another facet to always consider when smelling a wine is “how’s the volume?”. Are the aromas of the wine rowdy and in your face, or are they fairly muted? This will also be an indicator of your entire impending experience with the wine. If your olfactory speakers are bumping, get ready for a mouth full of flavor. If they’re using more of an inside voice, expect something a little more nuanced and refined.
Disclaimer here: refined does not mean boring! Some initially hushed aromatic wines can open up into the most complex flavors. You just have to be willing to listen.
Be wary of the death by swish. While roughing up the wine before swallowing is the best way to wake up all its flavors, both tannin (dryness) and alcohol are amplified as you swish. To fully experience the flavors of the wine without assaulting your palate, simply allow it to ebb and flow over every surface of your mouth.
Some of the best questions to assess the overall flavors and mouthfeel of the wine:
Do the flavors you taste confirm or deny what you smelled on the nose? (“terrior-driven” vs. a product of the winery)
Do you salivate after a sip, or grasp for a glass of water? (acidic vs. tannic)
Does it entice you to take another sip? (balance & personal preference)
Does the flavor or mouthfeel change over the course of a glass? Over the course of a bottle? (complexity)
Conclusion translates to value - value for the bottle and value for your palate. Did you enjoy the wine enough to order it again or buy it for your home? Did it keep you on your toes or bore you after the first few sips? Does the price of the bottle justify the wine’s complexity and character, and is it worth paying for on a regular basis? Would you recommend it to others?
And one of my favorite benchmarks for discerning the ultimate value of a wine: would you cellar the bottle or keep it countertop? Meaning, does this wine merit a bottle or two to keep tucked away for anniversaries, or will it sit aside your Starbucks refreshers and protein bars on the kitchen counter? Each has its place, but understanding how you personally experience and subsequently categorize each wine, from sight to nose to palate to pocketbook, is the true trick to tasting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I guess you could say I have an inorganic love for wine. I didn’t grow up in a vineyard or in a restaurant, taking family trips to Tuscany and Bordeaux, or opening old Burgundies with Thanksgiving dinner. My initial interest in wine is came not by nature, but by nurture, when at the conclusion of a summer abroad in Athens, Greece, I shared a carafe of mediocre table wine with my mother overlooking some of history’s greatest ruins. A vinous vehicle that segued us from mother-daughter hierarchy to true friendship, wine has since become not just a drink for me but a means of fellowship, relationship, and shared joy.
With my new intoxication with wine and a B.A. in Creative Writing, I began pursuing an ever insatiable journey to blend my two passions: wine and writing. I currently work as a wine sales representative and consultant in Austin, TX, and continue to share my discoveries, experiences, and guidance within the world of wine with loyal readers through my blog, VoluptuousVines. During my time in the industry, I’ve been blessed to shadow winemakers and sommeliers alike, working hands-on during the 2013 harvest Joseph Phelps Vineyards’ cellar crew in Napa Valley. I currently hold certifications from Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and Society of Wine Educators, and am preparing for the Certified Sommelier exam this coming August.