If you love a great drop, you’ll probably be familiar with some of the associated traditions and rituals around wine. But for the uninitiated, they can sometimes feel like unnecessary barriers – overcomplicating the simple idea of enjoying great wine. However, getting to grips with even just the basics of wine appreciation can make the experience so much more pleasurable. There is no right or wrong way to taste wine. But just a little knowledge and preparation can go a long way to getting more out of every glass.
One of the easiest ways to improve the quality of your wine is to have a decent glass to drink it from. The size, shape and type of glass you use can make all the difference. A stemmed, clear, tulip-shaped glass should be what you’re looking for – one in which you can easily swirl a small sample of wine. You can also buy glasses made for specific varietals – created to make the most of the wine it was designed for, with different capacities and widths of rim to help manage the aroma and tannins experienced when drinking.
Red and white glasses
The glassware for a red wine should allow a generous amount to be poured, while still leaving plenty of air in the glass. This heightens the sensation of the wine’s aroma, an important element in tasting. White wine glasses are generally smaller and narrower, directing the wine to the centre of the tongue, reducing the acidity tasted by the sensors at the sides of the tongue. Champagne glasses are even narrower, so you can experience the sensations of rich honey, bread and yeasty flavours, which are detected on the tip and centre of the tongue.
To taste a wine at its best, make sure it’s served at the right temperature. You’ll taste more flavour in a wine that’s slightly warmer – even whites shouldn’t be chilled too much or you’ll lose some of the more subtle accents. Pour about half a glass. This will allow the aroma of the wine to fill the rest of the glass and prevent any spilling when you swirl the wine in the glass. Hold the glass by the stem or base – not the bowl – to stop your body temperature effecting the temperature of the wine.
If possible, hold your glass against a white background, such as a tablecloth or tasting mat. The colour and appearance of a wine tells a lot about how it will taste, and is influenced by a number of things – the grape variety, the winemaking process and the age of the wine. White wines typically range in colour from transparent to pale greens, light straw through to golden yellows. Red wines range from thin brick red, to the deep opaque bluish-purples usually associated with younger wines. Swirl the wine around your glass and take note of the wine’s ‘viscosity’ – the long strands that cling to the side of the glass. These are referred to as ‘legs’ and indicate a wine with a relatively high alcohol content.
Our sense of taste is derived not only from the mouth, but the nose. In fact 90% of what we call taste is really from our sense of smell. The aroma of a wine can thereby provide vital insights into such things as the grape varietal it was sourced from, its ripeness, the soil and climate conditions the vines experienced and any winemaker influence on the wine, such as oak maturation. To release the flavours and aromas, swirl the wine in the glass and get some air into the wine. The more it is aerated, the more the aroma will be revealed. Then place your nose right into the rim of the glass and inhale deeply. While pleasant aroma doesn’t always guarantee a great tasting wine, and vice versa, it can give you a few clues as to what to expect.
Here’s to good taste
Move the wine all around your mouth, coating your tongue and mouth. Wine tasting is a different experience for every part of your mouth. Sweetness gives a warm feeling on the tip of your tongue, while acids cause a sharp ‘pulling’ feeling on the sides of the tongue towards the front. Tannin grips the side of the tongue at the back, while the alcohol content presents itself as a hot feeling at the rear of your mouth near the throat and back of the tongue. One of the most exciting parts about tasting wine is just how many different flavours there are. At first a wine may appear to contain just one or two dominant flavours. But probe a little deeper, and you’ll detect more and more layers of flavour and aromas. This is what can often make a good wine great.
How to describe the flavour
Try to identify flavours and aromas using terms you know and understand, rather than trying to describe them with words you may have read in the wine columns. As a wine ages, the flavours and aromas change. A Riesling, for instance, might display citrus and lime characters while young, but will transform to reveal flavours and aromas of honey and cloves as the wine matures in the bottle.
Flavour characteristics of individual grape varietals
Specific grapes have particular flavours and aromas, which they impart to the finished wine. But climate, region and winemaking technique can also affect the palate of a particular grape varietal. So a Riesling from the Clare Valley, for instance, will probably taste quite different from one grown in Margaret River or Germany. Nevertheless, here are a few key flavours and aromas you might notice in some of the more popular grape varietals. To learn more about the most common grape varieties make sure to visit our grape varieties section.
RIESLING: Green apple, lemon, lime, citrus, musk, rose petal.
SAUVIGNON BLANC: Gooseberry, capsicum, lemon, grapefruit, passionfruit, asparagus, lime, melon.
CHARDONNAY: Melon, peach, nectarine, butterscotch, caramel, cashew, toast.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON: Blackcurrant, cassis, mint, cedar, berries, tobacco leaf.
MERLOT: Violets, raspberry, blackberry, musk, cinnamon, stewed plums.
SHIRAZ: Plum, pepper, black cherry, blueberry, aniseed, licorice.