When most people taste wine, they either like it or they don’t. To demystify some of the intricacies involved in tasting wines, we joined Alpana Singh, owner of the wine-centric Chicago eatery The Boarding House, and the youngest woman ever to achieve the rank of Master Sommelier, for a wine-tasting course about how to taste wine like a professional sommelier.
While tasting wine can be as simple as: “do I like this or not?” there are many attributes of wine: smell and taste and how to put all elements together when pairing wines with food that contribute to the experience.
Singh uses a deductive tasting format to identify the grape, country, origin and vintage wine and offers a variety of tips to help even the novice wine drinker learn how to analyze a wine’s legs, body, nose, and other markers to understand how to get the most out of your wine tasting experience.
Before you start sipping, Singh advises that you take a look at the wine (in daylight if possible). The best way to see the color variances in your wine is to slightly tilt the wine in the glass and hold it up to the light. Look at it against a white or pale, solid color background. The color of your wine will vary according to what types of wine you’re tasting.
In white wines, a dry Sauvignon Blanc will have a paler, almost clear hue, indicating that the grapes were grown in a cooler climate. A big, oaky Chardonnay might have a warm, golden, buttery tone, which indicates that the grapes were grown in a warmer climate or that the wine is barrel-aged.
With red wines, we deal with the skins of grapes. A wine looks pink or magenta around the rim is younger, while an orange tint indicates a wine that has been aged longer. The thicker the skin of the grape, the more color is attributed to the wine. Varietals like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are lighter in color, while bolder Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are made with thicker-skinned grapes.
Why do people swirl a glass of wine before taking a sip, other than simply to look like we know what we’re doing? The purpose of swirling wine in a glass is to aerate the wine and release vapors, which evaporate from the sides of the glass. As the wine coats the glass, it releases what is known as the “bouquet” or scent of the wine.
Swirling your wine is more than just sloshing it around in the glass, though. While firmly holding the stem of the wine glass, you want to gently swirl the glass in tiny circles on a flat surface for 10 to 20 seconds allowing oxygen to penetrate the wine. Observe the streaks of wine (which are called “legs”) as they roll down the side of the glass. The legs can help you determine a lot about your glass of wine.
The more legs, or streaks, you see running down the sides of your glass, the more alcohol there is in the wine. Legs also indicate ripeness of the grape. The riper the grape, the more sugar it will contain and the higher the alcohol content will be. Legs can also help you determine richness and viscosity: weight and body will be higher.
Unlike sight, the smell or aroma of a wine is a highly subjective experience. 70% of our sense of taste is actually in our nose and there are approximately 10,000 different components that we can detect with sense of smell.
To properly sniff your wine, tip the glass up, stick your nose in it and inhale. Some tasters claim that you can get more aroma by holding your nose an inch or so above the glass after swirling, but the process can be different from person to person.
“Scent is is your very own memory and or experience of a scent,” says Singh. “Scent is predominantly built on memorization in the brain.” Comparing smelling wine to “foreplay” Singh explained that wines grown in cooler climates typically have a steely, tart, pale smell, while warm climates produce wine with ripe, buttery rich aromas. Any type of herbal or spicy scent, like cinnamon, vanilla, or clove, most likely resulted from oak or barrel aging. At the top of the glass, the smells are more floral and fruity, while deeper in the glass, they are richer.
Sometimes you’ll hear that a wine is “corked.” While the term sounds ambiguous, Singh assures you that you’ll know when you smell a corked wine, by its moldiness and/or an unmistakeable “wet dog” smell. One in 12 wines are corked and when a server or sommelier is asking you if your wine is OK, they are typically checking in to make sure that your wine hasn’t gone bad.
As you sip your wine, savor it for a moment, letting it spread across the tongue from front to back and side to side before swallowing. This lets you activate all of your important taste buds: the tip of the tongue detects sweetness, the inner sides of the tongue detect sourness and/or acidity and the outer sides of the tongue detect saltiness. If you feel comfortable doing so, carefully slurp some air through your lips. This aerating” will help release flavors and aromas.
At this point you can either spit it out (especially if you are tasting several wines) or simply drink it, but be sure to experience the aftertaste (the finish). Professional wine tasters will not swallow the wine, but immediately spit it out in buckets designated for this purpose.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the taste of your wine is where on your palate it is hitting. Old World Wines, from France Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, tend to have more terroir, and are structure driven. In contrast, New World wines are typically more ‘modern and fruit forward,’ more varietal driven.
When pairing your wine with food, there is no need to overthink the process. “If it grows together, it goes together,”says Singh.
Pair Spanish food with Spanish wines, pair a bold Italian red with your Sicilian meal. In general, sweet wine pairs well with spicy and salty food while Chardonnay and other buttery blends pair well with cream, mushrooms, sauces and cheese. Aged wines or varietals heavy in tannins will pair well with stewed and or braised meats.
“When in doubt, Pinot Noir is most food friendly wine, being free of tannins,” says Singh. “You can pair it with just about anything and most people will be satisfied.”