To the average wine consumer, the quirks associated with professional wine tasting may seem unnecessary, if not downright silly. Assessing legs, shade and rim, aroma, structure, length, sniffing and spitting can all, understandably, seem frivolous.
However, wine tasting is a fascinating art. It helps wine lovers and professionals alike to correctly judge the maturity, quality, and even origin of a given wine. It also forces the taster to put words to sensations, which is hugely helpful in remembering wines, and when describing wine to a client. It will also improve your food and wine pairing skills, as you will get a better understanding of the structural elements of the wine.
Wine tasting is no longer the reserve of sommeliers or wine buffs - It’s a useful skill for anybody involved in the wine industry. As a Steward or Stewardess, you are likely to be working with some of the most exclusive wines in the world, which is quite a privilege. You will taste wines that most wine lovers can only dream of, so learning to taste like a professional is a great opportunity to accurately assess and appreciate these special bottles.
When drinking wine from now on, make a habit of properly tasting by following these four steps. While writing tasting notes for every wine you drink may feel excessive, becoming familiar with these steps and considering this approach will be of tremendous benefit and vastly improve your wine knowledge!
In assessing a wine’s appearance, there are three aspects to consider: clarity, colour intensity, and shade. Regarding clarity, most wines should be clear, that is, without any haze or sediment. Some wines appear slightly cloudy because the winemaker has decided not to fine or filter them, as these processes can remove some of the wine’s complexity and flavour.
The intensity of the colour can hint towards the grape variety. Darker wines tend to be made from thick-skinned varieties and tend to be fuller in body, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. A paler wine will usually be lighter in body, with Pinot Noir being the classic example.
The shade of the wine will give an indication as to its maturity. All red wine start its life with an almost purple shade and will eventually evolve to a tawny colour. Depending on the type of wine, the journey from purple to tawny can take just a few years, such as with a simple Beaujolais Nouveau, or several decades for top wines such as Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux. Purple hues in a wine are a sign of youth, while tawny shades suggest maturity.
For rosé wines, the shade will shift from a cooler pink to a more orange hue with age. White wines will go from pale lemon colour to more golden and, eventually, amber if completely oxidised. A white wine showing hints of brown is very likely to be oxidised. There are of course some deliberately oxidised wines, where this colour and associated aromas are simply part of the wine’s character.
One final consideration with appearance is the wine’s legs or tears. These are the droplets that run down slowly on the inside of the glass after swirling. Wines with more legs tend to have high viscosity, a result of either high alcohol, sweetness, or both.
A very pleasurable part of wine tasting is simply to smell the wine. To get the most out of the wine, it’s important to swirl it around so that oxygen can assist in releasing the aroma. Complex wine can reveal a world of different aromas that continue to develop in the glass. This complexity is also a critical factor when judging wine quality. Simpler wines tend to be rather one-dimensional, with a limited aroma profile. A more complex wine, on the other hand, may offer aromas like tar, roses, leather, truffles and smoke, all at the same time.
Smelling wine can cause difficulty for many new tasters, as searching for aromas can feel unfamiliar. “It just smells like wine!” is a common remark. With practice, it becomes evident that there is much more to find.
When starting out, I recommend splitting aromas into one of two categories: The first covers fruity, floral and fresh aromas, while the second shows more earthy notes, like mushrooms, leather and smoke. Once you have decided on a category – remembering that some wines will have both – then you can begin to drill down and assess whether what you are detecting is citrus fruit, stone fruit, red fruit or whatever else.
White wines tend to be described in terms of white fruits, and red wines with red fruits. The second category of more earthy aromas is mostly relevant for more mature wines.
Use this simplified system to get used to identifying some aromas. When you are comfortable, you can then take things a little further. Wine tasters tend to divide aromas into three categories:
Primary aromas, which come from the grapes and include fruity, herbal and floral notes
Secondary aromas, which come from winemaking methods including oak and malolactic fermentation, and include things like toast, toffee, almonds, vanilla, cloves, butter, brioche and more
Tertiary aromas, which come from the ageing in bottle, oak, or both. These aromas include dried fruits like prunes, leather, earth and mushroom.
We may think that we can detect flavours with our tongue, but it’s not that simple. The tongue can only detect a relatively small range of tastes, namely: salt, acidity, sweetness, bitterness and umami - a savoury substance related to monosodium glutamate (MSG). The actual flavours we feel on the palate are in fact thanks to our nose.
To get a full impression of a wine, take a sip and roll it around all parts of your mouth. Next, comes the tricky part: Draw some air through the wine to aerate it while still in your mouth. This will release more flavours, and, despite its inelegance, is the only way to taste a wine properly.
More important on the palate than the actual flavour perceptions are the wine’s structure and balance. The main structural elements to consider are tannin, acidity, alcohol and sweetness – or lack thereof.
Tannin is only found in red wine and results in a drying, almost bitter sensation on the palate. If you are struggling to detect tannin, taste some black tea that has been steeped for too long and you’ll know all about it. All these elements should be balanced for a wine to be of good quality. Thankfully, it’s quite rare today to find wine that is out of balance, as modern winemaking techniques allow for adjustments.
On the palate, one also talks about the body: Is the wine full-bodied, medium-bodied or light-bodied? The higher the alcohol, the fuller-bodied the wine is likely to be. However, it is not alcohol alone that defines the body, but rather an overall impression of all structural elements.
Having assessed how the wine tastes, it’s now time to spit – at least if you are tasting at a wine course or professional wine tasting event. Spitting is necessary, despite how unflattering it may sound. Believe me, after your tenth sip of wine you will have lost much of your tasting ability, so you are much better off to get accustomed to spitting.
4. Conclusion and Assessing Quality
The main aspects to assess in your conclusion are quality level and readiness for drinking or maturity. Wine quality can be difficult to evaluate when you first start tasting. Although wine professionals sometimes disagree on quality, the same criteria are always assessed. These are balance, intensity, length and complexity, or BILC for short.
Though the clear majority of wine today is balanced, it is still something to look for when assessing quality. Balance refers to the structural elements of wine such as acidity, alcohol, sweetness and tannin. Are they all in balance, or does one of the elements stand out in a harsh or excessive manner? Note, however, that a wine can be very sweet and be fully balanced if it has enough acidity to back it up. Or, a wine can be high in alcohol yet still balanced, provided there is enough richness and concentration of fruit in the wine.
Intensity on its own isn’t enough to indicate a high-quality wine, but together with the other criteria it certainly is. There are plenty of rather simple wines that can have an intense aroma and flavour, yet be very short and one-dimensional.
Once you have swallowed or spat the wine, it’s time to assess its length or finish, which is a surefire indicator of quality. The finish can be tough to judge when starting out, but it is defined by how long the pleasant flavours of a wine stay on your palate after tasting. The operative word is “pleasant”: If the wine is very bitter and leaves you with a long, harsh and bitter feeling, this is not considered as a long finish.
This is a highly desirable quality in a wine and refers to a large array of different aromas and flavours. This is often, though not always, a combination of primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. A simple wine, on the other hand, is more one-dimensional and with a more limited range of aromas, for example offering aromas only of citrus fruits.
Whether or not you like a wine can be a good starting point in evaluating the wine, but just because you love it doesn’t necessarily indicate objective quality. Many consumers love crisp, fresh and fruit-driven wines like Provence rosé, Italian Pinot Grigio and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Though there are great examples of these styles, there are also plenty of rather one-dimensional examples lacking in depth and quality. Try to be objective in your assessments, and focus on the key quality aspects we’ve outlined here. This approach will take you a long way in assessing quality.
Another great habit is to start taking notes. Collect your notes in a tasting book, on your phone, in a wine app or anywhere else that it’s easy to access. Forcing you to put words to your sensations will help you to remember the wine, and help to describe a wine with ease when you need to. It may feel a little repetitive at first, though it’s a great way to get fully immersed in the world of wine!