Wine tasting: A how-to guide
Would you like to drive a golf ball 300 yards down the fairway with effortless power or sing in front of 19,000 fans at Xcel Center? While neither is possible for most of us, we can drink wine the same way Robert Parker and the reviewers at Wine Spectator do, and it takes about three minutes to learn the process.
The Tasting Process
I hear people all the time comment, "I can't taste the difference between a $10 and a $100 bottle of wine!" My immediate question to them: "How do you taste your wine?" Usually they get a puzzled look on their face, followed by a comment such as, "I just drink it." Also, many people associate someone who smells their wine with any gusto with being a "wine snob."
I did an experiment in which I quickly swallowed a 2006 Sea Smoke "Ten" Pinot Noir ($85) and an Erath Oregon Pinot Noir ($15). By not properly tasting the wines, I had no idea which one was better.
Here is a link to my explanation of the tasting process: Wineglas Tasting Process
The five fundamental steps are:
After performing the tasting process, I created the following notes:
Erath Oregon Pinot Noir 2008, $10.95 (at the Haskell's sale, which ends Saturday)
Light purple with aromas of spice, strawberry, and cranberry. On the palate the wine was light in style and had a short but pleasant finish. 87 points
Sea Smoke "Ten" Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2006, $85
Medium purple. Exciting nose featuring cherry, raspberries, spices, and tea. On the palate this medium-bodied wine is balanced, shows good acidity, and has intense flavors. Medium and concentrated on the finish. 93 points
By following the tasting process, I was easily able to tell the difference between the two wines. While I don't think the Sea Smoke is six times as good as the Erath, it was a much more interesting wine, and without the tasting process I would have missed its nuances.
The two most important elements of the tasting process are the nose and taste. "Nose" can be defined endless ways, such as the smell, aromas, and bouquet. My favorite explanation of this step was from a student who said, "You want to snort your wine" (referring to the sound you make). Try smelling a wine with a polite sniff, and then get your nose in the glass and do an enthusiastic snort. Do that three times in a row and your nose will start to pick up scents from the wine. Scents vary from cherry, plum, and spice to barnyard, road tar, and scorched earth.
A simple wine might feature one or two aromas, whereas a complex wine will feature multiple scents, and the aromas will change over the course of the evening. Another reason to smell your wine before sampling is because of the small percentage of "corked" bottles you will encounter. A cork can develop the chemical compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) and will have an aroma of wet cardboard or mold. If you encounter that smell, return your bottle for a refund at the wine shop or restaurant. Too many people drink these bottles and wonder why they are sick the next day.
The taste is really important. By just swallowing your wine you miss the two main taste buds in your mouth: sour and bitter. The tip of your tongue is sweet, the sides sour, and the back of your tongue is bitter (salty is not common in wines). I encourage people to swish the wine in their mouth for five seconds and hit every taste bud. After a couple of times your saliva glands will quickly inform you which taste bud is most prevalent. Sometimes a wine will incorporate all three taste buds, but most wine will feature sour, bitter, or both. The first few times you won't be accustomed to the change, but over a few months it will become second nature. Remember to pair your wines with the right food combination.
The fourth step of the tasting process is the finish, and a great wine will have an amazing, complex finish, whereas a simple wine will taste like water, or its finish will be very short and weak. Not all wines have to cost $50 plus to offer a complex and pleasing finish. The wine shouldn't scream too much on the sour or bitter, as these wines are considered not balanced.
The final step is the evaluation. I was sampling some wines at a local wine shop two weeks ago and a woman next to me evaluated a wine as great. I sampled the wine and the nose indicated the wine was "corked." By not following the first four steps, she had no idea the wine was flawed and that if she drank the bottle the bacteria could make her sick the next day. Your evaluation can be as simple as "buy again" or "thumbs up or down," but as you notice I use the 100-point scale. Here is a link to my rating sheet: Wineglas Scoring Sheet
Give the tasting process a try, and after several months you will know how to taste and evaluate wines like a pro.
Here are four wines under $10 that you can experiment with using the tasting process. All are on sale at Haskell's through May 8.
Dr. Loosen Riesling
Dr. Loosen "Dr. L" Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Riesling (Germany) 2008
You will taste sweet and sour.
Nobilo Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) 2008
You will mainly taste sour.
Pillar Box Red Blend (Australia) 2007
You will taste sour and bitter.
Columbia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Washington State 2007
You will taste sour and bitter.
Also check out my video on YouTube on how to do the tasting process: Tasting Process Video