Your tongue is covered with over 10,000 individual taste buds great for wine tasting. These receptors enable us to detect the presence of certain compounds in our food and drink. Yet for all the adjectives we have to describe flavors, there are only 4 basic flavors the tongue can detect, with a fifth having been described in Asian cultures and only recently being accepted in the west. The four we commonly think of are sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. The fifth flavor perception has been named by the Japanese as umami, or the savory sensation, associated with protein or meats.
So if the tongue has such a limited role to play in how we perceive wine, then where does all that wonderful experience come from when we sip and enjoy a glass? The answer is in front of your nose; or rather it is your nose. The sense of smell is more important to taste than the tongue itself. So what better place to start tasting wine than with the aroma? Well, actually before you ever taste or smell the wine your eyes will see it, so let us start with a look at the wine.
Color and Clarity
The first thing you should do is hold your glass at half an arm’s length, and against a while or light colored background. Look at how the light comes through the wine. A good quality wine should be bright, with no cloudy haze or particles floating around. If it is a sparkling wine the bubbles should be fine and leave a delicate mist bursting at the surface. If the wine appears brownish, like is has been tinted, it may very well be oxidized. The color of white wine is often very telling of the flavors they contain. Lighter, pale straw colored wines are likely to taste lighter and crisp with very fresh citrus or herbal notes, whereas darker whites will have more bold oak or vanilla components. The color of red wines will be very indicative of the grapes used, ranging from pale burgundy to a purple crimson.
Gently swirl the wine in the glass for a moment, and before you even get the glass to your nose you will start to smell it. The first aromas to get to your nose will be the highly volatile esters responsible for the fruity smells, as well as alcohol. Now bring the glass up to your nose, but don’t put your nose in the glass, after all you are going to drink from it in a moment. Give a nice gentle but lingering sniff. This will be the most complex part of the wine as there are literally hundreds of components contributing to the wines aroma. If there is any sign of spoilage, stop now before you ruin your nose and taste buds for the night. There are many words used to describe wine aroma, from fresh fruit, dried fruit, herbal, grassy, oaky, vanilla, citrus, floral, to less desirable like chemical, sulphur, or madeirised (oxidized). Wines that have been aging for a while may even develop some aromas that are earthy and almost like truffles. Don’t be too concerned with the exact description, just use other flavors you are already familiar with and can remember for future comparisons.
Finally take a sip of wine into your mouth but do not swallow. Don’t worry, we wont’ ask you to spit it out, after all the vintner made the wine to be consumed. But do hold the wine in your mouth a moment. Now you will quickly perceive acidity (sour), on the sides of your tongue, and sweet on the tip. And soon after if there are any tannins on the wine they will make themselves known as the sensation of drying, or almost “sticking” to your tongue. Breathe out into your nose a little and you unleash the full potential of the wine. By now the wine has change dramatically as you progress from the fore palate through the mid to the end palate. Finally swallow and any bitterness will be perceived on the back of your tongue, and you can really enjoy the lingering affects.As you proceed through these steps you may be amazed at how different the perception of the wine is.
Many wines excel at a single point or two along this tasting path, but only those wines that are exceptional improve with each phase of tasting and culminate with a lingering end palate that leaves you begging for another sip. While these are just the basics , it can many years and literally hundreds of wine samples to become expertly tuned into tasting wine.