How to Taste Wine
I've been drinking and enjoying wine for many years, but I haven't always tasted it.
Tasting doesn't mean composing the longest list of esoteric flavor descriptors in the galaxy. We all know those annoying types who make you feel like an idiot because you can't pick out the "Oaxacan chocolate, dried Nicaraguan tobacco leaf, Pu'er tea, and Sumatran black peppercorn." Sometimes wine just tastes like red wine (though sometimes it does taste like chocolate, tobacco, tea, or pepper).
There's a lot more to wine than flavor profiling. Before attempting to "see, swirl, sniff, and sip," you need to understand how wine is structured by getting to know your taste buds better.
In one of my wine diploma classes, I was referred by an instructor to a book by Michael Schuster called Essential Winetasting: The Complete Practical Winetasting Course. I love this book because it is simply written and it strips wine down to the basics.
It also offers an exercise to help us understand the structure of a wine by discovering where and how acidity, alcohol, and sweetness are perceived on the tongue. These are the basic elements of white wine (add tannins for red), but hardly anyone addresses the fundamentals. Most writers, posing as instructors, skip ahead to help you identify hues, aromas, and flavors but forget about whether the wine is well made and has good bones.
Try the exercise! It seems complex, but it's not. You'll learn how to detect sweetness, acidity and alcohol in wine by tasting sugar-water, lemon-water and vodka-water individually, then in blends (this exercise does not address tannins, just sip a glass of over-extracted tea to get the gist of that).
Step 1: Prepare the mixes:
Sugar-Water: Mix 3 1/2 heaping teaspoons of superfine sugar with 2 cups of warm water to dissolve. Add 1 1/4 cups cold water to cool. 3 1/4 cups total.
Lemon-Water: Juice of two lemons and 3 1/4 cups water.
Vodka-Water: 6 1/2 ounces vodka with 2 1/2 cups water. Approximately 3 1/4 cups total.
Step 2: Taste sweet, acid, and alcohol individually:
Keep a glass of plain water nearby for sipping.
Sweet: Take a sip of water, then sip of sugar-water, swish around mouth. Sweetness is registered on the tip of your tongue and near the back of the tongue, near molars, but can also be tasted all throughout.
Acid: Take a sip of lemon-water, swish around mouth. Acid is perceived on the sides of the tongue, causing a mouth-watering affect. Notice how the acid lingers in the mouth -- this helps define the finish and aftertaste of a wine.
Alcohol: Take a sip of water; then sip of vodka-water, swish around mouth; then swallow some or all. Alcohol provides both tastes and texture. First, notice the sweetness generally then bitterness distinctly at the back of the tongue.
Step 3: Read between the lines
Take another sip of water, a sip of the vodka solution, and look for the following textures:
Weight: Can you feel the viscosity of the alcohol in your mouth? Water feels thin and runny, in comparison. This "weight" gives wine its body.
Warmth: When alcohol is high and/or out of balance, it can make a wine taste "hot".
Spreading/carrying sensation: Alcohol coats the surface of the mouth and helps distribute the flavors of wine around your palate, as well as prolongs them.
Step 4: Tasting sweet, acid, and alcohol together
You need an empty glass for this next series of tastings.
1. Using an empty glass, pour lemon-water and vodka-water, 50/50, into glass. First taste your lemon-water mixture; then taste blend. This demonstrates the sweetness in alcohol, and how it moderates the acidity. Toss this out.
2. Pour sugar-water and vodka-water, 50/50, into glass. First taste sugar-water; then taste blend. This reinforces the notion of sweetness in alcohol, showing that there is no dilution of "sweet" from the blending. Also note how alcohol spreads the sweetness around. Taste in reverse to make effect more clear. Toss this out.
3. Pour lemon-water and sugar-water, 50/50, into glass. Taste either lemon-water or sugar-water first; then taste lemon-sugar blend. Alternate tasting. This demonstrates how sugar and acidity neutralize and balance each other out. Also, notice how you can focus your attention on either the "sweet" or the "acid" flavors, as you do when tasting wine.
4. Pour half as much again of vodka-water to the lemon/sugar blend. Now you have a bare bones representation of a white wine: Sugar is the flavor, lemon represents acidity, and alcohol acts as you have experienced in this exercise.
5. Pour all your ingredients together in one big glass, top with soda water. Garnish with slice of lemon and a cherry and you have a weak Vodka Collins!
If this exercise stirs your curiosity, I suggest you get a copy of Shuster's book and plug through the other tasting exercises as well.
After, you will be able to tell your cherry-cola, rhubarb-raspberry drinking friends that the alcohol in their California Pinot is too "hot", the wine lacks structure, and tastes flabby. And hmm, was that a warm vintage?
Lauren Mowery is a wine and travel writer based in NYC. She blogs at Chasing the Vine.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.