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Gentle Guide ➺ Wine Tasting

Eyes closed. Deep breath. Senses alive. Lips slightly parting. Liquid rush. Ecstasy. There’s tasting wine, and then there’s tasting wine. While we love a quick splash in the glass, guzzle-til-gone as much as the next person, some days, there’s something to be said for really taking one’s time. Slow. Sensuous. Giving it a good old sniff n swallow.

And for those days, we offer you the Sometimes Always handy guide to wine-tasting, a compendium of tips and tricks to help your senses truly discern amongst what you’re drinking, smelling, tasting, feeling– even seeing!

Some people have more tastebuds, some have more sensitive noses. But ultimately, what sets a seasoned somme apart from a novice taster is simply practice. Since the age of Aristotle, wine enthusiasts have brought an almost scientific scrutiny to the tasting of wine, relying on their senses to appraise quality and origin. Those folks who seem to single out subtle flavours and aroma notes with bloodhound precision might have an innate talent, sure. But more often than not, the key to identifying specific character is simply building one’s memory bank of smells and flavours through practising an awareness.

There’s tasting wine, and then there’s tasting wine.

START HERE: Look at all the pretty colours

If we extend the definition of wine tasting to mean using our senses to take in as much information about a wine as possible, then looking at it, plain and simple, is as good a place to start as any. 

When looking at a white wine, richer colours like gold and yellow are often indications of aging or oxidation, while rosés and orange wines take on bolder, brighter hues from more time spent macerating on skins. Holding wine to light, or in front of a white surface, will let you scrutinise colour and clarity more closely. Some contain sediments and cloudiness, while others are filtered and fined to remove this. When examining reds, focus your eye on the ‘edge’ of where the wine meets the glass in order to gauge the tint (e.g. reddish, brownish, bluish). The centre of the glass is where you’ll be able to observe the wine’s opacity or transparency.

Deeply coloured, opaque wines are often higher in tannin. As tannin molecules tend to clump together over time, settling out as a sediment, more aged red wines often develop a more muted, reddish-brown hue and become a little more transparent. Of course, young wines can also be light in colour, but usually look a little brighter and this reflects the variety and the winemaker’s style.

THEN: Breathe Deeply

Your mouth only tastes five basic flavours. Wine tasting would be more aptly named wine smelling, as this is how the aromas and ‘flavour’ notes are truly detected. As such, it’s all in your nose– wine tasting with a blocked nose is inevitably going to be a limited pursuit. 

Sniff then swirl, then sniff again. 

Grapes contain aromatic compounds bound to sugars, which are released through fermentation. Some of these are present in other plants too, explaining why we often smell other fruits, vegetable, herbs and spices in wine. Swirling the glass introduces oxygen, which interacts with these aromatic compounds to further ‘open them up’ making them detectable to your nose.

Inhale through both your nose and your mouth, ensuring aroma compounds are detected by as many receptors as possible.It can help to smell systematically, ie. first focusing on fruit flavours, then looking for floral, herbal, spice or ‘other’ flavours like smoke or wood. 

Refer to an aroma wheel if you’re struggling to identify scents; sometimes the power of suggestion is enough to help your nose isolate individual characteristics. Guided tastings, like those available at cellar doors, can be great for this also.

Smell multiple times. Aroma compounds have different molecular weights, so even moving your glass closer and further away, or smelling at the upper or lower rim of the glass, will allow you to pick up different things.

THEN: Sip n Slurp

Your first sip of the wine is an extension of smelling it. Some find it helpful to draw in air as they sip, recruiting oxygen to animate aroma and flavour compounds as they hit your palate. Tasting is also about appreciating qualities related to the structure of the wine: whether it leans sweet or dry, whether it dries out your mouth with bitter tannins, whether it slices with sour acid, and whether or not it lingers on your palate while further flavours unfold.

Tips: Steer clear of anything strongly flavoured that can interfere with your palate shortly before wine-tasting, like coffee, highly sweet and spicy foods, or toothpaste. Make sure you ‘chew’ or ‘roll’ the wine around your mouth, letting it coat different parts. You have receptors for different flavours concentrated in different parts of your mouth, so this ensures you are tasting the ‘full wine’.

FINALLY: Evaluate

Make sure you take time after tasting to consider the wine as a whole, to pool your knowledge, take notes, and consider each element tasted with relation to its variety, what you know of the winemaking approach, and the region from which it comes. What does the wine have in common with others you’ve tried? What qualities did you like, dislike, and recognise?

Building a mental catalogue of all of these things, and indeed, cataloguing scent and flavour as they’re encountered in the wider world will help you become a more dexterous taster. Pluck leaves from trees, smell spices as you cook with them, pause a moment at the petrol station.

Wine-tasting as mindfulness exercise? Sign us up.

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