Wine tasting (often, in wine circles, simply tasting) is the sensory examination and evaluation of wine. While the practice of wine tasting is as ancient as its production, a more formalized methodology has slowly become established from the 14th century onwards. Modern, professional wine tasters (such as sommeliers or buyers for retailers) use a constantly-evolving formal terminology which is used to describe the range of perceived flavors, aromas and general characteristics of a wine. More informal, recreational tasting may use similar terminology, usually involving a much less analytical process for a more general, personal appreciation. The results of the four recognized stages to wine tasting –
- “in glass” fragrance
- “in mouth” sensations
- “finish” (aftertaste)
– are combined in order to establish the following properties of a wine: complexity and character
- potential (suitability for aging or drinking)
- possible faults
A wine’s overall quality assessment, based on this examination, follows further careful description and comparison with recognized standards, both with respect to other wines in its price range and according to known factors pertaining to the region or vintage; if it is typical of the region or diverges in style; if it uses certain wine-making techniques, such as barrel fermentation or malolactic fermentation, or any other remarkable or unusual characteristics.
Whereas wines are regularly tasted in isolation, a wine’s quality assessment is more objective when performed alongside several other wines, in what are known as tasting “flights”. Wines may be deliberately selected for their vintage (”horizontal” tasting) or proceed from a single winery (”vertical” tasting), to better compare vineyard and vintages, respectively. Alternatively, in order to promote an unbiased analysis, bottles and even glasses may be disguised in a “blind” tasting, to rule out any prejudicial awareness of either vintage or winery.
To ensure impartial judgment of a wine, it should be served blind — that is, without the taster(s) having seen the label or bottle shape. Blind tasting may also involve serving the wine from a black wine glass to mask the color of the wine. A taster’s judgment can be prejudiced by knowing details of a wine, such as geographic origin, price, reputation, color, or other considerations.
Scientific research has long demonstrated the power of suggestion in perception as well as the strong effects of expectancies. For example, people expect more expensive wine to have more desirable characteristics than less expensive wine. When given wine that they are falsely told is expensive they virtually always report it as tasting better than the very same wine when they are told that it is inexpensive. French researcher Frédéric Brochet “submitted a mid-range Bordeaux in two different bottles, one labeled as a cheap table wine, the other bearing a grand cru etiquette” and obtained predictable results. Tasters described the supposed grand cru as “woody, complex, and round” and the supposed cheap wine as “short, light, and faulty.” Blind tastings have repeatedly demonstrated that price is not highly correlated with the evaluations made by most people who taste wine.
Similarly, people have expectations about wines because of their geographic origin, producer, vintage, color, and many other factors. For example, when Brochet served a white wine he received all the usual descriptions: “fresh, dry, honeyed, lively.” Later he served the same wine dyed red and received the usual red terms: “intense, spicy, supple, deep.”
The world of wine has numerous myths and exaggerations that are only now being disproven scientifically, yet they influence perceptions and expectancies. Not even professional tasters are immune to the strong effects of expectancies. Therefore, the need for blind tasting continues.
Vertical and horizontal tasting
Vertical and horizontal wine tastings are wine tasting events that are arranged to highlight differences between similar wines.
In a vertical tasting, different vintages of the same wine type from the same winery are tasted. This emphasizes differences between various vintages.
In a horizontal tasting, the wines are all from the same vintage but are from different wineries. Keeping wine variety or type and wine region the same helps emphasize differences in winery styles.
Tasting flight is a term used by wine tasters to describe a selection of wines, usually between three and eight glasses, but sometimes as many as fifty, presented for the purpose of sampling and comparison.
Glasses used in tasting flights are usually smaller than normal wine glasses, and they are often presented on top of a sheet of paper which identifies each wine and gives some information about each grape or vineyard. This format allows tasters to compare and contrast different wines.
An extended tasting will typically consist of several flights, each with a theme. For example, several wines from the same region and vintage would comprise a flight, or several wines from the same variety but different regions. It is typically the responsibility of the tasting organizer to select flights that offer maximum illumination of similarities and differences, while at the same time making sure the progression of flights is appropriate.
For a tasting, still white wines should be served at between 16 and 20 °C (60 and 68 °F). If white wine is served below this temperature there is a tendency for the bouquet and flavor to be suppressed. For red wines a serving temperature of from 21.1 °C (70 °F) to room temperature is recommended. If wine is properly stored (12.7 °C (55 °F) at 80% humidity) time should be allowed for the wine to reach proper temperature before service. There are many people who like to taste Champagne and other sparklers very well chilled. However, serving wine that is very cold can completely suppress aromas and flavors of the wine. In fact, if one allows a sparkler to completely discharge the carbon dioxide and is tasted as a still wine at 20 °C (68 °F), one is better able to determine if the wine is drinkable. Many a bad sparkler hides beneath a cloud of cold. If one is comparing wines then all the whites and all the reds should be served at their respective optimum temperatures, so they may be judged in a standardized way.
The shape of a wineglass can have a subtle impact on the perception of wine, especially its bouquet.Typically, the ideal shape is considered to be wider toward the bottom, with a narrower aperture at the top (’egg’, or perhaps, ‘beaker’ shaped). ‘Tulip’-shaped glasses, which are widest at the top are considered the least ideal. Many wine tastings use ISO XL5 glasses, which are ‘egg’-shaped. Interestingly, the effect of glass shape does not appear to be related to whether the glass is pleasing to look at.
Order of tasting
Tasting order is very important, as heavy or sweet wines can dominate lighter wines and skew the taster’s assessment of those wines. As such, wines should be tasted in the following order: sparkling wines; light whites, then heavy whites; roses; light reds; heavy reds; sweet wines.
Without having tasted the wines, however, one does not know if, for example, a white is heavy or light. Before tasting, try to determine the order the wines should be assessed in, by appearance and nose alone. Remember that heavy wines will be deeper in color and generally more intense on the nose. Sweeter wines, being denser, will leave thick, viscous streaks (called legs) down the inside of the glass, when swirled.
The wine tasting process
Judging color is the first step in tasting wineThere are five basic steps in tasting wine: color, swirl, smell, taste, and savour. This is also known as the five Ss: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Savor. During this process, a taster must look for clarity, varietal character, integration, expressiveness, complexity, and connectedness.
A wine’s color is better judged by putting it against a white background. The wine glass is put at an angle in order to see the colors. Colors can give the taster clues to the grape variety, and whether the wine was aged in wood.
Characteristics assessed during tasting
Varietal character describes how much a wine presents its inherent grape aromas. A wine taster also looks for integration, which is a state in which none of the components of the wine (acid, tannin, alcohol, etc) is out of balance with the other components. When a wine is well balanced, the wine is said to have achieved a harmonious fusion.
Another important quality of the wine to look for is its expressiveness. Expressiveness is the quality the “wine possesses when its aromas and flavors are well-defined and clearly projected. The complexity of the wine is affected by many factors, one of which may be the multiplicity of its flavors. The connectedness of the wine, a rather abstract and difficult to ascertain quality, is how connected is the bond between the wine and the land where it comes from.
Connoisseur wine tasting
A wine’s quality can be judged by its bouquet and taste. The bouquet is the total aromatic experience of the wine. Assessing a wine’s bouquet can also reveal faults such as cork taint, oxidation due to heat overexposure, and yeast contamination (e.g., due to Brettanomyces). To some wine aficionados, the presence of some Brettanomyces aromatic characteristics is considered a positive attribute; however to others, even the slightest hint of Brettanomyces character is cause for a wine’s rejection.
The bouquet of wine is best revealed by gently swirling the wine in a wine glass to expose it to more oxygen and release more aromatic etheric, ester, and aldehyde molecules that comprise the essential components of a wine’s bouquet.
Pausing to experience a wine’s bouquet aids the wine taster in anticipating the wine’s flavors and focusing the palate. The “nose” of a wine - its bouquet or aroma - is the major determinate of perceived flavor in the mouth. Once inside the mouth, the aromatics are further liberated by exposure to body heat, and transferred retronasally to the olfactory receptor site. It is here that the complex taste experience characteristic of a wine actually commences.
Thoroughly tasting a wine involves perception of its array of taste and mouthfeel attributes, which involve the combination of textures, flavors, and overall “structure”. Following appreciation of its olfactory characteristics, the wine taster savors a wine by holding it in the mouth for a few seconds to saturate the taste buds. When the wine is allowed pass slowly through the mouth it presents the connoisseur with the fullest gustatory profile available to the human palate.
The acts of pausing and focusing through each step distinguishes wine tasting from simple quaffing. Through this process, the full array of aromatic molecules is captured and interpreted by approximately 15 million olfactory receptors, comprising a few hundred olfactory receptor classes. When tasting several wines in succession, however, key aspects of this fuller experience (length and finish, or aftertaste) must necessarily be sacrificed through expectoration.
Although taste qualities are known to be widely distributed throughout the oral cavity, the concept of an anatomical “tongue map” yet persists in the wine tasting arena, in which different tastes are believed to map to different areas of the tongue. A widely accepted example is the misperception that the tip of the tongue uniquely tells how sweet a wine is and the upper edges tell its acidity.
As part of the tasting process, and as a way of comparing the merits of the various wines, wines are given scores according to a relatively set system. This may be either explicitly weighting different aspects, or by global judgment (although the same aspects would be considered). These aspects are 1) the appearance of the wine, 2) the nose or smell, 3) the palate or taste, and 4) overall. Different systems weight these differently (e.g., appearance 15%, nose 35%, palate 50%). Typically, no modern wine would score less than half on any scale (which would effectively indicate an obvious fault). It is more common for wines to be scored out of 20 (including half marks) in Europe and parts of Australasia, and out of 100 in the US. However, different critics tend to have their own preferred system, and some gradings are also given out of 5 (again with half marks).
As an alcoholic drink, wine can affect the consumer’s judgment. As such, at formal tastings, where dozens of wines may be assessed, wine tasters generally spit the wine out after they have assessed its quality. However, since wine is absorbed through the skin inside the mouth, tasting from twenty to twenty-five samplings can produce an intoxicating effect, depending on the alcoholic content of the wine.
Traveling to wine regions is another way of increasing skill in tasting. Many wine producers in wine regions all over the world offer tastings of their wine. Depending on the country or region, tasting at the winery may incur a small charge to allow the producer to cover costs.
Whenever traveling to an area where you might want to visit a vineyard or winery, call first to see when you might be able to visit. This prevents arriving at a time when you cannot be accommodated.
It is not considered rude to spit out wine at a winery, even in the presence of the wine maker or owner. Generally, a spittoon will be provided. In some regions of the world, tasters simply spit on the floor or onto gravel surrounding barrels. It is polite to inquire about where to spit before beginning tasting.
Attending Wine Schools
A growing number of wine schools can be found, offering wine tasting classes to the public. These programs often help a wine taster hone and develop their abilities in a controlled setting. Some also offer professional training for sommeliers and wine makers in the art of wine tasting.