The moment all of you have been anxiously waiting for - a practical guide to wine tasting with a little bit of humor, sarcasm, psychology, and cynicism. Yes, I've earned a psych degree and have practiced using it most of my life. More recently, struggling through wine education certification.
With tasting wine, you have to practice being present with your wines, practice focusing on specific sensations, aromas, and flavors, and verbalize those things to a partner, friend, colleague, etc... The good news is that it's a hell of a lot easier than it appears or made to seem by the so-called professionals. Wine tasting often conjures up thoughts and visions of a handful of well-to-do middle aged white men in library-like quiet tasting rooms slurping and muttering things in British accents, "I'm getting a hint of clove, Robert." Robert nods his head and forcefully spits into a bucket, saying "No, no, no, John. You're doing it wrong; you must swirl counterclockwise and its most definitely cardamom. Who died and made Robert the king of spices? I don't get any of that, I say! Hell, I'm not even sure what clove or cardamom tastes like! Does that make me an amateur or a terrible wine taster?
It's this type of pressure and intimidation that causes many people to disregard the tradiitional tasting methods altogether. As much as I like to say that I perfected the long-standing tasting techniques of sniffing and swirling and that it is meaningless concept for the Roberts and Johns of the world, it is not. These methods are certainly useful but not for the reasons you think. Sniffing, swirling, and sipping don't develop excellent taste buds. You, me, and those fancy wine stewards/sommeliers all function with the same senses we were born with. The process helps to develop our taste buds and palate and a particular sensitivity toward wine tasting. Instead of affecting your senses, wine tasting is for your brain because tasting wine is essentially just remembering other wines you have tasted and trhe circumstances around that experience. Sure, this sounds simple but we don't always remember the wines we liked or where they were from. You really liked that wine you had for dinner the other night, but do you remember specifically why you liked it. Was it your go-to red? Did it smell like something from your past? What was it called? It reminded you of your favorite dessert? Most times, for me at least, we can't pinpoint it. Of course, this doesn't help much when you go to order at a restaurant or shop at your favorite wine store. This is where tasting can benefit us. It's a conscious way of taking mental notes (maybe written too - don't worry, we won't make fun of you), imbibing, and drink more of what you like.
You don't need to document every Pinot you acquire or taste. You don't want to be that person who turns dinner parties into seminars with their talk of "wine tips' they picked up scouring the internet. It's important to remember that wine tasting isn't a superpower. It's just paying attention to what you're drinking. Being ever-present in the moment of what is going on right now as opposed to what happened yesterday or what is going to happen tomorrow or what am I doing later tonight. Isolating those individual senses while tasting wine can be an illuminating experience by forcing us to pay attention. Not only does it make you think about different aspects of wine and wine tasting, but if you have a plan and do it systematically, it is much easier to remember.
Unlike real life, where we have to suppress our innate desire to judge people by the piercings they exhibit, when it comes to wine, you are allowed and actually encouraged to make assumptions about a wine based on its looks. It is very liberating because if we are dead wrong, we still get to drink it and we don't hurt anyone's feelings. Checking out a wine from head to toe can be a great first step to figuring out what style of wine you are drinking.
First, the color of a wine is determined by how long the pressed grape juice has contact with its skins during maceration. The depth of the color is dependent on how thick the skins are . So, a thin-skinned grape like Pinot Noir is going to create a lighter-hued wine, whereas the grapes for Cabernet Sauvignon have a thicker skin and create a much darker, richer color. Ideally, to examine a wine's color, you should look down at it from a 45 degree angle against a white background. The true color of the wine is at the center of the glass and tends to fade as it reaches the rim. If you don't have a white background, try holding it up to bright, natrural light at the same angle or even eye level if in bright lights.
When it comes to white wines, the lighter the color, the crisper/acidici/tart and more refreshing the wine. If it's darker and more dark yellow, golden-yellow or golden, you can expect a fuller flavor profile that probably has been expoised to oak during fermentation, aging, or maturation in the bottle (check vintage). If it's brownish, it may be a port or an oxidized wine (bad or oxidized on purpose), or a "natural" wine. Some oxidized wines can be very good if that was the intent of the winemaker. If not, return immediately.
With red wines, the lighter the color, the brighter and more tart the wine. The darker the red, the bigger and bolder the wine. Much as with white wines, the darker the wine, the more likely oak was used as above.
There are so many other factors that can tell you about wine besides the color. You also want to look at the clarity of the wine. A cloudy wine is either a "natural" wine or wine gone bad. Although biodynamic practices and certain styles of wine, i.e. petillant naturel sparkling wines, are common and the cloudiness is part of the fementation process. If you get a cloudy wine from a bodega in Mexico, you should probably not drink it and get your money back. I wouldn't recommend ordering wine from this type of establishment anyway. Sediment is good! Totally normal in some wines, but not in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc you bought at the local wine shop. Swirling and Smelling on tap next! Stay tuned! Hope you enjoyed!