‘Why bother tasting wine? Can’t we just drink it?’ Of course you can. It’s just that having paid a reasonable amount of money for a bottle, you deserve to derive the most pleasure from it. Think of the difference between drinking and tasting as being similar to that between hearing and listening. In tasting wine, ears aren’t actually involved in the process, but a number of other senses are.
Young reds vary from ruby red to very deep purple. Sometimes this is due to the grape variety used - Pinot Noir has much less pigment in its skins than Cabernet Sauvignon for example. At other times, it’s a consequence of how and how long the grape skins (where all the colour is) have been macerated with the (initially clear) grape juice - think of how tea becomes darker the longer it’s brewed. As reds age, they become less intense in colour, and acquire brown tinges. Young whites are pale, sometimes with glints of green or pale yellow. As they get older, they deepen in colour, becoming more golden, or orange, and eventually turning light brown. ‘Legs’ or ‘tears’ are the drops of wine that cling to the sides off the glass after you’ve given it a swirl. The longer they remain, the stronger the wine.
Most of our taste sensors are in our noses rather our mouths, so sniffing is vital to getting the most out of a wine. And swishing the glass around helps release a wine’s aromas - that’s why it’s best to have a small measure in a big glass rather than vice versa. Does it smell fresh or stale? Fruity or not? Intense or dilute? Is there a toasty vanilla imprint that might suggest the wine’s been in an oak barrel? If there are notes on the back label, do you detect the same things? The more you taste, the more you’ll notice certain smells cropping up in certain styles of wine. This can take time, but the research is far from unpleasant…
While your nose should pick up most of the flavours, you might discover extra nuances when you come to drink the wine, especially if you let it roll around your mouth rather than swallow it straight away. You’ll also be able to see whether it’s sharp (think lemon juice) or tannic (cold tea), or whether there’s the warming sensation of high alcohol. Finally, think about how the flavour lingers in your mouth. The longer this ‘finish’ goes on, the better the wine.