Happy new year everyone! If you are like me it’s time for a resolution or two. Should I strive to be a better person? Nah, I’m good as is. Focus on saving more money? Wise idea but sounds unfun. How about indulging my passion and learning how to be a better wine taster? Yep, sounds about right.
To that end I decided some professional help might be in order. That’s why I invited Nick Davis, the owner of Medium Plus, to lead a recent Wine Tribe wine tasting. Nick is an Advanced Sommelier, which means he has wicked good knowledge of the world of wine and is just one step away from becoming a Master Sommelier, of which there are only 135 in the world. (Check out the terrific documentary Som to learn more about Master Sommeliers.)
One of the wine tasting techniques Nick shared with us is deductive tasting. It sounds like something Sherlock Holmes would lord over Mr. Watson (“It’s elementary, Watson. Deductive tasting led me to the murderer”), but it’s how sommeliers are able to taste a wine and tell you its grape, age and region of origin—all without looking at the label. For those of us not pursuing a sommelier classification, the technique can unlock sensory cues to help us understand why wine tastes the way it does, leading us to become better tasters.
Here’s a primer on how it’s done.
Gaze Into Your Glass
When we hold up our glasses and gaze at the wine inside, what we’re really looking for is color and clarity, which can indicate the wine’s age. If a white wine is a pale yellowish green, for example, it’s likely a young wine versus a deep golden yellow, which indicates an older, barrel aged wine. If a red wine is bluish purple, it’s probably young. A brick red color points to an older wine.
Clarity, meanwhile, suggests the wine is young or has been filtered. A cloudy or hazy look might mean the wine is unfiltered or—worse—flawed.
One other thing to look for: whether the wine has “legs.” After you swirl your wine around, you may notice a bit of liquid seems to coat the sides of the glass. That means the wine has legs, and that it’s likely on the high side in sugar and alcohol content, too.
Take a Good Sniff
This might surprise you: Appreciation of wine is mainly due to its scent. In fact, your sense of smell is the most important sensory tool you possess when tasting wine—even more important than your sense of taste. That’s because the flavors you perceive are actually due to the odors that reach your nose first. Weird, huh?
Sniff the wine deeply and ask yourself, “What am I smelling?” It could be a type of fruit, like red fruits, black fruits, tropical fruits or dried fruits. It could be the relative ripeness of the fruit—a tart cherry smells different than a ripe cherry, for example. Or, it could be aromas that aren’t fruity at all. In Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, I usually smell smoke, dark chocolate and coffee.
Now Take a Taste
Once you have a sense of a wine’s scent, take a taste and confirm that what you were smelling is what you are tasting. Then, you can make an educated guess as to what type of wine you’re sampling. For example, wines that smell and taste like red fruits (think cherries, raspberries, strawberries), are likely to be Pinot Noir, Sangiovese or Merlot, while wines that smell and taste like black fruit (black plums, black currants, blackberries) are generally Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or Syrah.
Check Out the Structure
The final consideration is the wine’s structure, which is an assessment of overall balance based the levels of acidity, alcohol and tannin in the wine and the wine’s body. Acidity is sussed out by detecting tart, citrusy flavors (i.e.: lemony wine=high acid wine). You can get a hint of the alcohol content by looking for the wine’s legs, as we learned above. Tannins, the levels of which are determined by how much time the grapes’ juice sat together with its skins and stems, are more prevalent in red wines. You can assess tanning levels by gauging the feeling of drying on your tongue. I am not a huge fan of tannins and they make my face scrunch up but dont do what I do, be more professional and go with the sense of dryness on your tongue.
The final assessment that professionals make has to do with a wine’s body. Think of this as the thickness of the wine, sort of like the difference between skim milk and whole milk. Typically, wines with more body have higher levels of alcohol and sugar.
And with that, you will have learned the deductive method for tasting wine. It will help you to be a better wine taster by finding clues that can be unlocked by observing, smelling and tasting your wine, ultimately leading to a greater appreciation for what’s in the glass. This is a new years resolution I can get behind and focus on throughout the year (thank goodness as many of my past resolutions have been a bust). Thanks Nick and happy 2017 to each of you!