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Tannic Panic! Issue #24: Stranger in the Sub(stack)
Enough expertise! Wine tasting 101 from your soon-to-be favorite wine idiot
Hi-diddly-ho, winerinos! While the Tannic Panic brothers are off studying their tiny little hearts out, I (Victoria, Tannic Panic wife™) will be taking you gently by the hand and walking you through the anatomy of wine tastings.
You may be wondering, indignantly, “But what are her qualifications?” WORKING TASTE BUDS AND A BRAIN, SWEET CHEEKS. Because the first lesson of wine tasting is that you (yes, you) are the foremost expert in what you are smelling, tasting, and just overall experiencing. So shake off those fear-based preconceived notions of what you’re “supposed” to do or say when tasting wine and let’s start at the beginning.
Since human beings began putting things in their mouth holes, they have evaluated said things, albeit informally. According to experts (Wikipedia), the term “tasting” in reference to classifying wines first appeared in 1519, ultimately leading to the more formalized methodology we know today.
Because I’m a big fan of KISS (both the band and keeping it ssimple), we will be focusing on three primary categories when applying structure to our wine tasting:
1.) What the wine looks like
2.) What the wine smells like
3.) What the wine tastes like
But before we dive into the deep (OR SHALLOW) end of the glass, I want to reiterate that this process exists to enhance our collective enjoyment of mommy and daddy juice — it shouldn’t feel like a chore! So put on a Barry White record, slip into something more comfortable, and remember the sage words of Captain Barbarossa.
I have to be honest with you, I find this element of wine tasting the least interesting, and that is largely because accurately assessing the appearance of the wine is typically most relevant when tasting blind (unless you’re ~literally~ blind, like I am). The reason for that is because the color of the wine tells you a bit about how old a wine is, with red and white wines skewing brown as they age. There are other components (clarity, intensity) of properly describing a wine, but we must walk before we can run, so let’s talk viewing conditions.
First, get yourself some natural sunlight. Second, look at the wine against a white backdrop, like a sheet of paper or napkin. Third, tilt the glass ever so slightly (say, 45 degrees) so you get the full depth of color at the center of the glass as well as how it appears when thinned at the outer edges. Basically, color intensity can give you a hint of the variety and, again, potentially the age of the wine.
FEEL FREE TO SKIP THIS STEP.
While I know you’re absolutely itching to swirl the wine, hold your horses — your first sniff should be of the wine at rest to reveal its more subtle aromas. Because once you swirl, its more potent smells will be released, likely overpowering those initial ones. Speaking of swirling, there are a couple of different ways to get those aromas to dance for you.
Me, I like to limit my liability and swirl the base of the wine glass against the surface of the table, bar, floor (you’ve all done it), etc. to get those sweet, sweet aromas aroma-ing. Your other option is to completely throw caution to the wind and swirl the glass IN THE AIR by the stem. I’m clearly biased, but both are perfectly viable options.
Immediately after giving your vino a vigorous swirl, stick your nose in that glass like it’s somebody else’s business and inhale deeply for at least three seconds. Why? I find that three seconds is enough time to move past those stronger, immediate aromas and pick out subtler ones (just don’t pass out). It also gives your brain a bit more time to make sense of those smells.
Because the real kicker for me, an unstudied but enthusiastic wine drinker, is how challenging it has been to re-learn what things actually smell like and keep that aroma top of mind for easy access. For instance, if I asked you what a raspberry smelled like, would you be able to conjure up that smell using just your memory?
DIDN’T THINK SO.
One of the truly best ways to up your tasting game is to smell everything in your life with more intentionality. But as a shortcut, I strongly recommend using an aroma / taste wheel to help get those descriptors flowing, and as you savor the wine, consider its most prominent flavors. Are you detecting fruity notes? (Think of broad categories like “red fruit” or “citrus”). Or perhaps more earthy elements, like leather or tobacco? Let those aromas tickle your memory and free associate, man.
Enough foreplay — let’s actually put the “taste” in “tasting,” shall we?
The Initial Sip: Take a small (or large, I won’t judge) sip of the wine. Allow it to coat your mouth gently. Don't rush; let the wine introduce itself. Pay attention to its texture – is it light and silky or heavy and robust?
The Sip and Swish: After your initial taste, feel free to take a larger sip and give the wine a good swish in your mouth. This aerates the wine, releasing its full range of flavors and aromas. This also ensures that it reaches all your taste buds.
Sweetness and Acidity: Take note of the wine's sweetness level. Is it dry, sweet, or somewhere in between? On the flip side, assess its acidity. Does it make your mouth water and pucker, or is it more mellow and balanced?
Tannins: If you're sipping a red wine, pay attention to the tannins. What are these so-called “tannins” you ask? These are the compounds can give wine a drying or slightly astringent quality (you’ll feel this especially on your tongue and gums). Think about the texture they create in your mouth – are they soft and velvety or rough and gripping?
NOTE: Confusingly, this is different from “dryness” in a wine, which refers to how sweet (or un-sweet) it is
Finish: The "finish" is the lingering taste after you've swallowed (or spat out, we welcome all kinds here) the wine. Is it short and fleeting, or does it hang around, leaving a pleasant aftertaste? This can sometimes tell you about the wine's quality.
UN-PRO TIP: Unpleasant flavors lingering do not indicate a long finish so much as a lack of balance
Balance: A well-balanced wine means that its components – sweetness, acidity, tannins, and alcohol – harmonize nicely. It should feel neither overly sweet nor too tart, with no single element overpowering the others.
Personal Impressions: Don't hesitate to trust your instincts and describe the wine in your own terms. You might use words like "smooth," "bold," "refreshing," or if you’re a frustrated poet, you might even get creative with descriptors like "it smells like fog." (Yes, I have said this.)
And, of course, MOST IMPORTANTLY — did you enjoy drinking it? Remember — your enjoyment of a wine trumps everything else. There's no right or wrong when it comes to describing what you taste in a wine; your unique palate and experiences are what make wine tasting the funky art-science it is. Tasting technique is, above all else, just meant to be a way to make every glass even more enjoyable.
So mosey on over to your local wine shop, grab a few bottles that catch your eye, and start exploring!
Until next time — may your glasses be full and your taste buds ever-curious.
Victoria’s Remaining Mind Grapes
(AKA THINGS I COULDN’T FIT INTO THE BODY OF THE POST)
Keep a Tide to Go pen handy — swirling inevitably leads to spilling
Stick your nose in the middle of the glass and not too deep — you’ll pick up primarily the aroma of ethanol if you’re smelling too close to the sides or too deeply in the glass
Handle your wine by the stem — holding onto the glass itself will warm the wine (especially important if you’re tasting something chilled)
Light a scented candle — it will confuse your nostrils
Eat at the same time before you’ve had your first taste — it will change your impression of the wine(s)
Get overly specific if you genuinely don’t smell or taste something — it’s okay to just say “red fruit” if that’s the extent of what you smell
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