| When gathering with friends and loved ones, wine is a versatile choice that will serve an elegant soiree, corporate function, or intimate dinner with equal aplomb.
How to hold your own at a wine tasting
Tasting wine is an art, but it's not just for wine snobs. You too can learn why a great wine impresses from the first pour to the last drop. Engage your senses, and you'll enjoy wine with more than just your taste buds.
When examining a glass of wine, look for two things: clarity and colour. In a well-lit room, pick the glass up by the stem and hold it against a white background, such as a tablecloth. The wine should be clear, not hazy. The colour, which should be intense, is created from contact between the grape juice and skins during winemaking. Colour gives clues to the story of the wine, including the varietal, the winemaker's methods, the age of the wine, and the region of origin.
When examining colour, note that white wines run the gamut from nearly colourless to light green, straw yellow, gold or even brown. Whites deepen with age, so a richer colour usually indicates an older wine. Sweet wines, like Muscat, which are deep yellow to begin with, are an exception. Reds, too, vary in hue from purple- or garnet-coloured to brick- or brownish-red. Red wine tends to lighten over time, losing its vibrant colour and turning a brick-brown shade. As their name suggests, blush wines, like Dry Rosé or White Zinfandel, are pink.
Surprisingly, your nose is more important than your taste buds when it comes to experiencing wine. Our sense of taste lies heavily in our sense of smell, as the tongue can only recognize four tastes: bitter, sour, salty, and sweet. The nose however, is far more nuanced. Through smell, we're able to recognize hundreds of unique substances, and different aromas can evoke a mood or bring a memory rushing back. Cigars don't smell like cigars, they smell like your grandfather; cinnamon recalls your mother's kitchen. And so it is with wine: From the first whiff, the aromas spark associations that create a memory of the wine. Everyone's associations and descriptions will be different, but that's part of the fun.
To start, swirl the wine in its glass. This drives oxygen into the wine, releasing the bouquet and aromas. The bouquet is defined as odors that come from decisions in the winemaking process (such as the vanilla scent associated with oak-barrel aging). Aromas are scents related to the unique varietal.
When smelling the wine, don't be shy. Bring the glass right up to your nose and inhale deeply. Now, what's the first thing you smell? You may detect leather, berries, dried fruit, cigars, or even the scent of freshly mowed grass. Record your impressions; they are helpful in communicating about wine and remembering which wines you like.
Since different people will describe the same wine differently, the Wine Aroma Wheel is an excellent tool that will give everyone a common vocabulary. Ann Noble, an enologist at the University of California at Davis, developed the wheel, which helps with accurate description and can aid newcomers in verbalizing what they smell. The wheel has three tiers, with the innermost stating general terms like floral, fruity, spicy, or herbaceous. The other two rings contain specifics to help you hone in on the aroma. Does that fruity wine have a citrus fragrance or perhaps tropical fruit? Is that pineapple you smell, or is it melon? Having precise descriptions at the ready will help everyone at a wine tasting relate to and understand each other.
Now, for all the nose's hard work, there are a few things, such as balance and texture that are best determined with the palate. Take a sip and hold the wine in your mouth. Let the liquid roll over the different parts of the tongue, picking up all the individual flavours. Note the texture, or "mouth-feel". Is it thin? Buttery? Velvety? Balanced wines find harmony between the alcohol, tannin, acid, fruit, and sweetness - none should be a solo act. Alcohol shouldn't overwhelm and acidity should lend a pleasant bit of tartness. Tannins should provide a slight astringency, or "pucker", but not bitterness.
The last thing to note is the finish of the wine. Is there an aftertaste? What kind? How long does it last? A good wine should have a balanced finish, clean and crisp; one that lingers after you've swallowed.