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While it's not imperative to know everything there is to know about wine in order to enjoy drinking it, knowing some basics will help you to get the best out of your next wine-tasting event.
Whether you’re preparing to attend a wine tasting or organizing a tasting of your own, things like the time of day and setting matter with regard to providing an optimal tasting experience. Holding tastings in the morning ensures tasters’ minds & palates will be at their freshest. Whenever possible, hold tastings in an environment lit by natural light, with no extraneous odors (cologne, food, tobacco smoke, etc.), noises, or visual distractions. This will preserve your focus as well guard against interference from any outside factors that could compromise your interpretation of the wine’s characteristics.
If you plan to taste several wines in succession, a helpful first step before beginning in earnest can be to perform a sensory evaluation of each one. The systematic approach to doing this involves analyzing each wine on its appearance and color, then giving each one a cursory sniff to collect first impressions before smelling them again at leisure. Taking detailed notes during these processes is key. Only after these steps are completed should each wine be tasted and evaluated on in-mouth impressions like flavor, body, and sweetness.
When arranging a tasting, plan to serve the wines as close as possible to the temperature at which you'd serve them if you were pairing them with food courses. Serving a white wine too cold numbs its bouquet, while white wines tasted too warm lose their piquancy and acidity, resulting in a flat, flabby taste. And although red wines in general tend to benefit less from chilling than whites, the pendulum shouldn’t swing too far in the opposite direction either. A red wine served too warm will taste of its alcohol more than anything else. For best expression, ideal wine tasting temperature ranges are as follows:
- Sparkling wines and sweet wines: 45-50˚F (7-10˚C)
- Dry white and rosé wines: 50-60˚F (10-15˚C)
- Light-bodied red wines: 55-65˚F (13-18˚C)
- Full-bodied red wines: 62-68˚F (17-20˚C)
Sight is the first sense we use to examine a wine, which means that the color present in your glass can reveal a lot about the wine that’s headed for your palate. Young white table wines from cool growing regions, or white wines made from immature grapes tend to display shades of pale yellow-green. Deeper, golden yellow hues are typical of older white wines, white wines that have spent time in a barrel, or young white wines that hail from warm growing regions. An inky purple color is typical of young reds, with older, mature red wines giving up brick-red tones. Blue-black highlights signify low acid levels in red wines, while ruby-orange highlights connote higher acidity.
When it comes to the aesthetics of the glassware used in tasting wines, the design is not arbitrary. The tulip-reminiscent shape serves to help contain a wine’s aromatics. Optimal wine tasting glassware will be thin so that the heat of a taster’s hand can warm it if necessary—as might happen when a wine is served too cold by mistake— and clear, so that the wine’s color is displayed accurately. It should also be large enough to swirl and splash a 2-ounce serving. A standard ISO glass volume is 6.5 ounces, however 8- to 10-ounce glasses are also acceptable.
It’s important to note that variations in style, flavor characteristics, and other attributes can take an adverse toll on your impression of a wine, depending on which one you may have tasted before it. Standard wine-tasting order is arranged so that no wine suffers poor representation due to its placement in the tasting sequence. Standard order dictates the following:
- White before red
- Dry before sweet
- Young before old
- Modest before fine
- Light-bodied before full-bodied
- Light, young red before full-bodied, sweet white
Be wary of hanging too much significance on a wine’s “legs" or "tears." These terms refer to the thin streams of liquid that trail down the inside surface of the wine glass after wine is sipped. A long-standing assumption about wine that endures to this day is that more "legs" or "tears" in a wine are indicative of superior quality or sweetness. While this is not, in fact, true, they can provide clues about a wine's alcohol content. Legs that are thick and abundant are characteristic of high-alcohol wines, however the presence or state of "legs" or "tears" should not be considered reliable testimony regarding a wine’s overall quality, or lack thereof.
In conclusion, (and no doubt to the chagrin of many a taster), remember that it is best to spit out the wine after tasting. Doing so preserves your ability to evaluate with optimal accuracy. Having an excess of alcohol in your system can cloud or otherwise alter your palate's perceptions, and as unfair as that is, clarity is paramount when assessing wines. With these tips under your belt, you can be sure to head into your next wine tasting armed with all the knowledge you’ll need to experience each offering in its purest form. And if you choose to follow up your act of evaluating like a boss by revisiting the wines you liked most, no true wine lover will blame you.