The focal point of any wine tasting, of course, is the moment when you actually get to taste the wine. However, as even casual wine enthusiasts know, there is a real art to this process that can help to unlock the true taste and flavor profile of a wine.
The basic technique for sipping wine involves letting the wine sit in your mouth for a moment. If you choose, you can also swish the wine around in your mouth. This is done to ensure that all of your taste buds, and not just the ones located on the center of your tongue, are able to taste the wine. In order for this technique to work, the wine must linger on your tongue. After a few brief moments, you can choose either to swallow (if you are just sampling one bottle of wine for the evening) or to spit (if you will be sampling multiple bottles in one night).
A modified technique
A more advanced technique involves holding your head steady and gently inhaling some air as you keep the liquid on your tongue. This enables the volatile compounds in the wine to make their way back up into your smell receptors, thereby enhancing the entire experience. But just be forewarned – the first time that you try this, you might hear a gargling-type sound as you bring in the air to your mouth.
Flavor vs. taste
One important distinction in the wine world is the one between flavor and taste. When discussing food and cuisine, the two terms are used almost interchangeably. However, within the wine industry, they have very distinct meanings. Taste is what happens when the molecules from a liquid (such as wine) interacts with your taste buds. Flavor is the combination of taste and your sense of smell, as well as everything else that you see, hear or feel while enjoying wine.
From a very basic perspective, human taste buds are only able to recognize a handful of different tastes: sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and umami (a sort of mysterious taste that is found in soup broth). When it comes to wine, sour is how acidity in the wine is usually translated by the brain, while bitter is how plant-based and earthy flavors are translated by the brain. Thus, just as it is possible to talk about certain wines as being sweet (such as fortified wines and dessert wines), it is also possible to talk about wines as being sour and bitter.
Tannin levels and acidity
There are two physical characteristics of wine – tannins and acidity – that need to be balanced in order for a wine to be considered enjoyable. Tannins are what account for the sensation of wine drying the mouth out. And acidity is what happens when you feel a slight puckering in your mouth, such as when drinking “fizzy” bubbles. Getting the balance right is critical – and it’s also one big reason why people enjoy drinking Pinot Noir, a red wine that is known for its acidity and lower tannin levels.
Complexity, intensity and balance
There are three important taste factors to keep in mind when sipping wine: complexity, intensity and balance. Complexity, in the context of wine, refers to a large variety of flavors being present at any time. A wine might have primary fruit characteristics, but a number of secondary characteristics, such as pepper, spice, or even chocolate. Intensity refers to how well you can identify each of the flavors of the wine. And, finally, balance refers to how well all of the characteristics of the wine are harmoniously combined (as in the case of tannins and acidity).
Best red wines for tasting
When it comes to selecting red wines for tasting, you have a number of different options. You can select wines by acidity levels, tannin levels, alcohol level, and by body (light, medium, heavy). All of these will impact the overall flavor profile and complexity of the wine. Generally speaking, Pinot Noir is the best red wine for experiencing the impact of acidity on taste; Syrah/Shiraz is the best red wine for experiencing the impact of body on taste; Cabernet Sauvignon is the best red wine for experiencing tannins and rich, spicy flavors; and Zinfandel is the best red wine for experiencing the impact on high alcohol levels (as much as 15% ABV) on taste.
At the end of the day, there is no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” way to taste wine, or even a way to characterize a wine. Instead, what is important that you enjoy a wine, and actually look forward to tasting each new sip of that wine.