The 5 S’s of Tasting
The first thing you have to do in order to really appreciate a wine is to make a mental decision: you will not simply drink it as you would do if you were having a glass of orange juice or milk. You will actually taste it.
Before you get through the steps of how you properly taste wine, here is one very important piece of advice: Your palate shouldn’t be tainted by any tobacco, toothpaste, coffee, gum, or any other sweetness or sourness left in your mouth. Have a piece of bread or a cracker to cleanse your palate before you get started. It is also important to find a room that is not contaminated with strong odors that might interfere with your experience.
Tilt you glass against a white background (preferably). The main rationale for looking at the appearance of a wine is the search for flaws in a wine (such as haziness). However, there is another reason why you should look at the wine (since it is very unlikely that you will find any faults): you can get a pretty good idea of the wine’s age. Mature wines will differ in intensity and hue from young ones. For red wines, if it presents an intense ruby/purple color, you have a young wine in front of you. When you see pale orange/garnet or brown, you have a good indication that the wine is old. The older the red wine, the lighter it gets. For white wines it is just the opposite. Light yellow or green is an indication of a young wine. If what you see is more orange, brown or dark gold, your wine is old(er). The older the white wine, the darker it gets. For rose wines a bright pink/salmon indicates a young wine; while a dark orange or brown indicates age. Same principle for red wines applies here (darker = older).
Spin the wine in your glass by rotating your wrist (or by revolving the glass at the top of a table). It will release the aromas present in the wine.
Get as close as possible to the wine (meaning that you have to stick you nose in the glass as much as you can without actually touching the wine). You can then either take a deep breath or take several quick ones. It is a personal choice and nobody can tell you that you are “not doing it right” if you choose one way or the other. The key motive for smelling a wine is to capture its aromas (aromatic compounds). Are they light or intense? Are they fruity or mineral? Do you notice any flaws (such as oxidation)? Does your wine smell like flowers and/or fruits or more like butter and/or vanilla? This can give you a good indication of the varietal; if it is been aged in oak; if it went through malolactic fermentation, etc. For some people, smelling the wine gives (almost) as much pleasure as sipping it (our next “S”).
Take a small amount of wine into your mouth. Make sure you “work” with the wine for several seconds in your mouth before you swallow or spit it. Making air go through your mouth is a good technique to intensify the flavors present in a wine, because they are in fact aromas that you taste through the retro nasal passage. What you are able to feel in the mouth is actually the structural components present in a wine: alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin. They will give you different impressions, such as the apparent weight of the wine, its texture, energy, and its relative sweetness. Different parts of the mouth have diverse levels of sensitivity. For instance, the sides of the tongue are the area most sensitive to sourness (acidity), while the tip of the tongue is most aware of sweetness, and tannins will be felt at the back of the tongue and on the gums. That’s why it is important to swirl it around the mouth. “Chewing” the wine is also a good way of exposing it to every part of the mouth.
5. SWALLOW or SPIT
After you are done with you “experiment” you have two options. You can either swallow the wine or you can spit it (provided that the circumstances are appropriate for that). After you swallow (or spit) the wine, you will notice that you can still feel the flavors lingering in your mouth. The flavors of high quality wines will linger for several seconds, while in inferior wines, the flavors almost instantly fade away. At this point (ok, it may take you several sips) you will also be able to make a mental description of the wine. How intense was it? How complex were its flavors? Does the wine express the grape variety that it is made of? Are you able to tell where it comes from? And most important: was the wine balanced? An unbalanced wine is one that gives you the impression that it had too much (or too little) of something. Balance comes from any of the structural components of the wine (sugar, acid, alcohol, and tannin) and the excess (or lack) of any of them will result in an unpleasant experience.