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Wine appreciation for beginners – Part 1: How to assess wine

OK so if you are reading this it is very likely that you are a novice when it comes to wine appreciation and probably even a little embarrassed to admit it. At a busy cellar door or in a 5 star restaurant with a large group of friends, we all like to present ourselves as experts. Sadly, there is a stigma attached to being un-knowledgeable about wine. The truth is, most of us are more Jack than Miles (I apologize to those who have not seen the movie Sideways) when it comes to wine appreciation. Jack’s standard line for every wine he tries is “It tastes pretty good to me.”

This blog is Part 1 as there’s a lot to cover. After reading this series hopefully you will be able to differentiate a really good wine from a terrible one and most importantly, have the confidence to buy wines not based on the look of the label on the front of the bottle but based on knowing you will enjoy it.

Let’s get started. There are three key factors when assessing wine

1. Sight
2. Smell or aroma – often referred to as nose or bouquet
3. Taste and flavour – often referred to as palate

Sight

Hold a glass that is no more than one-third full by the stem and tilt the furthest lip at 45°away from you. Good lighting and a white background is best. Other than the colour itself, you are looking for depth of colour (opacity) and variation at the rim.

White wine should have no sediment or haze and should be pale green to straw in colour when young through to gold when aged. Red wine should be vibrant purple to plum in colour when young through to tawny when aged.

How intense is the colour and how opaque is the wine? Is it pale or is it dark? This will tell you if the wine is lighter or heavier in style and can also tell you the age of the wine. A wide rim variation in a wine can indicate an older wine, whereas a very tight rim variation can indicate a young wine.

Smell

Smell is the most important sense as it greatly influences taste. Swirl the glass vigorously to aerate the wine then stick your nose all the way into the glass, close your eyes and breathe in deep through your nose. What aromas are you picking up? There is no right or wrong answer and different people will pick up different aromas. Wine has many many aromas but common aromas are citrus, berry, stone or tropical fruits, oak or spices. Tip: if it doesn’t smell pleasant to you, don’t taste it!

Taste

There are only four primary tastes: bitter, salty, sour and sweet. The combination of these tastes and associated aromas account for different flavours. Sense of taste is formed by taste buds scattered over your tongue. Mouth feel is an expression that refers to the sensations of bitterness, saltiness, sourness and sweetness which are felt in different areas of your tongue. Mouth feel also indicates the body of a wine. Lighter wines have a lower texture. Mouth feel should be balanced by the right amount of flavour. A lighter wine with lower texture must have plenty of flavour or it will be out of balance. Tannin is the furry texture that comes from either contact with grape skins and pips during fermentation or from oak barrel ageing. Tannin can cause a wine to be out of balance if the furry texture is too overwhelming.

Take a sip from your glass and let the wine sit in your mouth for a moment. What does it taste like? Is it bitter, salty, sour or sweet? And do you taste any of the aromas you picked up? Is the wine lighter or heavier in style; as you expected from sighting it? Is it in balance?

Length of palate refers to how long the mouth feel and flavours last. A young dry white wine has a very short palate and leaves you wanting to re-sip right away. A quality wine with a long palate and a lingering finish has flavours that last.

That’s it for Part 1 in this series! Enjoy tasting and feel free to ask any questions you may have regarding what we have covered so far. Be confident, take every opportunity to listen to an expert – and ask them questions – and read the label on the back of the bottle carefully. Note: the descriptions on our website typically include what’s on the label on the back of the bottle but also include additional information that will help you buy a wine that you know you will enjoy.

Cheers

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