How do you taste wines?

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Written By Gilberto Mattei

In tasting, the rule is

"Drink what you like with the foods you like best".

Such is the essential rule of good drinking for the wine tastingperhaps the only one. Whatever their favourite drink, the most learned connoisseurs do not disown it.

A Frenchman, owner of vineyards of great name, shopkeeper-breeder by tradition handed down from father to son for five centuries, challenged one day the opinion of his table neighbours ordering Beaujolais with herring: a recent surgery prohibited him from drinking white winebut since he was visiting a seaside town, he did not want to deprive himself of the pleasure of tasting certain excellent dishes unknown elsewhere.

In defiance of the most categorical prescriptions of the code of gastronomic agreements, he thus passed over scruples and even made numerous disciples. The fact is that there is fish and fish, you will say. Yes, of course, and there is also red and red. It would have been unthinkable to make such an affront to a wide and deep Burgundy of the Côte de Nuits, for example.

Not to mention gastronomic circles, from one end of the world to the other there is no shortage of wine purists. It is difficult to keep count of the orders, associations and other wine circles that spring up every season. In France, for example, we find the T astevins of Burgundy, the Sacavins of Anjou, the Bretvins of Nantes, the ]urade of Saint-Émilion, the Piliers Chablisiens, the Chevaliers de la Méduse (Provence) and hundreds of others.

In Switzerland there are the Confrérie des Vignerons, that of Guillon, reserved for men, in the canton of Vaud, that of the Vignolans in the canton of Neuchâtel, the order of the Channe in the Valais and the numerous wine bourgeoisies in the image and likeness of the gbilde that grouped in the11th century Burgenses in northern FranceThe statutes indicated that the dean's first duty was to ensure wine supplies at potationes during which the bourgeoisie gathered to drink.

All of these associations generally organise merry gatherings several times a year: select wines, good food, glittering costumes, a more or less folkloristic or medieval atmosphere pepper the conversation of the good-timers who inform each other of the secret cellarsof local wines and old bottles recently discovered. Vineyard owners They argue lovingly, some about their estate, others about their two or three poles of land.

Connoisseurs rarely get drunk, because one of the laws of good drinking is not to abuse it, but to harmoniously ally the wines with the food and the tone of the meeting. One could say, paraphrasing Brillat-Savarin's second aphorism: the animal quenches his thirst, the man drinks, only the intelligent man knows how to drink.

It is left to each individual, and it is a noble and exciting task, to judge the value of the diva bottle for the happiness of mankind.

Were you unaware that you had private advisors in this matter?

Everyone knows them and sees them, these splendid observers, no one thinks about them and most people overlook them. Yet why should you bow to the canons set by illustrious strangers or even famous personalities to decide what you will drink?

Do you like it when someone dictates to you what you should eat, unless it is a friend whose good taste and delicacy you know? No, of course not.

Therefore, there is no other solution but to consult your personal staff.

Recognising wine by colour

The first questioner tells you what he sees: an opaque, turbid, dense swill, or a bright, appetising liquid; a beautiful golden, yellow, amber, straw colour, tending to green, or a dull, milky, artificial colour; a frank, lively red, ruby, garnet, cherry, or an unattractive blackish liquid.

By shaking the glass some foam appearswhite, it indicates a wine that is already old; red, it may distinguish a young wine, rich in carbon dioxide, but perhaps also chalky (i.e. with an addition of chalk to clarify and preserve it) or sour, unless it comes from so-called dye-rich strains.

In general, the foam dissolves quickly.     

If it persists, the wine thus betrays its alcoholic weakness.

Already your first advisor, the eye, makes you want to know more or not, If so, you have already turned into a taster. Fear not: you have everything you need, the irreplaceable tools whose diagnosis people in the trade recognise as far superior to that of any analysis laboratory.

Recognising wine by smell

The most important, in order of appearance, is the second of your advisors, the noseor rather a small, always moist plaque located in the upper area of the nose, near the brain, behind a fissure a couple of millimetres wide.

Through this narrow opening, the warmth of the mouth, the movements of the tongue, breathing and swallowing propel the odour that is released from the wine towards the nose and constitutes, properly speaking, what mere mortals understand by taste or flavour.

The cold, which swells the mucous membranes, irretrievably condemns the circulation of air in that apparatus and, at the same time, any hope of tasting.

Haven't you noticed that the best foods seem powdery if you plug your nostrils? Brillat-Savarin already pertinently noted that 'smell and taste form a single sense of which the mouth is the laboratory and the nose the chimney'.

A wine can be recognised primarily by its smell: it must have a smell or it is not wine. As soon as it is produced, it releases the aroma of the grape variety from which it derives and also releases a secondary aroma due to the fermentation yeasts.

During the summer following the harvest, the cask begins to acquire its aroma, which must be clean, i.e. impeccable: no excess of volatile acidity (vinegar odour), no bad taste of sulphur, lees, wood, mould, rancid or old vat.

Already at this stage the wine is common if it has a herbaceous scent, fine if its aroma is reminiscent of grapes. When fineness is added to the character of the appellation of origin, the wine possesses vigour.

Louis Orizet

Soltanto dopo l’imbottigliamento il vino sviluppa tutto il suo profumo which slowly fades and intensifies. Then, little by little, all the fragrances that two famous enthusiasts are fond of make their appearance, Louis Orizet and his friend Jules Chauvet, discovered together with wonder in the various Beaujolais:

"In the floral series: rose, jasmine, hyacinth, lilac, orange blossom, violet, reseda; in the spice series: pepper, sandalwood, clove; in the balsamic series: vanilla, incense; in the fruit series apple, bitter almond, anise, raspberry, English fudge; in the animal series: musk, kelp, amber, mushroom, game; finally, in the empyreumatic series: rubber, resin, tobacco."

Recognising it by taste

Compared to the fundamental task of smellthat of your third advisor, the tongue, appears limited: did you know that there are only four elemental tastes in our universe? With the tip, the tongue perceives sweetness.

With a fairly large area of the outer band, the salty. On the cut, if we can say so, the acid acts, and finally the bitterness manifests itself when the sip of liquid reaches the back, just before it is swallowed, although the above impressions are perceived in stages and the bitterness may take up to ten seconds before it is felt.

Thus, the taster distinguishes between three stages: the attack, which lasts only two or three seconds, the evolution, during which he inhales and repels the liquid on the tongue, passes it through the teeth and along the palate emitting a small, suggestive gurgle, and finally the aftertaste after swallowing or, more often, spitting it back out.

The four basic flavours, all of which are present in wine, as strange as it may seem, have numerous and complex relationships.

The sweet taste is much praised or much blamed in wines: it is worthy of praise when it remains where it is normally produced, but it is out of place in red wines with low alcohol content and, when it hides behind a label 'Dry Pale Sherry', its presence is very noticeable.

The sour or acidic taste, on the other hand, is not only pleasant once you get used to it but you will not be satisfied if you don't find it. Of course, I do not mean sour in the sense of vinegar, which is a smell. The fruity, fresh, sour flavour of a wine is one of its most important attributes. As a rule, sour and sweet flavours do not go together. Wines are seldom salty and bitterness should be absent'.

Finally, the sensation of warmth communicated by alcohol is not in the gustatory sphere, but in the tactile one. It is your fourth counsellor, the palateand accusing it with the help of the cheeks and the lower part of the tongue, whereby you experience an impression of volume translated by various colourful expressions.

Louis Orizet sees in it the notion of the 'form' of wine and reports that a young boy, who had been given a taste of Champagne, had exclaimed: 'Oh, mother, scratch! ".

Similarly, the bloom in the mouth of a great wine gives an idea of breadth, sometimes translated by the expression: 'it wheels like a peacock'.

If the taste impression persists, it causes what connoisseurs refer to as 'length in the mouth', a guarantee of a aged wine.

The same expert wittily completes the panoply by evoking the notion of height, of upward momentum communicated by the thrill of an excellent discovery, and even of depth, provided by the delicious dip in a glass of vintage Burgundy.

Edward Kressmann rightly noted that the only sense not stimulated by tasting is hearing...

"The fact is,' he logically concluded, 'that tasting and music are complementary arts.

It is now a matter of consulting the small team of experts at your command. After all, it is for you, and you alone, that the professionals go to so much trouble.

If their judgement is in principle harsher than yours, it is because they cannot afford mistakes against you, much less cheating.

But, without wanting to take your place, your decision is final.

Does this certainty not encourage you to deal with it? Your point of view will borrow something from that of the merchant: does this wine justify the money I spend? Besides, if you do not care, playing the part of the oenologistto establish an equivalence between its composition and taste, you will still have to decide whether it suits you and try to find out why, in order to be able to look for similar qualities later. If, on the contrary, you find it bad, it will be useless to discover its defects in order to be able to deal as equals with your supplier. Besides the practical side of the problem, have you ever thought about the picturesque side of the adventure?

Godfrey de Bruyn

As one enlightened South African connoisseur pointed out, Godfrey de Bruyn,

"is an interesting and enjoyable experience that requires neither technical knowledge nor special effort. Amateur tasters need a bucket, a jug of water, some paper and a few pencils, some glasses, a piece of cheese, some wines to taste and a few friends who may be interested in wine. The choice of wines for a tasting is a matter of preference, but it is a good rule to limit the tasting to one type of wine, for example Xeres, Port or dry white table wines'.

How do you recognise a good wine taster?

A good taster can define a wine within a quarter of an hour.and to repeat the feat, easily and correctly, up to about thirty times in a row. This aptitude, of course, presupposes years of daily training, which is lost within a week. Not everyone is required to do so, but anyone can perfectly express a valid personal opinion according to their innate sensitivity and attention span.

Once recognised and commensurate with skills, the specialist practises tasting wines modified to the point of recognising the influence, even indirectly, of their components. With each new tasting, he strives to describe what he sees and what he drinks in as many words as possible.

This is where the well-known nomenclature comes in, on which some sigh in discouragement and which others regard with a slightly ironic smirk. As soon as one gets some practice, the few dozen adjectives soon prove necessary and represent, in the absence of an electronic taster, a sort of abbreviated code of definition. In fact, each zone correctly employs only five or six, but they differ from one zone to another.

How do you evaluate wine?

All evaluations currently start from the notion of harmony:

'a good quality wine requires a reasonable balance between two elements, alcohol and sugar on the one hand, acids and tannin on the other'

In order to have a clear basis, oenologists calculate this notion in figures, called softness indexsubtract the value of total acidity and tannin expressed in grams from the alcohol content expressed in degrees. The result is generally around five for a 'well-balanced' wine. From five upwards the wine becomes more acidic, from five down sweeter.


An authority on the subject, Professor Peynaud, internationally renowned expert and director of the oenological station in Bordeaux, compiled two gradation tables for winemakers, cellarers, oenologists and auditors who have the opportunity to attend his lectures, a wine judged to be balanced can be, in ascending order: fresh (possibly small, weak, light and, in a negative sense, flat, washed-out, watery), then poor, then, from 12 degrees upwards, vinous, warm (13.5 to 14 degrees), generous, spirited and, in a pejorative sense, alcoholic. In the last case, a good acidity makes it 'nervous'.

SecondlyIn relation to the richness of the components - that is, dry extracts (all that remains by evaporating the wine) - a balanced wine will be soft, flowing, velvety, tender, loose, smooth, round, ripe, full, fleshy, fatty; at the same time, as far as the sugar range is concerned, it will appear soft, glycerinated, soft, and even salty or alkaline, the latter adjective being intended to indicate very weak (2.5). Lean, hollow, raw, hard, acid, green, indicate the various stages of overall acidity.

Depending on the volatile acidity, the wine will seem hot, it will have 'spiciness', it will be sour, acrid and even fiery if it has a lot of alcohol at the same time. Finally, the bitter scale will go from hard to astringent via firm, sour, bitter. This, as far as balance is concerned.

The aforementioned evaluations are only a prelude to examining the criteria of quality and originality of a wine, which are, of course, infinitely divisible.

Not only the nomenclature varies according to each individual's experience and imagination, but in this matter subjectivity is such that a shrewd host can almost get a taster to say what he or she wants.

By the play of contrasts, and according to the order in which the wines are presented, they are more or less affected. The accumulation of sensations and also of alcohol which, even without drinking, infiltrates the mucous membranes at a rate of about two cubic centimetres per tasting, fatiguing the organs a little at a time. The habit of a known wine leads to relative insensitisation.

The environment has considerable influence: a wine will look different depending on whether you taste it alone or almost alone in a cool cellar, or in cheerful company at an elegant tablewine tapped from the barrel with cinnamon will seem like something else if it is offered to you in a crystal glass.

Finally, the time of day and your shape, as well as the intensity of your appetite, have an essential weight.

In order to take due account of all these imponderables, it is best to take things slowly first.

Therefore, give it all the time it deserves. Choose the best time of day, the time when well-rested taste buds are ready for the task ahead, in the late morning or late afternoon.

During the meal, the gustatory faculties diminish, and digestion, at around three or four o'clock in the afternoon, removes any sensitivity: this is the worst time.

You assign a grade to wine like a teacher does with a paper after a sleepless night spent correcting it. Preferably taste wines other than those you are too familiar with. Do not taste many of them in a row: they will seem harder and more acidic.

A red wine, after a white, seems more tannic, a dry one, after a dry one, appears drier still and more acidic: the order

wine tasting environments

desirable is therefore red, then rosé, then white and finally fortified white. This relates to a tasting, not a meal, when it is customary to drink white with starters, then red with meat and cheese, and finally sweet wines if appropriate, with dessert.

Finally, forget your surroundings, which should be as neutral as possible.

The tasting rooms at the large Champagne producers, for example, resemble workshops: white walls, white majolica tiles, fine glasses of medium size, all identical and equipped with stems so as not to communicate the heat of the hand to the goblet and to allow the wine to be comfortably shaken, to "to 'swing', to spin in the glass.

Tasting wine

The choice often looms on the attack, after one has previously 'winnowed' one's mouth with a 'rinsing' sip. At this first contact, all the flaws and qualities of the wine literally leap into your throat. Afterwards, sip the wine carefully and attentively in small sips, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and swallow again: the wine thus reveals its aftertaste.

You start again, eat a mouthful of bread or cheese or clear your throat with fresh water, start again as long as you see fit. One talks about it with one's companions: the exciting comparison of judgements allows one to form an accurate and measured opinion bit by bit.

To discard false impressions, English specialists often follow a method known as triangulation when they want to establish whether a difference really exists between two wines: wine A is poured into two glasses, wine B into two others, and the taster tastes the eight possible combinations in a series of three glasses: A, B, B; B, A, B; B, A, etc. Of course, in an order that he ignores. If at each series he discovers the exact order, the difference is undeniable.

Such repetition, however, clearly diminishes the sensitivity of the taster, who now only perceives a difference, perhaps three or fourfold, from what he perceived at the first tasting. As a rule, it is more expeditious simply to rank the numbered glasses in order of excellence in advance and repeat the operation several times. Professor Peynaud advises, in the presence of more than six samples, to assign them a grade once and for all, from O to 20, from undrinkable to sublime (rare, but it does exist), passing through bad, insufficient, sufficient, discreet with some imperfections, good; assigning two or three possible grades at each stage allows the wines to be classified as deserving of a more or less equal grade. Finally, the wines can be found divided into various categories.

Wine tasting examples

Here are some excerpts from a tasting commented by the aforementioned Professor Peynaud at the Bordeaux oenological station.

Clairet Alcohol: 12.2°

Total acidity: 3.80

Volatile acidity: 0.42

Tannin: 0.8 g.

"Smooth. Round without being fleshy. Light in body. Well balanced.

Pleasant finish. Taste. Some carbon dioxide (shake the bottle, it releases under the thumb). Excellent Clairet-type wine. Well representative. Different from rosé. Average quality equivalent to superior Bordeaux.

Local grape variety: not médoc nor saint-émilion. Excellent grade for a Clairet: 15 out of 20.

Origin: a social wine cellar that treated the first strains that arrived: malbec and merlot. With cabernets you would have a less fluid, less light, less smooth wine. "

Pauillac 1959

Alcohol: 12.6°.

Total acidity: 4.21

Volatile acidity: 0.75

Tannin: 2.28 g.

" Intense bouquet, very rich and complex. Noble tannin. Very mature wine. More vinous and nervous than the others. Firmer finish. Somewhat excessive volatile acidity that prevents it from being fatter. But round, full, robust, full-bodied, excellent tannin that guarantees great longevity. The volatile acidity is a minor flaw because otherwise it is excellent. A little dry but not dry. It will never be softer.

Tannic finish but noble tannin, tasty, not harsh, not unpleasant, not hard to take. Lots of flavour and personality that absorbs faults. Excellent generic Pauillac. Already old, but will reach its peak in ten years. In spite of the slight excess of volatile acidity, the wine 'must be sensational at table'. Grape varieties: three quarters cabernet-sauvignon, the rest malbec and merlot. "

Graves 1962 (Bottling July-August 1964) Alcohol: 12.7°.

Total acidity: 3.80

Volatile acidity: 0.30

Tannin: 2.0 g.

"Still in critical period: less than a year of bottling. Stored in Cimar vats. Tastes of good grapes. Very clean, very fresh. Full-bodied, robust, vinous, nervous. The combination, acidity + alcohol, gives backbone. Lacks fluency. Much flavour. The finish is more bitter than astringent, a sign of longevity. Good, fairly typical Graves wine (there are several). Needs ageing. "

In each case, certain characteristics are measured: alcohol content, acidity, tannic index. Fill your glasses and concentrate. Wine in the mouth with the professor: sniff, shake the glass, sniff again, go ahead, bubble the wine in your mouth, collect yourself.

You have attended an analytical or, if you prefer, organoleptic tasting session. Moreover, the amateur generally lacks laboratory measurements. However, you have thus gained an idea of everything that may condition your choice and can now devote yourself to the search for concrete characteristics.

Preparing the environment for wine tasting

Tonight, would you like, for once, to treat yourself to something special and see your table ennobled by a good bottle? First of all, think a little before the moment to uncork it, if possible on the eve. A great wine to accompany a fine dish is an experience whose memory lingers for a long time: it requires taste, expense, time, care, luck and a suitable setting. One does not often have the means to afford such a luxury. As a kind of compensation, to fully enjoy a well-chosen wine and create a warm, fruitful, happy atmosphere, there is no need for a food list reminiscent of the royal and princely courts of the 'Age of Enlightenment'.

A course of good quality grilled or roasted meat, followed by good cheeses that have matured to the right degree, goes well with great red wines. Crustaceans, oysters and fresh fish call for dry or fruity whites, while white meats, stewed fish and creamy entremets go well with so-called second-course whites, i.e. sweet.

These principles, you certainly know them; keep them in mind so as not to cause gratuitous offence to your gala purchase.

To begin with, you can buy a wine that some connoisseur friend recommended to you and you will sort of average out your memories, the claims of the dealer and the bottle's appearance. If the contents meet your expectations, you will return to buy it and, by repeating your attempts, you will end up finding out the address of the producer. Write to him. From a simple letter of order, your correspondence will not take long to become more detailed.

Buy a case or two of twelve or twenty-five bottles-or a small cask, you will get to know the supplier, and a little at a time you will visit him from time to time to comment on what he supplies and taste other wines. You will visit his cellar and, with your elbow resting on a crate or barrel, explore one by one the riches that he only reveals to the initiated. In this way you will pleasantly penetrate the life of wine.

Those who do, know no greater pleasure than to talk about it, than to welcome new followers of the wine cult. It will undoubtedly benefit your health, your good mood and the family atmosphere, and you will end up wondering how you ever managed without that everyday friend that is the wine.

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