Tasting a Wine has Much to do with Aroma
When professional wine tasters, or even amateurs who enjoy the process, perform a wine tasting, the actual sipping or tasting of the wine is not done until step three. Before sipping a wine during a wine tasting, the tasters judge and describe first the wine’s appearance and second its aroma. And after sipping the wine there are two more important steps in which a taster judges a wine’s finish and overall quality.
By this third step of wine tasting, a taster has already judged a wine’s aroma by sniffing the wine with their nose deep in the glass, but they are not quite finished with the sense of smell. Having judged a wine’s aroma a taster now knows what kind of smell it has and have described it the way they perceive it, most likely using the aid of an Aroma Wheel and entering their impressions on a score card. A taster may have decided that the wine has a spicy aroma and then enhanced that description by identifying flavors of cinnamon, pepper, licorice, etc.
After identifying and describing a wine’s aroma by sniffing it in the glass, a taster moves on to actually tasting it for the first time. A wine’s “nose”, its in-the-glass bouquet or aroma, is the primary determinant of identifying flavors inside the mouth. The nose sets the taster up for an initial sense of taste by giving an “expectation” of taste. Actually sipping a wine may confirm that initial taste expectation; a taster most likely even uses some of the same descriptors they used when judging its aroma. However, we are not finished with that most crucial element of wine tasting – the sense of smell – and here’s why: A person’s capacity to taste a wine is predominantly derived from olfactory (nose) senses.
During step 1 of wine tasting, a taster swirled or aerated the wine, which released aromatics and softened tannins (the dry, astringent, bite more often associated with red wines). Once wine is inside the mouth, its aromatics are freed further by the warmth of the mouth, and then mixing with saliva the aromatics vaporize setting off volatile aroma compounds. These aromatics then transfer and are exposed to the olfactory receptor bulb at the back of the mouth where millions of nerve cells lie in wait just for this purpose. Tasting a wine then is basically an act of smelling transferred aroma compounds. It is during this transfer that a taster “senses” the complex tastes of a wine. The complexity of a wine refers to a wine’s multiple layers of aromas and flavors.
The flavors detected by the human tongue are limited to the tastes of: bitterness (acidity), sourness, saltiness, sweetness and umami*. The huge array of other flavors found in wine, such as fruity, earthy, florally, herbally, minerally and woodsy are derived from aromas detected by the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb then transfers these perceptions to the brain.
* Note: Umami is a difficult taste to describe. To some, umami is “a fifth taste,” because it is clearly not sweet, sour, hot, or salty. Some call it a savory taste. Umami is a unique flavor that appears to make other flavors fuller and richer. For example, when we put ketchup on our fries, we are using an umami principal. Both tomatoes and potatoes have high quantities of glutamates, which when interacting with each other create a distinct flavor. Umami is an ancient concept, although use of the term as an official descriptor of taste is fairly recent.
How to Taste a Wine’s Flavors – Swish and Slurp
The act of conscientiously tasting a wine is what distinguishes a wine tasting from a simple wine quaffing. Fully tasting a wine allows us to capture, experience, and interpret a full array of aromatic molecules present in the wine.
Wine connoisseurs savor a wine by taking a sip and allowing it to saturate their taste buds. Take a large sip of wine and allow it to linger a while inside your mouth. Swish the wine round your mouth, touching every part of your tongue with the wine. By swishing the wine, you are allowing the aromatic compounds to do their job, freeing up more tastes than you’d experience if you just swallowed the wine after sipping it. For example, quickly sipping an herbal, tart Sauvignon Blanc will most likely leave you with only a tart taste, but expanding the aromatic components of the wine by swishing it around in your mouth will bring out more levels of flavor.
Swishing wine is easy enough to do without fear of embarrassing yourself by having the wine escape your mouth and run down your shirt. Mastering slurping is a little trickier. But, the reward of slurping is further enhancement of a wine’s taste. Slurping a wine intensely aerates it, allowing for an easier passage of the compounds to the olfactory bulb where your brain is able make sense of the aromas you are experiencing. So let’s give it a try.
To slurp wine, set your lips into a tiny “o” and draw in air over the wine in your mouth. Passing oxygen over the wine allows for the release of even more aromatics and gives the wine taster the fullest profile of flavor that is available to our human palate.
As you taste a wine, deeply inhale and exhale through your nose, paying attention to flavor and the way it changes while inside the mouth. First impressions of a wine are referred to as fore palate, which is followed by mid palate, then end palate, then finish.
As you hold the wine in your mouth, think about flavor and aroma descriptions. The sensation that you experience while the wine is held in the mouth is called mid-palate. Is the wine balanced in flavor, or does one flavor or characteristic stand out to you more than the others? Is there too much of any one flavor that causes an imbalance in the total taste?
In wine tasting, the term balance refers to how a wine tastes in terms of wine’s primary components: tannins, alcohol, acidity, and the fruit’s residual sugar. (This is also referred to as evaluating a wine’s structure.) The wine taster judges how well these components are integrated in the wine. A well-balanced wine is said to have achieved a harmonious fusion, the state in which no component (tannins, acid, alcohol, etc.) stands out as being out of balance with the other components.
A taster also observes a wine’s expressiveness. Expressiveness denotes how well a wine’s flavors and aromas are defined and projected; an expressive wine will have flavors and aromas that are well-defined and clearly projected.
Temperature of a wine greatly affects its taste and aroma. A wine served at a cooler temperature may have muted aromatics and stronger tannic and acidic influences, as with many white wines. Thus, a wine served at a warmer temperature may have stronger aromatics and less noticeable tannins and acidity.
The “Mouth-feel” of a Wine
While an indispensable wine tasting tool for describing aroma and flavors, the Aroma Wheel doesn’t contain terms that describe another important aspect of tasting a wine, and that is a wine’s mouth-feel. Fortunately, terms for mouth-feel are listed in the Mouth-feel Wheel out of Australia. Mouth-feel is the chemical and physical interaction of food with the mouth. In wine tasting, a wine’s general sensation in the mouth is evaluated from fore palate to end palate. Perception of mouth-feel involves the weight, overall structure, flavor, and texture of a wine. Mouth-feel descriptions include: big, chewy, sweet, tannic, etc. Some people refer to mouth-feel using the “texture”, and the terms are interchangeable.
Make Note of Your Wine Tasting Perceptions
As with each step of wine tasting, a wine taster writes down their perceptions. This can be via the use of a wine tasting scorecard or a simply on notepaper. Each step of wine tasting builds on the last step and the descriptors used to describe perceptions of each step are used to determine the overall scoring of the wine. So write down your perceptions of how a wine tastes, after which you will be ready to move on to the next steps of wine tasting: Finish and Overall Quality.