How to taste wine like a professional

I never thought I would grow up to say this but technically, I am a wine professional. Most people that write about tasting wine have a very well-developed pallet but only a vague idea of how the wine is made. 

I am the exact opposite. My focus is making the wine and while I am a wine professional, my palette (tasting abilities) could use some work. I am passionate about wine, it has guided me for the last five years while I was travelling from one place to another.

This means I have a very different perspective on how wine should be enjoyed than your typical wine writer. I enjoy drinking it, obviously, but for me, the thrill comes from watching it develop over weeks, months or even years. 

The time for cellaring wine is gone. The average consumer now cellars their wine for an average of thirty minutes. The main determinant for cellaring time is the length of the commute home.

 The industry has adapted to this change and now releases wines when they are ready to drink, or when we run out of the previous vintage, whichever comes first. Before I get too deep into how to taste wine I want to elaborate a bit on what we do to transform grapes into wine.

How is wine made?

There are many steps in the transformation from grapes to wine but they can be summed up in three parts: grapes, juice, wine. 

Grapes

Making wine starts in the vineyard. To produce some decent wine you need to first grow some healthy grapes. This is achieved by caring for the vines throughout the year. Then, once a year these beautiful vines produce bundles of grapes which are then picked either by hand or by machine and brought to the winery.

Juice

Once the grapes arrive at the winery an important decision needs to be made: what colour? White, red, pink and orange are the rainbow of wine possibilities, depending on the grape variety being picked. For white and pink wines the grapes are pressed immediately. 

Meanwhile, red and orange wines are fermented as a sort of sweet soup with the juice remaining in contact with the skin, pulp and seeds. This extended contact between juice and solids is where the colour and tannin come from. 

Across the whole spectrum of colours, fermentation is the one consistent thing. Yeast grows and converts the sugar into alcohol until there is no more sugar or the fermentation is stopped to conserve some sugar.

These yeast cells can be added to accelerate the process, or the wines can be left to ferment naturally. This process is analogous to making sourdough bread vs. using baker’s yeast; bubbles form either way but the growth is much quicker when yeast is introduced.

Raw Wine

Once the sugar has turned to alcohol you have wine, albeit very rough wine. The next and final step is to get the wine ready for bottling. This can take anywhere from a month to a couple of years depending on the style of wine you are making. 

Complicated wines take longer to produce than fruity ones. The fruity character disappears quickly, thus making it important to get those wines from grape to bottle quickly so that they are available when they are at their best. 

Meanwhile, complicated characteristics such as an oak profile, malo-lactic fermentation and so forth take time to develop after the primary fermentation and the wine must be kept under controlled conditions for those characteristics to develop.

Regardless of how long the process takes, once the wine tastes how you want it to the following steps are generally the same: stabilized, filter, fine. 

Finished wine 

Stabilization has three parts: protein, crystal, and microbial. All three can spoil the wine after it has been bottled so it is important to get it right. This way, the wine can be enjoyed for years to come.

Protein instability will lead to the wine becoming cloudy, tartrate instability will lead to crystals and microbial instability might give your wine extra funk or cause it to referment in the bottle if there is residual sugar. 

None of these things are harmful to someone drinking the wine, but they are unsightly. And we don’t want our wine to be unsightly. Protein stability is achieved by adding a special kind of mud to the wine which binds to the protein and then either settles out or is filtered out of the wine. So there is no mud in the wine you drink, sorry.

The crystals that form are a precipitant of tartaric acid binding with potassium. Therefore, the way to prevent these from forming in the bottle is to either let them seed in the tank by storing the wine at a low temperature and adding seeding agents to the wine or making additions that keep the tartaric acid from binding with potassium and precipitating. 

Microbial stability is achieved via a combination of sulphites and filtration. Many people are scared of sulphites and some winemakers choose not to add them. However, not adding them often leads to wines that are “funky” because of extra-microbial activity. 

Sulphites are also a natural by-product of yeast fermentation so there is nothing to be scared of. The concentrations at which we play in the cellar are not great health-wise, but when they have been diluted a couple of thousand times they are of no risk to you unless you are one of the very rare people with a sulphite allergy. 

Bottle preparation

Once the wine is finally stable it is time to get it ready for bottling. Again, some winemakers will simply stabilize the wine and call it finished but not all. Usually, it is at this stage that the tinkering happens that takes the wine from being good to great. 

What I am talking about here are the fining products. Fining products are the reason that a wine ‒ may ‒ contain: fish, egg, milk, gelatin or simply said, why the wine is not vegan. These products are used but the reason we use them is specifically that they do not regularly dissolve in the wine.

Rather, they each bind to a specific range of bittering agents in the wine that we which to get rid of. There is an ever-increasing number of vegan options that winemakers are experimenting but at the time being, these tend to be more expensive and less effective. So, until they drastically improve, it is probable that most wines will continue to not be vegan. Although, if you count the bugs from the vineyard, no wine will ever be vegan. 

How to taste the wine

Now that you have a general idea of the effort that goes into making a glass of wine, it’s time to dive into how to taste it. The main point I want to make here is to taste the wine, not drink buckets of it. 

The goal is to enjoy the wine, have a glass slowly instead of seeing how many bottles you can drink in a night and forgetting them just as fast. When given enough thought energy the tasting of wine can be akin to a sort of meditation where your object of focus is the wine itself. 

When you make a habit of tasting the wine you will have a much greater appreciation for it and will be more curious to try new ones. This is how I first got interested in the wine industry and permanently altered my life trajectory to be where I am today.

So, while considering moderation pull up a glass and let’s begin. A brightly light, neutral-smelling room with a white background is optimal but you can also taste over the kitchen counter while cooking onions if you want, I won’t judge you.

Look at the wine

The first step is to take in the appearance of the wine. The clarity, the colour, it’s intensity are all things you are looking for. White wines will range from a very light yellow to deep orange with some flirting into the green space. Colour intensity tends to increase with whites as they age. 

Meanwhile, reds lose their colour as they age. Fresh reds will range from rich purple to red and fad to a brick red as they get older. The intensity of the colour for a young red is strongly correlated to the grapes used to produce it since some grape varieties give off a lot more colour than others.

 Smell the wine

There are a vast number of smells that can arise from a wine, most of them good, some of them bad but these are best broken down into categories. When smelling try to identify smells first as broad categories (e.g. floral, fruity, spicy, funky, herby). Once you have locked onto a category see if you can narrow it down. If fruity then what fruit? Red, black or tropical? If tropical which one? Banana, coconut, pineapple, etc.

Using this process you can usually identify a few different aromas in each wine. For practice just start smelling things like strawberries and saying to yourself things like “this is how strawberries smell” then use the smells you recognize to see if you can narrow down the smells in your wine. 

Taste the wine

The moment you have been waiting for finally. Take a sip but don’t swallow, not yet. Swish it around a bit, suck some air through it, how it is? Things to note here are flavours, tastes and mouthfeel. For flavours, the process is the same as with smells but with tastes, it’s quite different. 

Tastes include: sour, bitter, sweet, salty, umami. Wine is typically a mix of sour, bitter and sweet. Even in the absence of sugar, the alcohol itself gives off a bit of a sweet taste. So start breaking the wine down. 

How is the acid? Is it like biting into a lemon or more subtle like a ripe apple? 

Where is the bitterness? Are we in the black coffee range or more towards a nice piece of broccoli? 

And the sweetness? Is it subtly sweet from the alcohol or did they kill the yeast early to leave some residual sugar and make the wine noticeably sweet?

Finally, there is the mouthfeel. Red wines have the extra level of tannins (that drying sensation, think sucking on a teabag). Regardless of if you drinking red, white, pink or orange, it’s time to assess how the wine feels in your mouth. 

Is it rough like gargling sand or soft like a piece of silk? These are not perfect analogies but hopefully, they can help you to visualize the texture the wine has in your mouth. 

Environmental impact

The environment in which you taste the wine has the strongest influence on your perception of it. Wine is meant to be shared and regardless of the bottle you are choosing to have, it will always be better with friends or family.

There are some exceptions here if the bottle has been open in the fridge for a month through it out. It will be awful even if you are as happy as Donald Duck swimming in a pool of gold surrounded by all your favourite people.

So, get to it, now that you have a general idea of how wine is made and how to taste it, it’s time to get a bottle and start tasting. Invite some friends over, get together with your family or just make yourself a nice meal and celebrate the day but remember moderation. 

Make wine a celebration and enjoy it. 

Go on, you are almost there.

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