So, you’ve realized you’re a fan of the grape and would like to learn more. Some may even want to become a sommelier. Whether you’re interested in learning why you prefer certain wines to others, or why they taste so different, the topic of wine can be difficult to navigate for fresh enthusiasts.
Before diving into the esoteric topic of viticulture (the science, production, and study of grapes), you might want to take a moment to brush up on your basic knowledge of the beverage. In this article, we’ll educate your mind, nose, and mouth.
- Wine has a deep and rich history
One of the oldest known pieces of evidence for wine production was a 9,000-year-old wine recipe found in China which suggests wine was made using grapes with fermented rice and honey. In Ancient Greece, a common practice was diluting wine with sea water. This process was called “thalassitis” which comes from “thalassa”, the Greek word for “sea.”
In recent history, fine wine has become a lucrative passion investment. Depending on a number of factors, vintage wine can be worth up to $500,000. Some of these wines are very old, but age is not everything.
Interestingly, while a vintage wine may be rare, and by all accounts extremely valuable, it might be worthless if the label condition is poor. The bottle level of the wine is also important to take note of when spotting a great wine. The London Wine Cellar’s inspection guidelines for wine valuation say if a bottle is less than 20 years old, the level must be base neck or higher, and if it is more than 20 years old, the fill level must be shoulder-level or better.
- Smelling is essential
When spotting a great wine, the scent is key. The better wine spotters train their ability to sniff out the goods, the easier it will be to evaluate wine like an expert.
Before giving the wine a sniff, give the glass a good swirl. For beginners, the easiest way to do this is to hold the glass firmly on a flat surface. While you swirl, observe the wine as it forms the shape of “legs” or “tears” that run down the side of the glass. A wine that creates “good legs” means that it has more alcohol and glycerin. This is a sign that the wine is very ripe.
Now, let your nose hover over the glass, and give the wine a good sniff. Take a few short sniffs, step back and take a moment to think about what you can smell. Does it have a sweet fruity scent or does it smell peppery? Either way, if it is making your nose tingle in a good way, then you may have found yourself a great wine. The more pleasing a wine smells, chances are that it will taste just as good, or even better.
However, if the wine gives off a musty old smell, it has most likely spoiled. Beginner wine spotters should also learn the names of as many fruits, flowers, and herbs as possible. This will improve your ability to detect specific scents in the wine.
If you sense wine barrel smells such as wood, smoke, toast or roasted nuts, you have most likely selected a wine that has been getting on in newer oak barrels. The age of barrels can have a major effect on how a wine smells. Some will say corks make a wine taste better, whereas others will argue that screw-ups are better. In fact, a recent experiment to see if corks or screw-ups make for better tasting wine.
- There’s a complex approach to taste
Tasting wine is key to learning more about its characteristics, and what makes it a great wine worth investing in.
Having the ability to sniff and swirl the wine, and to detect its flavors is key to spotting a great wine. Before you take a sip try holding your nose, then take a mouthful of wine. Let it roll around your tongue so all your taste buds are covered.
What can you taste? Rich, dark berries? Or a delightful burst of grapefruit? Keep note of how many flavors you can taste. If you can detect quite a few, and the flavors remain on your young for a long time, then this is a sign of very complex wine.
Human taste buds have the ability to detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. What makes a good taster can also depend on your variation of taste buds. Some of us may be lucky enough to have a large number of taste buds, called supertasters. Wine spotters should also use their taste buds to see if the wine is ‘balanced,’ meaning that it should have basic flavor components that are in proportion.
Understanding the characteristics of wine will help you to spot a great wine that is balanced, complex, and pleasing to both the nose and the mouth.
While wine tasting is very subjective, there are general rules wine spotters go by. Below are some of the characteristics of good wine regardless of your taste preference:
- Excellent Vintage And High Grape Quality
One ultimate rule of good-tasting wine is that it’s extracted from the finest quality grapes. The temperature of the geographical location the grapes come from can affect the wine’s taste. Hence, a French Merlot will taste quite different from one that came from California.
In addition, weather affects wine quality. Poor quality wine may result from a vineyard that suffered poor weather conditions. So, some vintages or years of a specific wine are better than others. Check to see the years that produced fine vintages to choose the perfect wine for your special event or celebration.
- No Faults
Sommeliers are keen on checking faults in wine. Even high-quality grapes have faults, rendering the finished wine undrinkable. Some common faults include poor corking, barrel taint, excessive sulfur or acetic acid, and over-oxidation.
What causes faults? Wine-making mistakes cause them. The faults cause the finished wine product to taste musty and sour. A wine that contains excessive acetic acid tastes like vinegar. On the other hand, an over-oxidized or exposure to too much air appears discolored with a sherry-like scent. Over-sulfuring can destroy wine’s aroma that causes a burnt match smell.
Wine enthusiasts know that the best wines are well-rounded and balanced. They have a fragrant aroma with intricate flavors. The notes and flavors affect a wine’s complexity, which are essential markers of premium wine quality.