Right out of the gate, let’s make a few things very clear so we are all on the same page regarding wine tasting, wine reviewing and rating a wine. Here are some of my personal thoughts. Now remember, these are my personal thoughts about the subject and by no means am I saying I’m right. If you read the literature, there are many steps, detailed procedures, and sharpening of the senses that are required in learning how to truly master wine tasting. For me, it’s both a science and an art (I’ll explain later). Over the years I’ve learned what works well for me and what doesn’t. Tasting wine is a very personal experience. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, and it’s easy for me to assess and rate a wine against the personal criteria I’ve established for me. That’s the key. If it works for me, then it’s serving its purpose.
Why do we taste things anyway? What happens when we taste something? Aren’t we constantly evaluating and judging what we eat and drink all the time? Yes we are. Every time we put something in our mouths we go through an internal process of assessing what we are experiencing and whether or not we like it. Tasting wines, reviewing wines and rating wines are no different. Let’s not lose sight about what the true objective is – to determine whether or not we would drink it again, or buy it, or recommend it to others. We do it all the time with a great hamburger, or a tender and flavorful steak, right? How many times have we told a friend how fantastic the food is at a certain restaurant or how tasty the desserts were at a French bakery? Let’s use a prime steak you might have ordered at a high-end steakhouse for dinner one evening, as an example. Often we go so far as to describe how it was cooked (medium rare), the flavors, the spices, how juicy or tender it was and we recommend the actual “cut” we ordered (ribeye), even describing the cost so our friends might be enticed to go try it. Eerily similar to what a wine reviewer does when describing a wine! Once you come to terms with this concept and decide not to be intimidated by the “wine tasting process” or by what some wine snob might think about your tasting insights, you’ll be much more at ease and in tune with how you are experiencing wines. There really is no true-state for a wine that applies to all drinkers of that wine. The only thing that counts in wine tasting is what YOU taste and smell, what YOU experience and whether or not YOU enjoyed the wine.
Wine tasting and the resultant reviews and ratings are very subjective, and there are way too many variables and parameters that impact reviews and ratings to have much absolute meaning and be consistent across the board. That being said, there is relative value in reviewing and rating wines, especially for someone who wants to compare and contrast wines against their own personal database of wine tasting experiences. Or, if you find that my palate is in general agreement with yours, and the wines I tend to enjoy resonate with your preferences, then you may find value in my reviews and ratings. Let’s face it, most of us are not highly trained wine connoisseurs or sommeliers, and I am certainly no expert with any formal training, but the more I taste, the more confident I become in my own sensory capabilities to recognize and discriminate different characteristics of wines. So what is my approach to evaluating a wine? Well…it’s both a science and an art for me. So here we go.
My Process and Important Factors I Consider
For me, every wine I encounter is unique. Like a fingerprint. I see it all the time. Two different bottles of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from different winemakers but crafted from grapes of the same vineyard and same year (vintage), might lead you to think that they would taste nearly identical. More often than not, it’s exactly the opposite. Why? Many factors play a role in establishing why wines are so unique. Even within a vineyard you can have variations in climate (microclimates), soil and other attributes that impact how the grapes ripen and ultimately the flavor profile of a wine. The correlation between location/soil and flavor of a wine is known as “terroir”. This is just part of why people say wines are “delicate”. There are so many factors that go into wine creation, and many of these factors need only experience slight variations to have significant impacts to the end result. With this appreciation, I’ve learned over the years not to be overly judgmental about a wine, solely based upon a priori knowledge regarding statistics, ratings, wine awards or previous reviews. Rather, I want to experience the wine myself, firsthand, and let the wine do the talking. On occasions where I’ve been biased or made a judgment in advance, I’ve often been mistaken and been forced to reconsider my initial thoughts about the wine. I can’t count how many times I’ve tasted a wine that was the recipient of one or more wine-competition awards that was really hard to swallow. Or alternatively, where an unheralded, young wine that I’d never heard of nearly knocked me out of my chair!
As a scientist (my day job), I typically look at things I’m evaluating through a logical, systematic lens. I try to eliminate things that will compromise my ability to be objective. I also try to emphasize consistency in the process I use and in the controlled environment I taste in, where I can better reduce or eliminate negative factors that could potentially affect my wine tasting. So, knowing that wines are typically very complex and delicate liquids, I like to prepare myself appropriately before I begin any serious tastings where I’m slated to conduct a review and a rating. I typically take the steps below to establish a level playing field for both the wine I’m about to review and my palate, which needs to be a clean slate (initially).
- Since I enjoy a cigar now and then, I make sure NOT to smoke the night before I’m planning a serious wine review. This will affect my palate.
- I make sure to eat something about 2 hours (or more) prior to tasting and that I’m well hydrated.
- I’m diligent about not drinking anything acidic or ingesting anything that has a strong residual effect on my mouth (such as orange juice, coffee or garlic).
- I want to give every wine the absolute best shot at knocking me out of my chair! So I ensure that I’m tasting the wine at an appropriate temperature (for that wine), and that the glassware I’m using is optimal for that type of wine. In addition, I make sure that the wine is aerated sufficiently to open up and more effectively exhibit its aromatics and flavors. This is a key factor for me, and one that is sometimes a source of disagreement with wine “experts”, but one that nonetheless I’ve learned is absolutely essential.
- Since I will drink approximately 1-2 glasses of the wine I’m reviewing, I won’t conduct a full-on, comprehensive review of more than 2 wines per day, so I can isolate and discriminate things easier and more effectively. And so I can function the rest of the day!!
When I’m really trying hard to discriminate characteristics and identify key wine attributes, I apply the scientific method to my wine tasting and assessment process. In reality, we all do in some way, shape or form. That is, I make observations. I observe the wine visually and physically. I swirl the wine, evaluating the color, the viscosity (qualitatively of course), the smell and many other factors. Then I make some measurements. I taste the wine, taking my time and attempting to take in some air as I taste, so I experience the totality of the wine on my palate. This is where the “art” of the process takes over. This is the experiential part of the process. Then I sit back and ask myself what I just tasted. This is where I ask myself a few questions about my experience, jot down some notes and conduct an initial evaluation/analysis of the measurements I just made. Maybe I identify some primary characteristics or maybe there is something unique and subtle that I can’t actually put into words (and this happens often). I will repeat this measurement (tasting) process a few times before I decide to experiment. As this process evolves, in the back of my head I begin to form the basis of what I’m feeling about this wine, essentially a hypothesis. From here, as I continue tasting, I will typically run some “experiments” by adding some cheese, meat slices or crackers or other complementary pairings to assess their impact on the flavor profile. This helps me better understand how the wine behaves when I’ve coupled it with a food of some sort. At the end, I then document my final thoughts (again more “art” injected into the process) and piece together my overall assessment of the wine. Once this is done, I like to focus on three things:
- Better understanding the existing data, specifications, winemaker’s notes, pricing information and other information I can gather about the wine. This will help me better understand what was intended when the wine was created, how this wine came to be, where it came from, and some of its history,
- Generating my summary tasting notes, and,
- Developing a rating on a scale that is understandable and in some way meaningful for those readers who are looking for some guidance on a wine or for some insights that might help them determine whether or not to buy, drink or serve it to guests.
From this information, I create a wine review “report” which includes a comprehensive assessment I’ve crafted based upon the information described above. More detail about my wine review process and documentation can be found by clicking on the Wine Tasting Process Tab on the main menu or take a look at my Recent Reviews. Finally, the retail price of the wine will not play a role in how I rate the wine nor will it influence my review in any way.
We’ve already talked about the subjectivity of wine reviewing and rating. And even though I’ve tried to convey the importance (for me personally) of employing a somewhat rigorous and controlled scientific approach to evaluating wine, there is absolutely no way one can create an absolute rating scale that applies to all wines reviewed and holds meaning to all people who have tried them. Nevertheless, wine ratings are part of the process that many in the industry want to see, whether for marketing purposes or reputation (or both), and like any other market sector in life, ratings play a part of things. There’s always some relative scale for comparing and contrasting products…whatever they may be.
There are many different rating scales that have been developed over the years for rating wines. And while I believe a single number can never encapsulate a valid description of how I perceive a wine, it can play a role in the overall assessment performed, when many other characteristics, physical properties and attributes are considered. Some reviewers use a scale of 1 to 10 in 0.5 or 1.0 increments where 10 would represent the absolute best wine and 1 would signify the absolute worst wine. Likewise, there are 20 point scales and even the 100 point scale typically employed by wine industry giants such as Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. I tend to gravitate to a scale that is simple, but provides a level of specificity at the same time. Since I’m a member of Vivino (online wine social media and review website), I’ve become accustomed to their 5-star rating scale that allows for ½ star increments. This scale allows me to rate the wine into essentially 11 different bins, if you count no stars (0 rating) as the lowest, and 5-stars as the highest rating. So, we have: