Wine Tasting Considerations

My intention here in this Section is to simply educate and introduce people to what I consider important factors to be cognizant of, and to better appreciate, as you begin to dive into wine tasting more intensely.  This discussion is by no means completely comprehensive, and I would venture to guess there are other factors that some would consider even more significant that perhaps should be covered here.  However, without taking on the topic to the extent of writing a huge wine encyclopedia, I’ve decided to simply focus on a few key considerations.  Many of these topics are covered quite well in the various books provided in my Reference Section of this website.   There are a number of things you may want to consider when you’re wine tasting, in order to help you experience the wine the way the winemaker intended.  Some of the more obvious factors would include paying attention to your senses.  For instance, if you have a cold, and your sense of smell/taste is significantly impaired, you may want to postpone the tasting, or at the very least be careful about any decisions you make regarding the wines you sample.  Chewing gum, candies or having breath mints just prior to, or during a tasting will most certainly affect your ability to effectively enjoy wine and identify/discriminate flavor characteristics.  In addition, smoking will also impact your ability to appropriately experience a wine.  This is not to say one can’t drink wine while enjoying a cigar or a cigarette.  I often smoke a cigar with a nice glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.  However, if I’m conducting a wine review or otherwise attempting to taste wines to determine if I want to buy them or recommend them, I will refrain from doing things that negatively affect my palate.

Aside from the more obvious factors and behaviors that can impact your ability to properly experience wine, there are other considerations that more serious wine connoisseurs will pay attention to.  The temperature of the wine (when served) is an important factor that could impact the flavor profile of a wine.  Again….there are no hard and fast rules that are written in stone, and if you enjoy a glass of Merlot on the rocks, feel free to enjoy your Merlot on ice!!!!  However, since the flavor profiles of wines are dependent upon volatile components that are sensitive to temperature, there are some general temperature guidelines for serving wine that will help to optimize your wine experience.  For red wines, the typical serving temperature range is from 60°F to 70°F where the lighter bodied reds (such as Pinot Noir and Gamay Beaujolais) are generally served on the colder side of this spectrum and heavier bodied reds (such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec) on the warmer side of this range.

For rosé, white and dessert wines the typical range of serving temperatures is 40°F to 50°F where again lighter whites (like Pinot Grigio) and sweet (dessert) wines are served on the colder side while heavier whites (such as Chardonnay) are best served on the warmer side of this range.

The type of wine glass you choose to serve wine in can have an effect on both the aromatics and the flavor profile of your wine.  In some cases, this impact can be dramatic.  Some leading wine glass manufacturers (like Riedel) offer mini-courses to wine industry staff and often to the public at various wine tasting rooms where you can experience first-hand, the effect of wine glass shape/geometry on various wine characteristics.  If you still don’t believe me, some research across different (but related) tasting venues might convince you.  Beer, bourbon and scotch aficionados also have many options for acquiring customized glassware, specifically designed to enhance the tasting and aromatic profiles of these beverages.  Again however, I should caveat this discussion with the fact that while I personally choose to optimize my wine tasting by using the appropriate glassware, it really boils down to personal preference – how you like to enjoy your wine.  If you like to serve wine in mason jars….be my guest!  As long as you are having fun and enjoying wine, I’m all in with my support of your approach!

Here on this website, my focus is most often on red wines, but for the sake of this conversation, I will sneak in examples for white wines and sparkling/effervescent wines as we talk about wine glasses.  For everything you need to know about wine glasses, all one has to do is Google “types of wine glasses” and you will find a wide spectrum of graphic illustrations and digital photos of every type of wine glass you can imagine.  A quick review of these and you will quickly realize that there is some degree of interpretation and even disagreement among various sources when it comes to assigning specific types of wine to unique glass shapes/geometries.  Additionally, a number of my recommended wine References will also help provide you much more detail on this subject.  Regardless, for many it can impact your wine experience.  So let’s get after it.  The key attributes of a wine glass are illustrated below, and include:

Wine glasses are designed to please the nose, increase the surface area of the wine (for certain wines), and focus on enhancing the efficiency of swirling, sniffing and maintaining the temperature of the wine. The dimension of the opening impacts the concentration of aromatics to your nose.  Generally speaking, larger glass openings tend to accentuate floral notes, while more narrow glass openings will emphasize spice and fruit notes more effectively.  As a general rule of thumb, white wines are typically served in smaller glasses while red wines are served in larger glasses, with rosé wines falling somewhere in between.  Regardless of the size of the glass, I prefer not to overfill them.  Typically about 5 to 6 oz. of wine is sufficient to take advantage of the design and optimize the aromatic characteristics of the wine, thereby also influencing the flavor profile, as our sense of taste is intimately tied to our sense of smell.  This 5 to 6 oz. volume also allows you to swirl the wine vigorously without spilling it.  A larger bowl dimension helps to expand the surface area of the wine that is exposed to the air (headspace) in the glass, supporting effective aeration (oxidation) of the wine.  For white wines, this isn’t that critical, but for reds, it is essential.   We will talk more about breathing and decanting wine in a bit.

I always prefer to drink wine from a stemmed glass.  I hold my wine glass by the stem and try not to hold it by the bowl, as the heat from your hand is transferred through the glass fairly effectively into the wine, essentially heating up the wine beyond its ideal drinking temperature range.  When I am served a wine that is too cold to drink, I will hold the glass by the bowl for 4 or 5 minutes, and this typically raises the temperature enough to begin drinking it.  Here, I’ve taken some photos of some of my personal wine glassware and attempted to provide you with some general suggestions for wine/wine-glass correlations.

Sparkling/Effervescent Wine

Pinot Noir

White Wine or Rosé

Burgundy

Light Bodied Red or Rosé

Bordeaux Varietals or Blends

Breathing, Aerating and Decanting Wine

To caveat this part of the discussion, I will say, there are those folks (in and outside the wine industry) who are adamant about their positions on not breathing or decanting wine.  I am not one of these people.  I am 100% in favor of doing whatever I can to enhance my wine experience.  At some point I’m certain you’ve witnessed people swirling their wine prior to tasting it.  In some tasting rooms the wine server may even pour the wine and swirl it for you before handing you the glass.  While this is primarily done with red wines, there are scenarios where you may want to breathe a full bodied white wine or champagne.  The reason for taking this step is to expose the wine to air and “open” up the wine so it more effectively exhibits its aromatics and, over time as it breathes, to soften and become more approachable to your palate via an oxidation process.  In addition, evaporation also takes place, helping to reduce the effects of volatile compounds (VCs) on your wine experience.  You’ll hear wine people say, “this wine is tight”, referring to the age of the wine (specifically younger wines) and to the prevalence of acids, tannins and VCs in the wine.  By introducing air into the wine, the oxygenation and evaporation processes help to reduce the potency of these acids and tannins on the palate, soften the impact of sulfites and compounds such as ethanol on the flavor profile, and will often help flavors generally intensify and blossom, much like longer-term cellaring/aging of a wine.  However, there is a balance to be aware of, as you can over-oxygenate a wine to the point where the flavor and aroma profiles begin to almost flatten out.  Some primary factors to consider when determining how long you should breathe or decant a wine include: the type of wine (red/white, tannic levels, acidity, etc.), the prevalence of noticeable volatile compounds, and the vintage (age) of the wine.

Decanting, while used to breathe a wine, is also useful in separating sediment that may have precipitated out of the wine over time.  Decanters come in a wide range of shapes and sizes.  In my opinion, the more effective designs provide a means for the wine to cascade down the decanter to the bowl of the decanter where the shape and dimensions provide the maximum surface area for the wine to have continuous contact with the air in the headspace.  This illustration from Wine Folly is perfect for this discussion.  In the References Section of this site, I highly recommend the Wine Folly website and their textbook for more details associated with breathing, aeration and decanting.

There are many ways you can achieve the positive effects of oxygenation and evaporation.  To help “encourage” and speed up the process, wine lovers have come up with a variety of techniques, methods, and technologies to help move this process along.  Once you open a bottle, the breathing process begins.  Simply pouring some wine into a glass and swirling it, is a very common and inexpensive way of achieving the desired effects of oxidation and evaporation, but may not be as fast and effective as some other methods.  Transfer of the wine into a secondary container and then re-transfer of the wine back into the bottle is also common.  Custom designed pouring spouts, aeration “nozzles”, decanters of all shapes and sizes, and even higher-tech devices with special decanters and peristaltic O2 pumps can be used to increase decanting efficiency and time.  Finally, there are systems that inject a needle through the cork of a wine bottle, allowing one to sample a wine without opening the bottle.  As the wine is transferred into the glass it is aerated, and a gas (heavier than air – typically Argon) is then injected into the bottle headspace, purging any air in the bottle to preserve the wine so it can continue to age.  Here are some examples of common gadgets, techniques, methodologies and the latest devices available for this part of the wine tasting process.

Aeration Pouring Spout

Aeration Nozzle

Aeration Wine-Breather Decanter

Aeration Fountain Glass

Twisted Tube Aerator

Aeration and Preservation System

Aeration Decanting Funnel

Electronic Aeration Spout

Automated Smart Aeration System

Wine Tasting Characteristics, Templates and Tools

Wine tasting is a very personal activity.  The more you do it, the more in tune you will become with your own sensitivity to various wine attributes and characteristics.  It’s like anything else.  Repetition is a means for honing your senses with a focus on wine….the juice of the gods!!  There are a number of fantastic references, useful tools, templates and guides that are readily available online, for people of all levels of proficiency in the wine world.  I love to take advantage of some of these tools and references to help spark my thought processes and my ability to identify and discriminate various wine aromas, flavors or other characteristics when I’m tasting or reviewing a wine.  There are times when I smell or taste something very unique and maybe even intense, but just can’t seem to identify the word that best describes what I’m experiencing.  Often, it seems as though the word I’m trying to find is right on the tip of my tongue!  Literally and figuratively.  This is where these tools and templates really help me.  For some outstanding wine references (both websites and textbooks) that will really help you understand the details associated with wine tasting and wine characterization, check out the References section of my site.

There is a wide spectrum of tables, tools and wine wheels that are available online to help stimulate your thought process as you begin to develop your own personal approach for documenting wines that you taste.  If you plan to pursue wine reviewing in more depth, you can certainly benefit from some research to help you better understand all the critical facets associated with wine tasting and reviewing.  The wine aroma wheel is one tool that can be useful in helping you identify and potentially isolate specific aromas or flavors you might be experiencing.  From my limited research, I believe the first wine aroma wheel was developed in the mid-1980s by Dr. Ann C. Noble of the University of California – Davis.  Dr. Noble developed and used this wheel to help people facilitate their own sensory experiences in terms of aromatic and flavor attributes or “descriptors” (www.winearomawheel.com).  Since the first wine wheels were generated, a variety of wheels have since been developed and marketed by other companies to provide additional specificity.  For instance, one can now purchase individual wine wheels, solely focused on aromatic and flavor profiles for individual wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and so forth (www.aromaster.com).  Examples of a few different wine wheels are provided here.  Simply click on the thumbnails below to enlarge the image and review the various wine attributes and descriptors.

While this is not an all-inclusive listing, some of the descriptors you may find in these aroma wheels (for red and white wines) include the following:

Fruity

Citrus

  • Grapefruit
  • Lemon

Berry

  • Blackberry
  • Raspberry
  • Strawberry
  • Black Currant (Cassis)

(Tree) Fruit

  • Cherry
  • Apricot
  • Peach
  • Apple

(Tropical) Fruit

  • Pineapple
  • Melon
  • Banana

(Dried) Fruit

  • Strawberry Jam
  • RaisinPrune
  • Fig

Other

  • Artificial Fruit
  • Methyl Anthranilate

Spicy

Spicy

  • Licorice/Anise
  • Black Pepper
  • Cloves

Pungent

Cool

  • Menthol

Hot

  • Alcohol

Floral

Floral

  • Geranium
  • Violet
  • Rose
  • Orange Blossom

Microbiological

Yeasty

  • Leesy
  • Baker’s Yeast

Lactic

  • Yogurt
  • Sweaty
  • Sauerkraut

Other

  • Mousy
  • Horsey

Sherry

Oxidized

  • Oxidized

Earthy

Moldy

  • Moldy Cork
  • Moldy

Earthy

  • Mushroom
  • Dusty

Chemical

Pungent

  • Sulfur Dioxide
  • Ethanol
  • Acetic Acid
  • Ethyl Acetate

Sulfur

  • Wet Wool, Wet Dog
  • Sulfur Dioxide
  • Burnt Match
  • Cabbage
  • Skunk
  • Garlic
  • Natural Gas, Mercaptain
  • Hydrogen Sulfide
  • Rubbery

Petroleum

  • Diesel
  • Kerosene
  • Plastic
  • Tar

Woody

Burned

  • Smoky
  • Burnt Toast
  • Coffee

Phenolic

  • Medicinal
  • Phenolic
  • Bacon

Resinous

  • Oak
  • Cedar
  • Vanilla

Caramel

Caramel

  • Honey
  • Butterscotch
  • Diacetyl (Butter)
  • Soy Sauce
  • Chocolate
  • Molasses

Nutty

Nutty

  • Walnut
  • Hazelnut
  • Almond

Herbaceous or Vegetative

Fresh

  • Cut Green Grass
  • Bell Pepper
  • Eucalyptus
  • Mint

Canned/Cooked

  • Green Beans
  •  Asparagus
  • Green Olive
  • Black Olive
  • Artichoke

Dried

  • Hay/Straw
  • Tea
  • Tobacco