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The Basics of Tasting Wines
Featured article for the 1999 Temecula Balloon & Wine Festival Program

Some people have the impression that wine tasting is a ritual that can only be performed by experts. The fact is that tasting can be done without any special knowledge of wines. Keep in mind that a winery offers wines for tasting so that one can become familiar with the wines, and hopefully enjoy them. The goal of the taster is to discover wines he/she will enjoy. Therefore, wine tasting is most always a relaxing, enjoyable experience.

The order of tasting wines is important and is usually arranged by the wine host. The normal order of tasting is dry whites to medium whites, light reds to full-bodied reds, sweet whites followed by dessert and fortified wines. It is common to rinse the residual wine from your tasting glass between wines or between types of wine (whites, reds, etc.) and many wine hosts provide bland crackers or pretzels which you can use to "clear" your palate between tastes.

There are three basic components to evaluating wines: appearance, smell and taste.

Appearance. Start by holding the glass (containing the wine, of course) toward a white background and away from you at an angle. An experienced wine taster will look for three characteristics: color, depth and clarity. In red wines, a brilliant red color usually indicates a wine in it's prime, a purplish hue may indicate a very young wine and a brown hue may indicate that a wine is past it's prime or oxidized. A dry white wine should have a pale straw color while an aged dry wine or a sweet or desert wine should have a yellow-gold hue. The depth of color usually suggests the quality of the grapes and how full-bodied the wine will be. The wine should be completely clear and cloudless, although some older reds may have some harmless sediment.

Smell. Next, gently swirl the wine in a way that the wine coats the inside of the glass (without spilling on yourself or your neighbor). The swirling motion intensifies the wines aroma (the fruity smell) and bouquet (the fragrance developed through aging), while the shape of the glass concentrates the aroma within the confined space. Put your nose over the glass and gently inhale. The wine's aroma is a good indicator of the quality and characteristics (such as fruity or flowery) of the wine.

Taste. The taste of the wine should confirm its aroma and bouquet. An experienced wine taster may inhale (slurp) some air while sipping to aerate the wine and bring out the wine's more complex flavors. Let the wine stand in your mouth for a moment. The texture and weight of the wine is described as it's body. A full-bodied wine will feel rich and heavy in your mouth, while a thin wine will feel somewhat watery. Generally, wines with less alcohol are light-bodies, while those with higher alcohol are medium to full-bodied. Upon swallowing the wine, notice the finish: the lasting flavors and impression that the wine leaves on your palate. A long, flavorful finish is a sign of a quality wine.

There are hundreds of adjectives that can describe the essence of a wine. A wine's fruit component (aroma and flavor) may be of tropical fruit (melon, pineapple), berries (blackberry, black currant), dried fruit (fig, strawberry jam) or tree fruit (apple, peach). Often a wine will have other characteristics described as nutty (almond, hazelnut), spicy (black pepper, currant), vegetative (green pepper, cut grass), floral (violet, orange blossom) or caramelized (chocolate, butterscotch). In general, a young white wine should taste fresh, fruity and crisp, while red wines will have more complex berry and woody flavors. If you are recording your impressions, use descriptions that have meaning to you&emdash;not the "experts."

There are certain properties that can only be evaluated by sense of taste: the amount of sweetness (usually associated with white wines or late harvest reds) as well as acidic or bitter qualities. Tannins, the astringent, puckery sensation usually found in red wines is a primary factor in determining a wine's aging potential and will soften with age. Although wine is alcoholic, an alcohol taste should not be noticeable in a quality wine. The way in which each of these individual wine elements interacts with each other is called the balance. A well-balanced wine will have a harmonious combination of fruit, acid, sugar (in white wines), tannin and alcohol, of which none will overpower another.

Finally, a wine of perfect balance and style that combines multiple aroma and flavor elements in a harmonious relationship is considered complex. Complexity is the quality that most winemakers strive for and separates a great wine from a very good one.

Next in this series: Storing Wines

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