The Three Phases in Wine Tasting
Enjoying wine is one of the simplest things in the world: open, pour, sip, and enjoy. In contrast, for example, the handling of a fork and a knife for eating, as a child, takes more practice. That said, making the most of our favorite beverage is not just about drinking, like eating is not only about swallowing. Wine tasting has a few critical steps that allow to sublimate the experience, and just as importantly, understand what’s in your glass.
Wine tasting is like life. To make the most of it, one is better off making it a long one and use his/her senses with skills to appreciate it further. Of course, you can gulp your wine closing your eyes and pinching your nose. But to understand and enjoy what’s in your glass to the fullest, let us explain why connoisseurs and professionals strictly follow three consecutive phases.
We have five senses allowing us to perceive and interact with the world around us: sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. What is less known is that tasting wine properly uses four of them, even five if you bother listening to the comments of your fellow wine-sharing companions.
So let’s detail how this works, and why following these three simple steps of a tasting will help you grasp the complete story a wine has to tell you.
1. Observing, or ‘The Appearance’
Your first contact with a wine is visual, when you first pour it out of the bottle and into a glass. Like when meeting somebody, the first impression is crucial, and actually influences the whole tasting experience that follows. Humans are very visual creatures after all.
Beyond the act of pouring, you commonly see sommeliers, winemakers, and wine connoisseurs take some time to observe the wine in the glass, often swirling it before smelling and sipping.
What does a careful visual observation tell you about a wine? The color and the appearance of a wine indicates what style you can expect.
No one likes to put something in his/her mouth, and be confronted with a taste that is not expected: something sweet when savory is anticipated for example, or the other way around. If you’re surprised when tasting, chances are you will have a negative opinion of the wine, even if it’s actually a very good one.
Obviously, what you will notice first is whether the wine is white, rosé, or red. But beyond this, the hue can reveal a whole lot about the style.
For example, you can generally expect from a pale white wine to be fairly light, often dry, and dominated by primary fruit or floral characters. A more intensely-yellow wine however, more golden or with amber hues, will suggest a richer style, perhaps with oak and spices from bottle aging.
Same for reds. A lightly-colored red wine is associated with lighter reds, less tannic, and generally with less body and alcohol content than dark ones.
In addition, because a red wine turns from a purple color at a young age to an orange hue when older, the wine’s color also tells you about its age, therefore whether you should expect fruit characters or earthier savory ones.
The visual texture also gives essential indications of style: bubbles in sparkling wines, oily behavior in the glass indicating high sugar content or alcohol, sediments highlighting an extended bottle ageing.
2. Smelling, also called ‘The Nose’
The second phase of a structured wine tasting uses our second sense: smell.
Taking the time to sniff the surface of the wine into the glass allows: 1) to confirm or not your impressions from the preceding visual observations, 2) to give you a first hint what the wine is going to taste like when you sip.
Let’s take a practical example. During phase one of your tasting, you’ve observed a white wine with a golden to amber color. This type of color can mainly characterize three styles of wine: a white wine made with rich ripe fruit perhaps aged in oak like an old-school California Chardonnay for example, an aged dry white wine, or a sweet wine e.g. Sauternes or Hungarian Tokaji. In this case, smelling the wine will tell you which of those three styles the wine fits into: buttery and oaky for the first of the previously-described styles, nutty and spicy for an old white, or intensely fruity for a sweet wine.
Smelling the wine does the same thing as observing it: it prepares you for the actual tasting. But it also gives you a first real insight into the wine’s aromatic profile.
3. Tasting, referred to as ‘The Palate’
Now that you’ve formed a mental image of the wine you’re expecting to taste, here comes phase three, the most hedonistic of all (the one that provides the most enjoyment), but also the one that tells you all about the wine.
Unlike the previous two phases, analyzing the palate uses three of our senses:
- The sense of taste obviously with its four main components: sweetness, saltiness (yes, some wines feel salty), sourness (or acidity), and bitterness.
- The sense of smell when the wine’s aromas get to your nose through the back of your mouth, revealing the wine’s flavors.
- But also the sense of touch. Just like the surface of our skin, the inside of our mouth is covered in receptors able to analyze temperature and texture. Although it’s often forgotten about, the wine’s body (how oily or viscous it is) and its tannic structure (e.g. drying tannins, smooth velvety feel) are actually given by the sense of touch.
Of course, phase three is the most important, and prevails on everything else, because it’s the one that tells whether or not you truly enjoy the wine. That is wine careful tasters spend a long time with the wine in their mouth, ‘chewing’ it and breathing air through it to concentrate flavors.
That said, don’t over-complicate it, and more importantly don’t worry.
Wine is for enjoying and sharing before all. Next time you have a glass of wine, take a little time to run through these three phases and see for yourself how naturally they come.
In any case, if you’ve missed anything through the three-phase tasting, no drama. You can always come back for another sip.
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