July 21, 2016 | By RJS Craft Winemaking
Most of us who enjoy wine are already familiar with the three steps in tasting wine: looking at the glass to see the wine’s colour and clarity, giving the wine a swirl before sniffing the glass to identify aromas, and then finally taking a sip (or often a gulp) to experience the wine’s flavours. But, when you take that first drink and swish the wine around your mouth, what exactly are you tasting?
The first thing you might notice is the wine’s relative sweetness or dryness. This is largely a result of how much natural sugar is left in the wine. Alcohol in wine is made by fermenting the natural sugars in the grapes. Once fermentation finishes, any grape sugars that did not ferment are called the residual sugar. More residual sugar can make a wine taste sweeter than one that is fermented dry – with almost all the sugar converted into alcohol.
The next sensation you will notice almost immediately after the first sip is the tartness or acidity of the wine. Like sugar, acid is naturally occurring in the grapes and some grapes will taste more acidic than others. Sufficient acid makes the wine taste crisp and fresh. But, if there is too much acid, the wine will taste bitter and unpleasantly sharp and if there is not enough, the wine will taste flabby and flat.
If you are drinking red wine, you will also likely taste tannin. Tannin is a naturally occurring polyphenol found in the stalks, seeds and skins of grapes. Red wine contains more tannin than white because red wines are usually fermented with the skins and seeds. Tannin can taste astringent or bitter depending on the phenolic compound. Astringency produces a “mouth-drying” sensation whereas bitterness can be compared to biting into a piece of dark chocolate. It is most noticeable when the wine is young, but as the wine ages over time, tannins “soften” and give the wine a pleasant, full-bodied mouthfeel.
Beyond tannin, a glass of wine contains many thousands of flavour compounds that occur naturally in the grapes or are created from the winemaking process. When you taste these flavor compounds, they impart many familiar flavours like different fruits, spices, dairy products and even baked goods.
A moderate amount of alcohol in a wine adds to the perception of “sweetness”. If there is too much alcohol, the wine will be out of balance with the tannin and fruit, making it feel hot in your mouth and difficult to drink.
Finally, the sensation that lingers in your mouth just after swallowing a sip is called the finish. The finish is important in wine tasting because it can reveal flavours that were not noticeable at first, or it could also reveal unpleasant flavours that indicate the wine is faulted. A long, pleasant finish that lingers in your mouth for several seconds with all the components of the wine in balance, is a sign of quality.
Once the lingering taste from the finish is gone, think about what you have tasted. What is your general impression of the wine? Do all the components seem to be in balance? Is it too astringent and needs time to age or is it ready to drink now? What kinds of food might taste good with this wine? Now you are thinking like a professional wine taster. But, at the end of the day, the only question that really matters is: Do you like the wine? If you do, then keep on sipping!