When tasting wine many wine experts use the 5S approach (Sight, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, and Savour) as the basis of their assessments.
Wine Tasting S Number 1: Sight
Sight may be the least important sense when it comes to evaluating a wine but it can give useful information about its age, condition and maturity. By looking at the colour and clarity of the wine it can tell you a lot about it. To best gauge a wine's appearance, tilt the glass slightly and look at the colour against a white background such as a tablecloth. Notice how the colour changes near the edge of the glass.
For example, the darker the wine, the more body it will typically have. A more viscous appearance can mean higher alcohol or depth of flavour. Young white wines are usually pale in colour whilst older ones become darker changing to gold and eventually to brown (which would indicate that the wine is past its best).
Red wines change colour as they age. For example, purple changes to dark red, crimson, brick red and eventually brown. Density and depth of colour can indicate body and concentration but it really depends on the grape as paler varieties such as Pinot Noir can still look pale in the glass but be very concentrated in their aromas and flavours.
The key questions to ask yourself when assessing a wine by sight is whether the wine looks bright, has good clarity and has an inviting appearance. Cloudy or brown wine is generally to be avoided.
Wine Tasting S Number 2 and 3: Swirl and sniff
After you take a look at the wine, then swirl the wine in the glass. Practice this to avoid spilling the wine all over yourself or someone else, because it’s important to wine geeks and it’s a good way to appear to be knowledgeable. But there is a point to this swirling as it encourages aroma molecules out of the glass, so you can smell them. It may look pretentious but without smelling a wine properly you are not evaluating it correctly,
When you smell the wine, you should look for the characteristic aromas of that particular grape or blend of grapes together with elements that come from oak e.g. fruit, smoke, or vanilla. To help you do this there are wine aroma charts that summarise the most common combinations found in wine.
Since a human's basic sense of taste only covers sweet, sour, bitterness and salt, the nose contributes much of what we say is taste. Subtlety of flavours, nuances of characteristics are largely detected through smell, not what is directly on our tongue. For that reason don't open an expensive bottle of wine when you have a stinking cold or blocked nose.
Wine Tasting S Number 4: Sip
Much of a wine's character is revealed on the nose, but not everything. Now you need to taste the wine and it is important not to just have a big mouthful and swallow straight down. You should swirl it around the mouth to assess the true character as only then the acidity and tannins will be fully evident. Serving the wine at the right temperature is also important as too warm and aroma and flavour will be impaired, particularly for subtle grape varieties like Pinot Noir. Hold the wine in your mouth for a while (without choking) because as it warms in the mouth the wine opens up and releases volatile flavour and aroma compounds.
Of course, now you are actually tasting the wine, and we want to try and describe the various tastes that we find. First we decide, “Is the wine sweet or dry”? Which means do you taste residual sugar or not. Next, taste for the acid in the wine. You feel, more than taste, the acid in wine on your tongue, and it can make your mouth water. Don’t confuse acid or the idea of “dry” with the pucker sensation in some red wines, which are caused by tannins. Is the wine acidic, bitter or astringent?
Tannins are an important part of the flavour profile for red wines. You cannot taste tannins, but you can feel them. Swirling red wine in your mouth is an excellent way to “feel” the tannin in your mouth. Is the wine textured and feel smooth in the mouth or does it feel watery?
If you are having trouble putting your tastes into words, you might refer to the aroma chart again. Frequently, the aromas are flavours as well.
The key to taste is balance and the best wines are very balanced without any one characteristics dominating i.e. "there is perfect wine harmony".
Now swallow the wine and what is your final impression? Is this finish long, complex, interesting? Does it please the senses? Is the wine an easy drinker or are the flavours, aromas, texture difficult or unenjoyable?
Wine Tasting S Number 5: Savour
The last act of “tasting” a wine is savouring it. Contemplate the aromas, tastes, and the way the wine feels in your mouth. You are looking for the overall experience the wine has to offer. This is really important.
Did you like the wine? What did you like about it? What did you not like about the wine? Would you buy the wine again? These are the kind of questions that you should try to answer to get your overall impression of the wine. With experience comes aroma and flavour memory that act as a guide for future drinking enjoyment.
A well used word in wine circles is "length". This is a combination of two factors :
- Firstly how long the wine has an impact on your senses after you swallow it, how long it affects your palate.
- Secondly how the wine flows across your senses.
The other well used word is "complexity". This is a description of whether the wine is multi-dimensional and it is often used with high quality wines, particularly those that are aged . It can come from the grape variety or blend of grapes as well as wine making techniques like oak acing, solids contact and so on. As a wine ages its taste and smell move from primary fruits to secondary characteristics which are caused by the evolution of chemicals in the wine, precipitation of tannins and other processes.
Tasting wine is an art as well as a science. So practice makes perfect! Enjoy.