There's more to tasting wine than just tasting wine. Before you employ your tastebuds, use your eyes and nose for a complete wine experience.
1. Taste with your eyes
Your eyes will tell you a lot about wine before your mouth does. Tilt your part-filled glass towards a blank, light surface, take a good look and let your tasting begin.
The wine should be clear, not cloudy. A mature red wine, will have lost its youthful, scarlet brilliance; think of faded paint on an old oil painting. You might even notice a brickish tinge. This doesn't mean the wine will taste nasty. It's just showing its age. A young red wine should be vibrant in colour but if it displays a brown tinge, it could mean cork taint or oxidisation...now that is nasty.
Unlike red wine, white wine actually gains colour as it ages. A young white wine will be crystal clear and very pale, or even transparent. An older white wine will be golden or honey in appearance, but still very drinkable. For example, chardonnays and rieslings are delicious when left for a few years. If the wine is brown instead of gold, this could be another sign of oxidisation.
Now, stick your nose in the glass and inhale. What you're smelling is the wine's aroma or bouquet. Depending on the grape variety, you'll smell all sorts of things. A Marlborough sauvignon blanc might give off asparagus aromas. You could detect lemon in a Hunter Valley semillon or a whiff of cherries in a Tasmanian pinot noir. However,if you smell wet sacks, cardboard, rotten eggs, nail polish, or any odour that just seems out of place to you, don't even think about drinking it.
3. Swirl it...
You may have seen someone swirl their wine glass in a restaurant and thought ' what a plonker.' They're actually anything but. They're just making the wine better. By swirling wine, you introduce oxygen into the mix. Oxygen does to wine what a glass of champagne does to a shy blind date. It causes it to 'open up' and reveal more of itself. Hidden aromas and flavours are released, bringing the wine closer to its full potential. So, go on...give it a swirl.
4. Sniff it...again
That swirl will have done wonders to the bouquet of the wine. So have another sniff. Those aromas will now be more obvious, and jump out at you. And, as you're about to find out, the taste will be fuller and more satisfying.
5. The moment you've been waiting for
Finally! Time to taste. Take a sip, then draw in a little air between your just-open lips. This will add to the flavour, just like the swirling you did earlier. This initial sip will tell you a lot about the wine's balance. Different aspects such as fruit, acids and tannins must work together to create a great drop.
Sweetness is one of the first things you'll notice on your tongue. Generally, the sweeter the wine, the lower the alcohol content. A riesling with 11% alcohol will usually taste sweeter than a dry shiraz with 14% alcohol. If you prefer a sweeter wine, look for a lower alcohol content. If you prefer drier wine, with less sugar, opt for something closer to 15%.
Your first taste will also reveal the level of acidity. Grape acids give a wine its zing. Not enough acid means the wine is lifeless, or flabby. Think of Coca Cola without the fizz. Or flat beer. Wine without enough acid is just as unappealing.
Tannins are organic compounds found in grape skins, seeds, and stems. If you're tasting a young red wine in particular, you'll know when you've encountered tannins: your mouth will pucker and dry out, as if you've been sipping overbrewed tea. This indicates the wine needs further cellaring. While tannins sound unpleasant, they're a natural preservative, and help wine improve with age. As a red wine matures, tannins subside and the wine becomes smoother. You'll no longer think you're sucking on a used tea bag.
The longer the wine is in your mouth, the more flavours or characters will become apparent on your palate. So don't be in a hurry to swallow. Mature chardonnay might have a butterscotch taste. Pinot gris could remind you of pear juice. Shiraz could reveal white pepper characters. You might even taste grape! Something else you'll taste in most wines is oak, thanks to the barrels the wine is fermented and stored in before bottling.
When you finally swallow the wine, take note of the finish. A long finish means the flavour stays with you long after the wine has been swallowed. This is a good indicator of quality. A wine that doesn't leave a lingering impression is said to be short.
6. Remember the experience
Tasting wine is all about trying new varieties and flavours, and discovering what you like. To help you remember this learning experience, and to ensure you buy the right wines in the future, make a note of what you try. Memories sometimes get a little fuzzy during a tasting, so a few words in a notebook are worth their weight in liquid gold.
7. Wine is a boundless subject, ... but there's one final thing to keep in mind when tasting: there are no rules. The best wine is the wine you like best. Don't let anyone tell you that your favourite wine isn't up to scratch because it doesn't come from a famous vineyard or because it's cheaper than other wines. Let your tastebuds - and eyes and nose - make up your own mind for you.