Wine Tasting Made Easy

You un-bung one of your barrels, thief a little wine out into your glass, and bring it up to your nose for a sniff and a taste. Immediately a little voice in the back of your mind (speaking with a nasally Frenchified accent, to be sure) pipes up: “Excuse moi, garçon, but you can’t possibly be doing that right. I scoff at your so-called wine savvy, you son of a used-car salesman.” And you sheepishly begin to imagine that, well, since you don’t have a grandiose chateau, property in Burgundy, or at the very least a sommelier’s license, you probably don’t even know how to hold the glass the right way, not to mention taste wine in the “correct” manner.

But stop right there. The great secret of the world’s wine-jockeys is this: Underneath all the funny words, 100-point scales, and fanciful wine descriptions lies a straightforward and easily understood system of evaluating wines that can be used to assess a Chateau Margaux Grand Cru just as well as a Chateau Smith Ragin’ Good Red. Wine is wine — and your homemade wines can benefit from systematic sensory evaluation just as much as commercial wines can.

Why Evaluate Regularly?

Evaluating your homemade wines — and keeping track of those evaluations — is really the only way to develop a sense of what does and doesn’t work for you at home. By recording your sensorial impressions (smell, taste, mouthfeel) of the wine along with keeping track of the hard numbers (Brix, TA, pH) you can get an overall impression of the wine and use that data for future winemaking sessions.

The wine-evaluation system many home-winemakers like to use is based on the University of California, Davis, 20 Point System. Developed by some of the world’s premier wine scientists, the 20 Point System is a tool that winemakers can use to maximize objectivity in judging their products while retaining pertinent hedonic information about their wines — and to do so in a sound and reproducible manner. Though it may sound complicated, evaluating your wine (tasting) and keeping track of the results (note taking) is pretty basic if you follow the steps below.

Getting Started

Before you sit down and start randomly ripping into bottles of wine, gather the following materials and find yourself a quiet corner of the house or garage where you can sit for an hour and evaluate your homemade wines. Assume for this first time that you’re only assessing one wine (though assessing more at a time is pretty easy, too).

You will need:

  • Uniform glassware — one glass per wine being tasted
  • Shot glass for measuring pours
  • Spit bucket (all professional tasters spit). Plastic pitchers work great for this
  • Pens and paper for note taking. If you type up some “official” wine-tasting sheets with the 20 point scale on it, then keeping a notebook is easier.
  • Water for rinsing your mouth between tastes

Nice to have but not necessary:

  • An aroma-definition tool like the Aroma Wheel designed by Ann Noble, a professor of enology at UC-Davis, to help you come up with words to describe the aromas you’re smelling. You can order it by writing to: A.C. Noble, Department of Viniculture and Enology – UC-Davis, Davis, CA 95616. All proceeds support wine sensory research.

Using the UCD 20 Point System

The basis of the system is that certain wine characteristics are assigned a numerical value. If the wine being judged measures up to that characteristic, that wine is awarded points. If it does not, say, have a bright clarity that is desired for in a wine ready to be bottled, it is not awarded the one point that a brilliantly clear wine would have received. Along with awarding points, you should record your impressions of the wine and take notes along the way for your own future reference. So get hold of your first wine glass, get your note taking materials ready, and have at it:

Color (one point)

The first noticable trait of wine is its color. Hold it up to the light or tilt it away from you against a white piece of paper on the tabletop to observe the true color of the wine against a neutral background. In your notebook, describe the color in your own words. Whites can range anywhere from practically colorless to a golden yellow, and reds have the tendency to span the entire red/blue range of the spectrum from almost violet to a deep brick red dependent upon varietal and age of the wine.

The one color point is awarded to wines that logically fall within their “color boundaries.” If a new white wine is deep gold color, bordering on brown, chances are it’s been oxidized and should probably rate a zero. Similarly, if your Cabernet doesn’t have as much color as it should, don’t award full credit. Make a note to beef up your red wine maceration program.

Clarity (one point)

Though it’s rare for commercial wines to have a clarity problem, it’s pretty common for homemade wines to be less than brilliantly clear or as sediment-free as their store-bought counterparts. When awarding the clarity point, feel free to be a little lenient. One way to do it is to refuse a wine the point only when the sediment or haze can’t be corrected with decanting or bottle age and is a true defect, even by home winemaking criteria. Again, record in your notebook the character of the haze or sediment, if there is one. This can prove valuable data for future troubleshooting.

Aroma/Bouquet (five points)

Do your tasting in the morning, when taste buds are at their best. Also make sure the room in which you are tasting is free from other smells.

Give your glass a big swirl to liberate the aromatic compounds in the wine, and then bury your nose in it. Block out the rest of the world and concentrate on the information that your sensory organs are sending to your brain. Does the way the wine smells remind you of anything? If so, write those things down. Overzealous wine critics aside, most wine experts try to define the aromas of wine in concrete terms like “blackberry” and “bell pepper” rather than with meaningless phrases like “a cunning hint of saucy effervescence.” By using simple, everyday language that everyone can understand, you keep the doors open to practical discourse and shut out the dated air of exclusivity that seems to cling to the ritual of wine tasting.

Besides trying to define the aromas that you’re smelling (use the aroma wheel’s categories to help you here), note the overall aroma picture that the wine’s giving you. Does the wine have any off-odors that render it undrinkable? Then award it a zero. If the wine has a slight off-odor like hydrogen sulfide or a bit of a chemical smell but is still drinkable it should be awarded a one. A unilateral wine with no distinguishing aromas would rate a two, while a flaw-free wine with a pleasant aroma characteristic of its varietal should rate a 3.

It gets a bit tricky when it comes to 4s and 5s. The deal is this: aromas are the smells that the wine gives off when young and fresh. A bouquet (often referred to as “bottle bouquet”) is a collection of smells, aromas, and sensations that a soundly made wine develops as it ages. If your five-year Syrah is defect-free, has varietal character, and has a nice bouquet, go ahead and give it a four or a five. Similarly, if your Sauvignon blanc isn’t made to age and you think it smells just like a finely made Sauv blanc should, give it full points.

Taste/Balance (five points)

Take a swig of your wine, and feel free, as all professional wine tasters do, to swish, swirl, and slosh it around in your mouth. I promise your friends won’t laugh. The point is to get your entire mouth saturated with wine while allowing the volatile components of the wine to be channeled to your sensory receptors for maximum pickup. A wine can get top marks in this category for being free of unpleasant or out-of-place flavors, for being true to type and age, and for being “balanced.” Even though it’s a pretty subjective term, a wine is “balanced” if no one thing sticks out like a sore thumb and if all the elements seem to work together well. Be careful not to confuse this or the aroma/bouquet category with the general quality hedonic category that follows. These former categories are designed to remove some of this subjectivity somewhat and as such you try to concentrate on awarding points for “making the grade” and not for personal opinion…yet.

Sugar (one point)

This one is simple. If you wanted your Muscat to have about 3 percent residual sugar, and it tastes like it does, award your wine a point. If, on the other hand, your goal was to make a dry Zinfandel and well, it’s obviously got a little bit of sugar left, than score this category a zero.

Acidity (two points)

There’s a little bit more leeway in this category. It all depends, again, upon the type of wine you’re making. If you’ve got pretty high acid but a lot of tannin, alcohol, and oak to back it up, then you wine should get all two points. On the other hand, if your wine is too high or too low in acid for its overall composition, award it one or a zero depending upon how off mark it is.

Body (two points)

Body is a sensation of fullness (sometimes called “roundness” by wine critics) in the mouth that texturally differentiates wine from water. If a wine has good body, it’ll feel less like the aforementioned water and will feel like a wine with substance and should be awarded both points. If your wine is a little lacking in the body department then give it a one or zero. Be careful not to confuse body with sugar content. Sugar can give a wine a “fullness” that is really a taste sensation and not a textural one. Try to make a wine with higher alcohol or residual sugar next time, depending on the style. Adding glycerin as an unfermentable sugar is something that home winemakers have the freedom to do — and it adds body and some additional sweetness.

Tannin (one point)

Tannins come from the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes and oak and are compounds in wine that lend wine, especially red wine, a sense or grittiness or puckering that you can feel on your tongue, cheeks, and teeth. Though it could possibly go under the body category because it’s felt as a textural quality, it really belongs in its own group because its presence (or absence) can make or break a wine.

Award a wine a point if the level of tannin is appropriate for the wine you’ve made. For example if your six-month-old Cabernet has enough tannin to knock your socks off, it’s not necessarily a defect. If you mean to age it, by all means award it a one. Similarly, if you’ve made a white wine but don’t sense a lot of tannin — which is appropriate for this case — also award it a one. However, if your red wine is lacking a little oomph, give it a zero and make a note to yourself to beef up your maceration strategy, to add more oak to your wine, or to add some tannic acid.

General Quality (two points)

All right. So here’s your chance to record your overall impressions of the wine. I know, I know. It’s hard not to be biased. But if you like the wine so much that you wish you could make the same kind again next year, give it a two. If you can think of a lot of things you’d like to improve upon or if that style of wine just isn’t your bag, feel free to give it a one or even a zero. It’s nothing to be ashamed about if you make a wine that you just don’t fancy; it’s called a learning curve. Next time you’ll make something different and probably better, and now you’ll have a bunch of carefully recorded notes to go by.

Interpreting and Using the Results

Now that you’ve taken a wine through the 20 Point System, tally up all the points. Look at the score that it merited. An outstanding wine will score usually between 17 and 20 points, with some weaker and some stronger areas. If your wine scores lower than a 17, check out the areas where it seems to need a little help, and if improvements can be made for next time, make note of them. Be careful not to fall into the “wine magazine” trap of being too absolute in your judgments; if a wine scored an 18, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s that much “worse” than a wine that scored a 19 or 20. The 20 point system rates many different things, and the numbers are truly meaningless without your notes and comments alongside them.

Winemaking in the dark is no fun. Even if you like to ferment by the seat of your pants, you’ll most likely find it very useful to have a concise record of your past successes (or failures) to guide your future efforts. Now that you know how to truly assess wines and keep records the way the pros do, tell that wine snob guy to take a hike and don’t be afraid to swirl your glass with a little of your own savoir faire.