Evaluating Wine: Being mindful of the sensory experience

What’s the best part about making wine? Perhaps the answer is obvious: Tasting it! We spend lots of time educating ourselves about winemaking, maybe about winegrowing or regional differences and so on, but I feel tasting itself is often ignored, and is rarely intentionally studied or practiced in any systematic or focused way. Here we will go over the most critical aspects of tasting: Taste vs. smell, our taste/smell receptors, how tastes affect each other, where tastes/aromas come from, and the trajectories of their intensities over time in a wine, as well as some tips and tricks for how to best do it. All of this is important to have a complete understanding of what is going on in a wine.

The Mouth

To start off, a note about the word “taste.” Most of what we commonly refer to as taste (or flavor) is actually not taste at all, but aroma. Taste specifically refers to the five flavors that we actually have tastebuds for perceiving: Sweet, salt, sour (acid), bitter, and umami. Tastebuds are distributed around our tongue (and even around the mouth and upper esophagus). Thus, while a wine can taste acidic or bitter, it cannot taste “floral” or “fruity” or like “cherries,” as those are smells. Now, I regularly use the word taste incorrectly when referring to wine — I’m not suggesting we revise our use of it, and will use it in this loose sense in this article somewhat — but it is an important distinction to make in your mind when understanding what you’re experiencing.

Fruity wines are also often thought of as being sweet and may trick our brains into perceiving a wine as sweet. It’s common for people to refer to (or ask for) sweeter wines, when in fact they are thinking of dry, fruity wines. Anything that is a smell is something we pick up with our nose — whether we are smelling it in a glass, while the wine is in our mouth, or as finish (retro-nasally, as the aromas creep back up our esophagus and back to our olfactory bulb in the sinuses).

As there are only five tastes, taste may appear cut and dry, but it is not; each taste changes how we perceive the others. Sweetness reduces the intensity of our perception of both salinity and acidity. Salinity boosts sweetness, but lowers the intensity of acidity. Acidity boosts both sweet and salinity. A simple way to experience this (and train your tongue at the same time) is to make a few solutions of water with different amounts of sugar, salt, and acid (use tartaric or citric if you have some on hand). Go light, you want the tastes to be subtle, not glaringly obvious or intense.

You can make differing strengths and blends of different intensities of different tastes. What you’ll notice is that, for example, if you use the same amount of salt in two solutions, but one has a little sweetness/sugar in it, the solution with the sugar in it will seem less salty than the solution without sugar. Similarly, if you have two solutions with the same amount of salt, but differing levels of acid, the solution with more acid will also seem saltier. This gives you a sense of how flavors interact when you’re tasting wine as well as with pairing wine with food.

As there are only five tastes, taste may appear cut and dry, but it is not; each taste changes how we perceive the others.

Flavors, or tastes, come from a variety of different sources. Sweetness in wine can come from actual sugar (such as the most abundant sugars in grapes — glucose and fructose), but alcohol and glycerol can also lead to sweetness. This is why higher alcohol wines often come off as sweet even when they’re technically dry from a sugar-perspective. Even in lower alcohol wines, alcohol excites the sweetness receptors some, adding to balance and the overall experience. Acids come from a wide variety of organic acids most of us are familiar with in grapes.

Salts, though less often talked about, can be an important taste in wine, particularly with grapes grown on the coast and in dry Sherries. Tannins, especially early on in a wine’s life, can create bitterness. Monomeric and perhaps short tannin polymers can be sensed by our bitter taste buds while they remain tiny, but as they polymerize further and grow, they affect us as astringency — a drying touch sensation — rather than as bitter taste. The “feeling” we get from astringency or other aspects of mouthfeel are primarily touch-sensation, rather than taste.

The Nose

Smells are a whole different ballgame. While there are only five tastes, there are nearly endless types of smells: Fruity, floral, earthy, medicinal when thinking generally, or in more specific terms, cherries, jasmine, lychee, asphalt after rain starts, petrol, etc., etc., etc. — one could go on forever. For me personally (and many feel different), aromas are the most interesting, elusive, and revealing aspect of wine. They are the most varied, fleeting, and impacting parts of the experience for me.

For smelling wines, I recommend, of course, giving your wine a good swirl to get air into it, volatilize and concentrate aromas, and then getting your nose deep into the glass. But, also, I suggest sniffing it in soft, short sniffs, rather than long inhalations. Think of how dogs (far superior smellers to humans) sniff . . . though it might be a bit taxing to do so in as rapid a succession as they do!

Smells are the reason spitting is so important when you are tasting lots of wines. As you mix many different wines in your stomach, you have a greater diversity, and intensity, of retro-nasal aromas coming back up your esophagus and hitting your smell receptors. In combination with all the wines you are smelling, this melange of aromas serves to saturate and temporarily deaden the precision with which you can smell — your receptors get overwhelmed. The less you swallow, the longer you will be able to taste (or better said, smell) effectively. The importance of spitting really comes into play when on a long day of wine tasting or judging; you can probably skip spitting with three bottles at the dinner table (your family will thank you!).

Developing a sense of what aromas come from the grape versus the barrel is important, but we can go beyond this: What comes from the grape, what’s created or altered by the fermentation, what comes from defects, and what comes from aging and the aging vessel? Further, how did the vineyard, growing practices, and level of ripeness affect aromas? Esters, for example, the often fruity, fun aromas — think freshly fermented wine, Beaujolais Nouveau or young rosé — are basically fermentation byproducts (they are not really indicative of grape or vineyard), and they break down over the first 12–18 months of a wine’s life.

The petrol aroma in aged Riesling, “TDN” or 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene, is a norisoprenoid (an especially interesting group of aromas in wine), that comes from the grape and is increased by more light exposure on fruit. Where esters are basically gone by a year and a half, TDN may not show itself for a few years, and continues to gain intensity as the wine ages (as carotenoids break down).

Though these are only two examples, being able to identify different aromas on this level may inform your grape growing practices, winemaking, or how you age wines. If you like fruity esters, there are steps you can take to encourage that in a wine (such as fermenting cold and using certain yeast strains), and you also know to drink those wines young. If you like petrol-y Riesling, there are things you can do in the vineyard to encourage higher concentrations (such as planting on a more exposed site and removing more leaves in the fruiting zone), and you know you may have to wait a few years for it to show its face.

Another class of aromas to explore is thiols (think Sauvignon Blanc). One especially interesting thing about thiols is that, although these come from the grapes themselves, different yeast strains may alter their molecular structure during fermentation and change how they smell. There is also the immense variety of compounds called isoprenoids, (often incorrectly referred to as terpenes) that include monoterpenes (think Muscat), norisoprenoids (the group I’m the most fascinated by, which includes TDN), and sesquiterpenes (like rotundone, the black pepper aroma in Syrah).

All of these have a different story to tell, come from or are encouraged by different factors, and an understanding of which will impact our interpretation of what we’re tasting and may have an impact on how we work with a wine. Similar to how tastes impact each other, some aroma compounds may boost or diminish the intensity of other aroma compounds, and one compound may even change how another smells! Aromas are beyond complex, and we are far — very far — from a complete understanding of them.

Similarly, it’s crucial to become familiar with defects (volatile acidity, Brettanomyces, oxidation, mousiness, and so on), which usually show as aromas. These can be difficult to learn to identify, as wineries don’t actively advertise their wines as having issues, but reading about these defects can give a better idea of their traits. Also, with natural wines being as popular as they are today, it is easier to find defective wine in the market than in the past couple decades. Some “defects” may actually make wines better (below sensory threshold levels of volatile acidity, in particular) — it’s a very subjective matter — but as winemakers it is important to be able to identify defects, if only to stop them early if and when they arise in our own wines.

Evaluation Practice

While it is a hassle to evaluate wine on judging sheets — where many aspects of a wine are considered in isolation from one another for evaluation — this can be a helpful exercise in becoming a better taster. This practice is similar to distinguishing what’s a smell from what’s a taste — and, with practice, leads to a more precise “vision” of what you’re tasting as a whole.

Wine scoring sheets usually consider factors like tannins, acid, balance, mouthfeel, finish, and so on. Whether you choose to do this with a formal tasting sheet or on your own in your head is up to you. While I dread using tasting sheets (particularly totaling up scores), I am always a better taster after I have been using them and find I’m able to take in and understand the experience of what I’m tasting much faster and more accurately afterward. This heightened ability usually lasts for a few weeks. There is something about considering each aspect of a wine separately and systematically and repeatedly — like distinguishing between smell and taste — that seems to lead to a clearer picture of a wine as a whole for a while.

Although I think learning to distinguish each aspect of a wine’s taste is helpful in becoming a great taster, one thing that I believe often stunts taster development is getting hung up on tasting notes and naming aromas. While there is something exciting about seeing somebody smell a glass and rattle off each aroma they smell, honing the skill of naming aromas is really only necessary for communication with others, and I believe it often gets in the way of experiencing a wine. In particular, I’ve seen less experienced tasters with the misconception that naming aromas is what tasting is all about, or even fundamental to tasting — and understandably, this is what we see and hear other people doing. However, in focusing in on individual aromas to try to name them, one is distracted from experiencing the wine. Though this seems like contradictory advice after suggesting using a scoring sheet and considering individual parts of a wine, I feel the difference is in experiencing individual traits of the wine (passively focusing on one part of the whole experience) versus focusing on an individual part of the experience and then actively trying to name it. The former is still just sensory experience with some magnification; the latter is this plus the distraction of aroma identification.

I recommend people taste wine, especially early on, like they listen to music: Passively taking in the experience and letting the wine affect your senses and emotions however it does. In a song, it may be a fun exercise to decipher if the saxophone is a tenor or an alto (“is this cherry or plum?”), but in doing so, you are taking yourself out of “sensing” mode and miss what’s being played. I feel naming flavors is a good skill to work on after you feel you’ve mastered experiencing tasting and are confident you can perceive all of what is happening when tasting a wine. To continue the music metaphor, the more music you actively listen to, the easier it becomes to distinguish between the different instruments and to be able to comprehend both the individual parts and the song as a whole. I think for both music and tasting, it’s like a muscle: The more frequently you do it, the easier it becomes to do.

So you can see that there is much more to tasting than simply sniffing and swallowing, although from the outside, the process always looks that simple. Regardless of whether someone is an expert or a novice with wine, at the end of the day one either enjoys a wine or doesn’t, and in that sense not much needs to be said about tasting — however, the more we know and understand what we’re tasting, the richer the experience is and the more information we can both process and learn.