In the eighth edition of the World Atlas of Wine, Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson give us the essential guide for tasting and appreciating wine.
Many of us are often guilty of drinking expensive wine without really tasting or appreciating it. This could be down to our impulses telling us that our sense of taste is located on the tongue rather than anywhere else, when in fact our tongue can only sense the basic notes: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and the savour of umami. The more distinctive sensations (such as the complex flavours of wine) are actually 'tasted' at the top of our noses, which means our smell is really important when tasting wine.
When we smell wine, vapour travels up our noses and sometimes to the back of the throat, past thousands of taste receptors. In the Atlas, Jancis notes how the receptors in our nose run directly up to the temporal lobe, which is why we can be stirred by vivid memories when we smell something: "Smell, the most primitive of our sense, has the privilege of instant access to our memory bank".
Tasting wine comes in many different forms. This can range from enjoying wine around your dining table at home, to blind taste tests for those qualifying as a Master of Wine. When you are at a restaurant and are poured a glass of wine, you become the "taster", the intention of which is not to see whether you like it or not, but rather whether the temperature of the wine is correct, and to check if there is an obvious fault.
For when that situation arises, here is Jancis and Hugh’s guide to tasting:
Step One: Eyes
- Pour a tasting sample into the glass so that it is no more than a quarter full.
- Check the wine is clear (cloudiness or fizziness in still wines indicate a fault)
- Look straight down at it to see how intense the colour is (the deeper a red, the younger the wine and / or thicker-skinned the grapes: a valuable clue if tasting a mystery wine "blind"). Red wines become paler with age, white wines deeper.
- Tilt the glass away from you against a white background and observe the colour in the middle of the liquid and at the rim. All wines turn slowly brown with age and the rim is the first place where any brick colour is noticeable in a red. Young reds are more purplish-blue than brick. Old reds lose colour completely at the rim. The glossier the colour and the more subtly shaded its different colour gradations, the better the wine.
Step Two: Nose
- Take one sniff with all the concentration you can muster, then swirl the wine around and sniff once more. The stronger the impression, the more intense the aroma or bouquet. A subtle, maturing wine may need a swirl before it gives off much smell at all. If you are tasting blind, this is the moment when you are hoping for a massive intuitive clue: some relationship to something from your tasting memory bank.
- If you are tasting to assess the wine, note whether it smells clean (most wine do nowadays), intense, and what the smell reminds you of. It is much easier to remember a smell if you can attach words to it.
- As you taste or drink the wine (and these two activities can feel very different) notice how the smell changes. With time in the glass, good wines tend to become more interesting, inexpensive commercial wines less so.
Step Three: Mouth
- This stage involves taking a good mouthful and exposing all of the taste buds distributed over the tongue and insides of the cheeks to it. If the nose is best at sensing the subtle flavours in a wine, the mouth is best at measuring its constituents: sweetness, acidity, bitterness, the insides of the cheeks for drying tannins, and the entrance to the throat for any burning excess of alcohol.
- Once a mouthful has been swallowed or (by professionals at work) spat out, a judgement can be made as to whether all these elements are in balance (young reds are often deliberately high in tannins) and how persistent the wine is on the palate - a good indicator of quality. At this stage the wine can be judged, possibly even identified, in its entirety.
The eighth Edition of the World Atlas of Wine can be purchased here.
View the full Jancis Robinson wine collection here.