Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Wine Tasting

Plus why some people just absolutely hate wine.

26/08/2016 10:26 AM AEST | Updated 26/08/2016 1:28 PM AEST
Smelling is a crucial part of wine tasting.

You either adore wine and its complexities (and its effects, let's be frank), or you think it simply tastes like sour, off, foul grapes.

While your age definitely has something to do with this, once you begin to appreciate wine, it's easy to get lost in a world of different varieties, regions and notes.

That's where wine tasting comes in. Although often thought to only be reserved for sommeliers, every wine lover can have fun with wine tasting. You don't need to be fancy pants or know your stuff, it's as simple as inviting over some friends and opening a few bottles.

To talk about all things wine tasting, The Huffington Post Australia spoke to taste and smell perception (and wine) expert from Southern Cross University, Alex Russell.

"When people are trained to formally taste wine, they go through a few stages," Russell told HuffPost Australia. "They're looking for information, and novices do pretty much the same."


1. Sight

"Firstly they look at the wine, which gives them certain hints about what's to come," Russell explained. "The colour can tell you about the wine's age or how strong the flavour is likely to be, for example."

The general rule is that white wine deepens in colour as it ages while red wine loses colour and gets lighter.

When looking at the wine you want to be able to see the entire colour range, not just the dark centre. To see its range, look straight down into the glass, then hold the glass to the light and finally give it a gentle swirl. Swirling allows the wine to breathe and lets the aromas develop and evolve, allowing you to smell more of the wine.

"You don't drink a wine without looking at it, and you put it into your mouth and get those taste and smell sensations."

When it comes to the wine's clarity, a wine that looks clear and bright is a good sign (cloudy or murky could suggest otherwise).

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Yep, swirling a glass of wine does more than make you look like a boss.

2. Smell

"Then they'll smell it, where they're looking for individual smells coming out," Russell said. "The biggest component to what a wine tastes like is smell.

"When you smell a wine, there's hundreds of chemicals going up your nose, and trained wine experts are trying to pick out important elements that tell them something about the wine.

"When we say a wine has aromas of pepper and blackcurrant, these are actually odour chemicals being picked up."

Top tip for smelling and tasting wine: shut your eyes so you can channel your focus and identify the notes.

Ray Kachatorian
Close your eyes to home in on the flavour.

3. Taste

At long last, it's time to get that sweet, sweet wine from the glass into your mouth.

"They finally go to put the wine in their mouth and try to understand the taste, which is going to involve sweetness and a bit of sourness from the acid, but you probably don't want too much bitterness or saltiness."

4. Describe

Now that you've seen, smelled and tasted the wine, it's time to explain to your friends your experience and thoughts. Don't be afraid to make mistakes -- this is how we learn.

"Traditionally, we're pretty bad at describing taste and smell in general. It's really, really hard because we don't need to do it. It's not that often that you want to describe the individual flavours of your dinner to somebody on the phone. People don't want to know," Russell told HuffPost Australia.

"We're a lot better at describing visual things -- how pretty people are, lovely scenes, colours of dresses -- because we've had a lot more practice."

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Invite some friends over for dinner, open a few bottles and get tasting.

Think about how easy it is to describe something on your desk. For example, that pen is blue, gel, has a fine point, made of plastic, has bite marks and missing a lid. You get a pretty reliable picture of it, right?

"But if you've got a wine in front of you, most of us don't describe these things day in and day out, so we're not very good at it. But experts actually are, and it becomes difficult to tell if wine experts are doing their job or not properly because it's not that obvious when they're right or wrong," Russell said.

To help describe wine, Russell recommends looking for discernible flavour notes.

"When a wine expert describes a Shiraz as peppery and a Cabernet as having blackcurrant flavours, the're actually describing it that way because there are chemicals in the wine that are also in pepper and blackcurrant," Russell said.

"There's a chemical called rotundone which is in Shiraz which is traditionally described as peppery, especially Shiraz from cooler climates as there's more rotundone in cooler climate Shiraz. And it's also a chemical found in white and black pepper. It's the same signals going to your nose there.

"This isn't as obvious to novices as we don't often smell pepper in wine and we're not able to focus on one particular aspect of the wine. We don't yet know what to ignore and what to pay attention to."

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Mmm cheese and wine.

Learning how to focus on these aspects comes down to time and practice (aka, drink wine!), as well as this handy trick.

"It just takes time," Russell said. "There's a whole bunch of things you can do to help learn what a flavour in a wine smell like.

"There's a wine aroma wheel which has three concentric wheels. On the inside of the ring are these broad terms like fruity and woody and the next ring out is tropical fruits, red fruits or black fruits, and the last ring is specific red fruits like strawberry or raspberry."

To understand how to use this wheel, you can get base wines and add pepper, raspberry or cherry to 'spike' the wine to make these elements stand out.

"You can do that at home if you like. You've got to pick the right fruits for the wine. If you want to know what the pepper in a Shiraz smells like, you want to add pepper, but there would be no point adding it to a Merlot," Russell said.

"The best thing to do is invite a few friends around and open up three or four bottles and taste them side-by-side to compare and contrast them. Not one after the other, but jump between them, and the differences will stand out like crazy."

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If you're reading and thinking 'but I just hate wine', there are a few fascinating reasons for this: your individual taste preferences, your genes and wine's often aversive taste.

"There's a whole bunch of potential answers to why some people hate wine," Russell said.

"It really depends on individual liking and what you like to eat in general. For any food product there are going to be people who like it or hate it. Certainly younger people don't like it because they haven't had a chance to get used to it. You can say this for a lot of foods -- for example, a lot of younger people usually don't like olives.

"It depends on what you have grown up with, your individual genes and the receptors you have (and if you're super sensitive to bitterness or sweetness)."

Some people's dislike of wine can also be attributed to our instinctual need to be wary of strong flavours (that is, avoid poison) in order to survive.

"I think from an evolutionary perspective, we should be fairly careful about what we put in our mouths and trying to eat things that would kill us," Russell explained. "The idea of us rejecting food as our initial reaction is maybe a survival instinct. You've got to have time to get over this initial reaction and that's what I think this idea is coming from."

On top of this, some wines can also just be... very bold.

"I guess you could think about it like beer. It's an alcoholic beverage, and alcohol is not necessarily the favourite flavour for everybody," Russell said. "Wine is a unique tasting beverage, as well. There's not much else that's like it. Certainly particular red wines are big, strong flavoured and too overpowering for some people.

"Given enough practice and incentive, a lot of people can learn to love just about anything. With wine, there's an incentive of getting drunk and having fun."

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