I love all the wines in my portfolio, but for different occasions. For me, wines are tied to an occasion or experience. When I taste a wine, I picture the feeling I get rather than the taste. This technique makes it easier for me to explain a wine. Does it help you if I say, “hmmm I get stone fruit, a hint of flintiness paired with a bright acidity”? Or do you prefer hearing, “I can see myself sitting at the beach with my girlfriends, watching the sunset, and sipping on this refreshing white wine”? I can probably guess which one speaks to you.
There are impressive sommeliers out there who will tell you all the facets of a wine, myself included, to a certain degree. However, for someone who just wants to buy a wine without being able to taste it, an occasion or a picture of what the wine implies says more than a thousand descriptive words.
Nevertheless, it helps to understand and follow a few basic steps when tasting wine. WSET, Wine and Spirit Education Trust, calls it the “Systematic Approach to Tasting”.
Tasting wine can be divided into two parts. The first part is seen as an objective description of the wine. That includes the appearance in the glass, what you can sense with your nose, and finally what flavors you can taste on your palate.
The second part uses the first part to make educated conclusions about the wine.
This includes determining the quality level of the wine, how long or if the wine can age. , and what types of food would the wine pair well with. Understanding how to taste wine properly can also give you clues to the origin of the wine, which variety or varieties is the wine made of, and how much the wine potentially costs. All of this information can be gathered simply by what you have in your glass, as long as you know how to look for it. I can give you the basic foundation for understanding this process, especially in a German wine context. Here are some of the key terms in the “Systematic Approach of Wine” and also important German wine vocabulary that will impress almost any wine nerd.
Appearance: Clarity, Intensity, Color, Still or Sparkling. Is your wine cloudy? Is it deep or light in color? And what color is it? Is there anything else that you can see with your eyes that give you information about the wine?
Nose: The aroma or smell of your wine can tell you so much about how and where the wine was made and what type of wine it is. It can also tell you the condition of the wine, and if there are any faults. Wine faults occur when something goes “wrong” in the winemaking process. Faults can occur before or after the wine is put into the bottle. Some faults are based on preference and depending on the person’s ability to detect the fault can either cause a wine to be rejected or received into their glass. The best way to know if your wine may have a fault is to learn how to detect what faults smell like.
One of the most well-known faults, but at the same time not easily detected by everyone is commonly referred to as “cork taint”. Cork taint is a chemical compound derived from faulty corks known as Trichloroanisole, or TCA for short, which causes the aroma and flavor of the wine to be “corky” or sometimes like wet dog or moldy newspaper. It is believed that about 3% of all bottled wine may contain cork taint which is why your waiter often asks you to try your wine before they pour it for you. This is not to see if you like the wine, but so you can determine if it is “corked” or not. Understanding the aromas of wine not only helps you to appreciate the wine more but also allows you to make educated decisions about your wine.
Aromas can be divided into three categories:
Primary aromas are fruity and floral aromas derived from grapes.
Secondary aromas are created and formed during the winemaking process such as fermentation and finished wine storage. Oaky aromas due to extraction from oak barrels or alternatives are one of these secondary aromas.
Tertiary aromas are aging aromas. The main two tertiary aroma categories are reductive and oxidative aging. These are the aromas that develop from aging wine for long periods with or without the influence of oxygen.
The aromas you can detect will give you hints about what stage the wine is in at that time. Is it still young and youthful with a lot of primary aromas being present, is it fully developed or is it still developing and still a bit edgy? Hopefully, this won’t happen too often to you, but maybe the wine is already past its prime. Aroma characteristics can be described by technical chemical vocabularies such as esters, terpenes, or thiols. Most of us are used to more common descriptors like fruits and plants that we are familiar with. The aroma characteristics are used to describe the primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas and there is a variety of ways we can do that. Sometimes we can be at a loss for words so the “Systematic Approach to Wine” provides some basic descriptors of certain aromatic compounds that most people will understand easily
Palate: How does the wine taste and feel in your mouth? Sugar, tannins, body, acid, alcohol, the intensity of flavor, mousse, and the finish combined create the palate of the wine. Understanding how a wine tastes and feels in our mouth can also give you a load of information about how, where, and when the wine was made. The amount of residual sugar, or sweetness, of a wine, can give us clues about different picking or fermentation decisions. The acidity of a wine can tell us if the wine is from a cool or warm climate. The tannins in a wine can help us understand how long or short a wine was aged. These are just a few examples of ways our palate can tell us a story about a wine.
Understanding appearance, nose, and palate will help you to discover and enjoy German wine in a whole new way.
Sugar, or lack thereof, in a wine, originates from what happens during the fermentation process. Grapes are filled with sugar, water, and other flavor components, and when yeasts begin to eat up the sugar to convert it into CO2 and alcohol some of the sugar can be left behind. If any sugar is left in a wine once the fermentation is completed or is stopped intentionally then you can have a wine that is sweet to a varying degree.
When talking about sweetness in German wine there are some legal terms you may find on the label to describe the amount of sugar contained in the wine itself. These terms are are trocken, halbtrocken (or feinherb), lieblich, and süss.
Trocken, meaning dry
That means all sugar that occurs naturally in the grape juice or most has been fermented and converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeasts.
- Maximum of 9 grams per liter residual sugar
- Maximum acidity has to be 2 grams per liter less than the residual sugar
Halbtrocken, meaning half dry or off-dry
Due to the climate, german wines tend to have a bright and higher acidity level than American wines for example. That makes wines taste dry or just fruity without being sweet even with higher sugar levels. It is a great balance of sweetness and acidity.
- Maximum of 15 grams per liter residual sugar
- Maximum acidity is 10 grams per liter less than the residual sugar
Lieblich, meaning sweet
Lieblich translated would be “Lieb(e) – Love, and “lich” is a term used to transform a substantive to an adjective.
- Maximum of 45 grams per liter residual sugar
Süss, meaning very sweet
These wines are the sweetest and also really low on alcohol. The reason is that only a part of the naturally occurring sugar in the grape juice has been fermented.
- Above 45 grams per liter residual sugar
To learn more about the German quality level, the sugar level, and how to read German labels, check out Winemaking in the Stories Section.
Tannins are a dominant characteristic of most red wines and the number of tannins can vary greatly between different varieties. Tannins are extracted from grape skins, seeds, and/or stems during the winemaking process. They can also originate from oak that can be used to ferment or age the wine in. We can detect tannins through taste and feel with the touch sensors in our mouths. The dry sensations some red wines create in your mouth are caused by the tannins binding to the proteins in your saliva. Tannins can be described as astringent, ripe, unripe, rough, soft, smooth, or fine.
Alcohol is mostly detected by our touch sensors. It provides texture, like viscosity, to your wine. A wine with lower alcohol might appear watery compared to a high alcohol level which can appear to be more dense or thick. If you see “legs” run down your wine glass, this is due to a higher level of alcohol. Acidity or acid is naturally occurring in the grape juice and skins. The more acid a wine has the lighter, fresher, and more uplifting it can taste.
The body is a combination of all components in your wine like sugar, acid, tannin, and alcohol. The ratio of these components will determine how light, medium, or big the body of your wine is. For example, if you have a red wine with high acidity, low alcohol, and low tannins, your wine would be considered “light-bodied”. A wine that has high tannins, high alcohol, some sweetness, and low acidity would be considered big or large-bodied. All of these elements affect one another and can make a wine feel lighter or fuller on your palate.
The intensity of flavor is an important component to consider when determining the quality and value of the wine at hand. Flavor intensity is often derived from the winemaking and aging process. When grapes are allowed to sit on their skins for extended periods or allowed to age for months or years this can lead to a deep concentration of flavor. Another contributor to the intensity of flavor is the farming practices of the vines. Many grape growers believe that certain practices create an environment in which grapes will grow smaller more concentrated berries leading to more flavor and aroma compounds in the wines. Often the aromas you smelled earlier can be the same that you taste in your glass, and due to the warmth in your mouth, they may tend to be perceived as more intense. Sometimes, the flavors and aromas do not match and this can create a wine that can be more complex and interesting or disjointed and unbalanced. Understanding all of the components of wine will help you make these types of judgments.
The finish of a wine describes how long you can taste the wine in your mouth once you swallow the wine.
Mousse is a term reserved for describing a sparkling wine. It refers to the perlage, a French term that describes the small “beads” or bubbles in sparkling wine. Depending on the mousse, sparkling wine can appear creamy and lively, and others seem to explode on your palate. This can differ with age and production method. Sparkling wine can be made in five different ways. (Coming soon – Sparkling wine production and methods).
Conclusion: Now that you understand the basic principles of tasting wine it is time to make a conclusion and assess the quality, balance, concentration, length, complexity, ageability, readiness for drinking, what type of wine it is, and the potential price point. However, do not forget the most important thing when drinking wine is that you are enjoying the wine!
If you want to learn more about tasting wine, send me an email and we can organize a personalized wine tasting.