Learn to Taste Like a Pro: Red Wine Edition
By Seth Urbanek, assistant winemaker, Wedding Oak Winery
In honor of Texas Wine Month, which happens each October, here is a behind the scenes look at an important part of the winemaking process. To ensure we make the best wine possible, we meticulously evaluate the wine throughout the winemaking process by critically tasting it with specific techniques. The core of our tasting is how a wine professional in a restaurant tastes wine. We just use the information differently.
Sommeliers have many different techniques they use to analyze wine, from identifying flavors to making notes about the structure. Surprisingly, it’s not as difficult as one may think. If your taste buds are fully functional and you taste enough wine, you too can learn to taste like a pro.
Admittedly, breaking down a wine is inherently unnatural and requires practice to master. We are conditioned to taste food or drink as a whole, taking in its texture and flavors as a combination of sensations. Conversely, during a wine tasting, we evaluate each element separately, taking multiple sips and recording our observations.
You can taste a red wine just like a professional by carefully evaluating the following components are all found in red wine:
Acid Acidity in a wine manifests itself as a tartness or sourness, and often makes your mouth water. Think of it in its extreme as the sensation of biting into a lemon. It can range from low to high in intensity in a wine. Acid may sound like an unpleasant element, but is imperative to create a long-lasting, quality wine since it is a natural preservative.
Tannin Tannin is a compound that is only found in wines made with grape skin in contact with the juice during fermentation (99% of these are reds). It causes a rough, sandpaper-like feeling on your tongue and gums. It will often dry out your mouth and can counteract acidity in a wine to create a feeling of balance. Wines are not the only beverages that have tannin; coffee and black tea also contain this compound (thus, it is not the culprit of your wine headaches, contrary to popular belief).
Body A wine’s body is essentially an overall “weight” or mouthfeel. To analyze body, you can take a sip of wine, hold it on your tongue, and equate it to the weight of milk. A light body will feel like skim milk, while a medium body will have the weight of 2% and a heavy body will feel like cream on your palate. Because alcohol is heavier than water, it contributes greatly to the body of a wine, and full-bodied wines are often the ones that contain the highest amount of alcohol. Often, people believe that a heavier body is indicative of quality. This is actually not the case!
Flavor Flavor is the main element that one thinks of when analyzing wine. Flavors in red wines can range from red fruits (cherry, strawberry, and raspberry) to dark fruits (blackberry, plum) to earthiness (wet stone, mulch, potting soil), along with floral elements, like red rose or violet. In an aging wine, we can taste flavors like tobacco, leather, cedar bark, dried fruits, and wet leaves. As most reds are aged in oak barrels, we can also taste for oak-related notes, like baking spices (cinnamon, clove, and vanilla), toast, and smoke. The best way to truly practice identifying various flavor is by using a flavor wheel for helpful descriptions. One our favorite is the one created by Wine Folly: https://shop.winefolly.com/collections/tasting-tools/products/wine-flavors-chart.
Finish The finish of a wine describes how long the wine’s flavors (not the acidity or tannin) linger on your palate. If the flavors stay for longer than 20 seconds, it has a long finish. If they remain for 10-20 seconds, it has a medium finish, and anything less than 10 seconds is typically a short finish. A lengthy finish is desirable since it indicates quality and careful winemaking.
So, are you ready to taste? Let’s practice tasting by evaluating our 2015 Sangiovese.
Acid: Our Sangiovese has a medium acid. It has a lively brightness, but not overwhelmingly tart. You can use this acidity level as a benchmark when you taste other wines!
Tannin: The tannin is medium, perfectly balancing out the moderate acidity. Our Sangiovese has a firm structure without overpoweringly drying out the mouth. This wine actually contains 14% Tannat (a more tannic grape) added to give this wine more structure.
Body: The body is medium, which comes from the moderate level of alcohol.
Flavor: This wine is bursting with vibrant aromas of red cherries and violets, as well as ripe strawberry and cherry with a hint of black tea and cedar. The red fruit flavors are characteristic of the Sangiovese grape and reminiscent of wines from Tuscany.
Finish: This wine has a lovely, long finish, with the red fruits lingering long after you’ve taken your last sip.
Using this guide, we hope that you are inspired to purchase a bottle of Wedding Oak wine and start practicing tasting like a pro at home or with your friends. You can buy it here: https://weddingoakwinery.com/product/sangiovese-2015. If you get stuck, don’t become discouraged, as it is merely an excuse to pop open another bottle and try again. With enough practice, we promise that you’ll be tasting like a pro!