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Over the few week’s, we’ve acquainted our readers with some of South Africas most remarkable wine estates such as Iona and Backsberg. We shared the sparkle on World Champagne Day by celebrating our best home-grown Blanc de Blanks before saying chin-chin with Prosecco – Italy’s dazzling answer to French Champagne.

Now that the wine cooler is stocked with great wines and bubbles, it is time to refine our wine tasting skills to fully appreciate their range of aromas, flavours and texture.

Wine tasting is often considered to be an art and much like art, it is important to discover what appeals to you. When offered a new wine to try for the first time, you need to know how to judge and assess the wine for yourself rather than simply reading the back of the bottle.

The essential elements of wine tasting are easy to learn and anyone with unimpaired senses and a willingness to concentrate and practice can do it. You don’t need to be a sommelier but understanding the basics will help you to assemble a collection of your personal favourites.

What are the benefits of tasting wine?

wine tasting and food paring

A restaurant wine list and wine bottle labels have one thing in common. They describe what to expect in the wine you are purchasing. learning how to taste wine can, with a little practice, help you determine what flavour descriptions mean and what you might prefer before you purchase. These same descriptors make it easier to discuss wine and share your views with other wine lovers too.

Joining wine tastings is a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests or to network with professionals in your field. Once you find a wine that sweeps you off your feet, ask what foods you can pair it with. That way you can confidently choose a fabulous compliment to your next restaurant or a home-cooked meal.

Mastering the art of wine tasting also opens the door to fun home tastings with friends – even blind tastings to really put you and your friends’ tasting skills to the test!

How to Taste Wine

1. Look

Spend a few seconds examining the colour and opacity of the wine. A wine’s appearance can reveal a lot about its characteristics to the trained eye such as vintage, ABV and grape variety. Most of these clues can be found on the label, but if you are doing a blind tasting, being able to identify characteristics by looking at the wine is quite handy.

Does it have a deep gold colour or is it a light, pale white wine? Or perhaps the wine is a deep purple-red or bright cherry red colour? Consider the wine’s opacity; is it translucent enough for you to look through it or is it densely concentrated?

*tip: Look at your wine with a white surface like a table cloth behind it to see its true colours.

2. Swirl

Swirling the wine in your glass exposes the wine to oxygen and kick-starts the process of opening it up and expressing its full range of aromas and flavours. The easiest way to start out is by keeping the glass on the table and then lightly swirling in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction (whichever is more comfortable).

Take note of how quickly the “legs” or “tears” slide down the side of the glass as this is an indicator of viscosity. The slower the roll, the higher the alcohol content. A fortified wine like Port will have legs that will roll down the glass much slower than that of a Sauvignon Blanc.

3. Smell

With your mouth slightly open as you inhale, smell the wine immediately after swirling. Don’t try to be too specific in the beginning as it might lead to frustration. Think in terms of big to small. If there are fruits, think of broad categories like orchard, tropical or citrus fruits in white wine; or red, blue and black fruits in red wine. The smell, or nose of wine can be divided into three broad categories:

  1. Primary aromas come from the grapes themselves and can include fruits, herbs and floral notes.
  2. Secondary aromas result from winemaking practices such as the use of yeast and are easy to spot in white wines. They could include cheese rind, stale beer or nuts husk.
  3. Tertiary aromas develop with ageing – mostly in bottle or oak – and are mostly savoury. The most common tertiary aromas are roasted nuts, baking spices, cured leather, old tobacco, vanilla, autumn leaves and cedar.

4. Taste

In step four, you assess the flavour, texture and length.

Flavour

Because all grapes contain some acid, all wines taste sour to a certain degree. Some varieties, like Pinot Grigio are known for their bitterness, manifesting as a light, pleasant tonic-water type flavour. Wines that have retained a portion of their grape sugars have a natural sweetness, while in very rare instances certain reds and whites have a salty quality.

Texture

As your tongue touches the wine it perceives the wine’s texture. An increase in texture almost always indicates a riper wine with higher alcohol content. Because we perceive ethanol to be richer than water it also adds texture to the wine. Furthermore, the tongue can detect tannin – that sand-paper or grippy sensation in red wines.

Length

Refers to how long the taste of wine lasts. There is a beginning, middle (mid-palate) and end (finish). The question to ask yourself is how long it takes until the wine leaves you (a long finish is better).

5. Think

This is the part where you develop a complete profile to remember for future reference. Ask yourself if the wine tasted balanced or unbalanced (too tannic, too acidic, too high in alcohol). Decide if you liked the wine and whether it was unique or unmemorable. Were there any characteristics that stood out or impressed you? Does the wine have a short or long finish?

Practice makes perfect and the more time you spend identifying and isolating flavours to build up your confidence, the better you’ll become at asserting what you’re tasting and smelling.

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