Wine tasting can be boiled down to two basic ideas: aroma and structure. All you really need to describe a wine accurately are a few aroma words and one or two structure words.
Alcoholic fermentation transforms grape juice into an incredibly fragrant drink. Wine contains hundreds, maybe thousands of aromatic compounds. You can learn to recognize the aromas in wine and describe them accurately with just a bit of practice.
Wine aromas can be lumped into a handful of larger categories of smells. The most salient groups of smells are: Fruity, Floral, Herbal, Vegetal, and Spicy.
These aromas are easy to notice if you just reflect on the foods you eat every day. Fruity aromas are usually the most obvious in young wines. White wines tend to smell like light-colored fruits: citrus fruits, tree fruits, or tropical fruits. Red wines tend to smell like dark fruits: berries, be they red, black, or blue, and plums and figs.
If you’re tasting a wine blind (without seeing the label first), certain fragrances can be a dead giveaway to specific wine grapes . Gewurtztraminer typically smells intensely of roses. Syrah smells of black pepper. Sauvignon Blanc smells of … cat pee? Call it gooseberry or box tree if you like.
You can train your nose to recognize these aromas by sniffing fruits, vegetables, and herbs at the supermarket or farmer’s market. Then press yourself to rediscover those scents in the next wines you taste. It helps to follow the lead of a more experienced wine taster at this point.
The second order smell groups are: Bakery, Dairy, Woody, Animal, Earthy, and Chemical. Unlike the primary aromas, these can’t easily be tied to specific grape varieties. Instead, they have more to do with winemaking techniques and in some cases geology or “terroir.”
The buttery aromas of some chardonnays are the result of a secondary fermentation encouraged by winemakers (Malolactic or MLF). This is where sharp green apple flavors soften to become more creamy and buttery. The bakery smells or biscuit aromas common in champagne are caused over time while wine sits on top of the dead yeast cells after fermentation has occurred.
Somehow the geology of the vineyard where the grapes were grown may even cause an impression of Mineral aroma (such as flint or gun smoke aromas that can come from the fossil-encrusted limestone soils in Chablis and Sancerre). Even the environment surrounding a vineyard can have an impact on aroma (such as some Australian reds showing eucalyptus aromas from nearby gum trees).
Third order “tertiary” aromas include Grilled, Roasted, and Caramelized smells. These aromas are usually tied to the aging process when wines are matured in barrel and/or bottle for longer stretches of time. Tawny Port and Madeira undergo lengthy aging processes that cause them to taste like roasted nuts and caramel.
Some aromas are associated with flaws in winemaking that fall into other categories. They may be thought of as Chemical or Microbial, such as Cork Taint (musty basement), Sulfur (rotten eggs), Brettanomyces (barnyard), or Acetate (nail polish remover).
The most helpful tool to help you learn and recognize all of the potential aromas in wine is the aroma wheel :
The second part of wine tasting is actually putting the wine on your palate. To tell the structure of a wine, you must use your sense of taste and touch.
The chief components of a wine’s structure are Acidity, Tannin, Body, and Alcohol.
Acidity is sourness. It is perceived in the cheeks and causes you to salivate. Imagine biting into a lemon or lime wedge. Acidity has a cleansing effect on the palate – it refreshes your tastebuds.
Tannin is astringency. Imagine taking a sip of overly steeped tea, the resulting dryness and bitterness. Tannin is a feature in all red wines and some white wines. Tannin is felt in the form of dryness in the cheeks and gums, and on the tongue. It’s usually more pleasing to drink wine with soft tannins that feel silky or velvety. Tannins that “melt” on your tongue.
Body is the weight of a wine on your palate. A wine’s body is perceived mainly in the tongue and cheeks. It’s the thickness of the liquid. Imagine the difference you would feel between drinking skim milk, whole milk, or cream.
Alcohol is the sensation of warmth. It is perceived in the roof of the mouth, the throat, and the chest. If you can feel the warmth of a wine as it goes down the throat and into the chest, then it usually contains high alcohol.
Body and Alcohol are related. Alcoholic warmth creates the feeling of volume. High alcohol comes from ripe grapes – which contain more sugars to ferment than just-ripe ones. If the sugars in a wine aren’t fully fermented and there is leftover sugar, this also creates weight on the palate. Body, Alcohol, and Ripeness together equal high concentration. Since all three of these components result from ripe fruit, let’s use the term “Fruit” to encompass all three (Body + Alcohol + Ripeness).
Here is a tool to help you describe a wine’s structure in a single word. By gauging the quantities of each component (Acidity, Tannin, Fruit), we can determine the qualitative structure of the wine. As an example, a wine with moderate Acidity, moderate Tannin, and abundant Fruit could be considered “Round or Rich.” If all components are present in equal measure, you can say the wine shows perfect balance.
You can form a perfectly good description of any wine with two to three aroma words and one to two structure words. Here’s a generic description of a fine pinot noir:
Notes of just-ripe cherries, lilac, and forest floor; smooth and supple.
Wine pros and critics use this very same method, just on another level of complexity. Take this wine review of Chateau Lascombes (a cabernet-based wine from Bordeaux) by the wine critic Antonio Galloni. Of course, he talks about aroma and structure :
The 2015 Lascombes is rich, powerful and inviting. All the elements fall into place in a juicy, succulent Margaux endowed with superb overall balance. Sweet red cherry, plum, spice and grilled herbs are given an added kick of polish by the silky tannins. Racy and open-knit, the 2015 is built to deliver considerable pleasure with minimal cellaring. Readers should expect a bold, forward Margaux with modern contours and plenty of concentration. – Antonio Galloni, Vinous
Once you have an understanding of the process, you can get more creative with your own personal descriptions. Enjoy the journey and happy tasting!