Wine Tasting vs Wine Drinking - Part Three (Palate)

In our previous two blogs, we evaluated the appearance of the wine in our glass, and stuck our nose down in there. We should have some idea of what to expect when we finally get some wine in our mouth....but not so fast! Now comes the portion of our examination that takes quick evaluation, great concentration, good memory, slurping, sucking and spitting..

Remember your elementary school classes about the senses? When it comes to taste, we sense sweet, salt, sour, bitter. We don't typically worry about salt when tasting wine, but it does show up in certain wines produced near the sea, so for now, let's just focus on the other three. Take a small sip of wine, and notice how it affect the tip of your tongue (this is where you sense sweetness). See diagram to the right.

Since sweetness is the first thing you sense, it is the first taste we evaluate. Is the wine sweet, dry, or somewhere in between? Be sure not to confuse "fruitiness" with "sweetness", as wine can be fruity but dry. Sweetness is determined by the residual sugar in the wine. If you are not sure, just stick the tip of your tongue in the glass. It may look a bit odd to others, but it will confirm your evaluation.

Next is to determine the acidity (sour) of the wine. This is sensed on the sides of the tongue and is felt by the mouth-watering affect the wine has.This can be evaluated as low to high, or some where in between. Want some help in determining the difference between low and high? Try a low acid Gewurztraminer versus a high acid Riesling....I think you'll notice the difference.

Now swirl the wine around in your mouth. "Chew" it, and get it on your teeth and gums. If you get an astringent feeling, this is tannins. You won't typically sense this in white wines, as tannins are from the grape skins, stems, pips, and also from barrels. Again, these can be non-existent, or low to high. Where acid was mouth watering, tannins are mouth drying. If you are still not sure how tannins affect you, try tasting a styptic pencil (found at your local pharmacy).

Next, evaluate the "body" of the wine. Is it light (like skim milk), or heavy (like cream), or some where in between (2% or whole milk). This can be affected by alcohol, sugar, tannins, and the fruit itself.

When you swallow the wine, you can sense alcohol in the back of your throat. If it is balanced, you won't get much "heat", but if it is not balanced with the acidity, then you might get a sense of heat. This evaluation should confirm what you saw in our appearance check (legs or tears are signs of alcohol and/or residual sugar).

What is the intensity of the wine in your mouth? Are you getting all types of flavors, or is there barely anything there? This can be rated from light, to medium, all the way up to pronounced. The best way I find to get a good sense of intensity (and the next step: flavor characteristics) is to slurp my wine. I draw a small amount of air through my lips and gurgle the wine in my mouth. As I draw air in my mouth, I release it through my nose to try and get as much of the wine aroma into my nasal passages. Remember, the majority of taste is actually smell. Try plugging your nose while tasting your favorite food, if you don't believe me.

So, what do you taste? What are the flavor characteristics? Rather than going over the list again, take a look back at our last post about nose, and see the common descriptors we provided. In the beginning, these might be basic characteristics that you can determine, but with practice, you'll get more specific.

The last evaluation is the length of the finish. How long does the taste of the wine remain? Take note of the lingering taste, and count in your head. Keep mental track of the length and compare it to other similar wines. High quality wines typically have long length with a good concentration of flavors

There is one last evaluation for taste, and that has to do with bubbles (or mousse). This is pretty obvious on sparkling wines, but you may encounter bubbles in wines due to secondary fermentation in the bottle (a fault in still wines), or a slight fizz in some wines, like Vinho Verde. If it is a sparkling wine, are they gentle bubbles or aggressive? Do they last, or fade? These can be indications of quality.

Before recording your tasting notes, make sure you sip your wine, swirl, gurgle, and spit. Wait for the finish. Savor the experience....now you can take notes.

If you've followed the last two blogs, plus this one, you should now have a good basis for evaluating a wine. In our final blog of this series, we will put it all together to come up with conclusions about the wine we have in our glass. Oh...and not to over-emphasize....when tasting (versus drinking) remember to spit the wine out. If you keep on swallowing, your senses will be dulled, and evaluation will mean nothing. This is one of the biggest differences between tasting and drinking.

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