Wishing you were out wine tasting right now? Us too! That’s why we are thankful for winemakers who have bottled flavors from around the world and allowed us to enjoy them in the comfort (and social distance) of our living room! Use these tips to turn your own home into a tasting room!
First, Read & Research
The first step is to read the wine label.
Okay, this one sounds obvious, but how many times do you actually read the label before cracking open a bottle?
Wines from the new world will list the grape varietal, growing region, vintage and alcohol percentage.
Old world wines will not list the grape, but the appellation will clue you into the varietal, (only certain grapes are grown in certain regions). If you are unsure about which region produces which fruit, don’t be ashamed to Google it! That’s the best part of tasting at home, there’s no judgement!
So, What Does the Grape Tell Us?
The grapes used in the wine will give us a basic profile of what to expect. Some common grapes include the following:
- Cabernet Sauvignon – common descriptors include dark fruit such as blackberry, cassis and black cherry.
- Pinot Noir – often described with notes of light fruit such as cherry, strawberry or plum, this wine can also range toward flavors of leather or mushrooms.
- Merlot – characteristics include notes of chocolate, coffee, fig and plum.
- Chardonnay – characteristics include aromas of tree fruit such as apple, lemon and pear. This grape can also express some tropical fruit notes reminiscent of pineapple or orange blossom.
- Sauvignon Blanc – often described with vegetal notes of cut grass or green pepper, this grape can also exhibit lighter fruit notes like honeydew melon.
- Riesling – sometimes characterized as a mineral driven wine, with notes lime or peach, some sweeter rieslings can exhibit aromas of raisins, baked apple and peaches.
Why Does the Region Matter?
The grape growing region listed on the bottle might be as generic as “New Zealand” or as specific as “Stags Leap District, Napa, California”. A lot of great New World wines are blended from grapes grown in multiple viticultural areas. The winemakers choice to blend their wine from multiple regions or use AVA specific fruit is also a clue as to what might be happening inside the bottle. Perhaps the winemaker wanted to balance their wine or promote the multiple vineyards they work with.
Other winemakers prefer the Old World tradition of using fruit that is specific to a certain area of protection. Wines that are made from grapes in a specific region tend to be more expressive of their terroir or “sense of place”, because all of the fruit has experienced the same growing conditions. If you are interested in learning more about these old world classifications, click here.
Again don’t hesitate to look up the growing region listed on the label. This will give you a insight about what’s inside your bottle.
Grapes grown in cooler climates do not ripen as readily as grapes grown in warmer temperatures. These cooler climate wines are more likely to be high in acidity with a lower alcohol content. The resulting product is something a bit lighter and crisper on the palette. Likewise, grapes gown in warmer climates tend to be higher in alcohol and more full bodied. Knowing about the region the grapes were grown will help you understand the flavor profile before you even pop the cork.
It might sound silly to open up Google Maps before you taste a wine, but as a traveler, this is your chance to really get to know about what’s in your bottle. Google the area, look at pictures of the region and brush up on your geography. This will help you envision the region and might even give you some insight about wine and food pairings. Are you planning to enjoy an aromatic white wine from Moravia? Maybe it’s time to cook up a fried meat dish similar to the schnitzels that are popular in the area. You might even be inspired plan your next trip!
Next, See & Smell
Now it’s time to uncork that bottle and pour yourself some wine. Take a good look at the color and clarity. Is it dark and opaque? Or maybe the wine is light and transparent. If you are looking to get serious about wine studies, you can delve into what the coloring might mean, but if you are just looking to enjoy a glass, this is your chance to really look at the wine and start taking it in with all your senses.
Next, smell the wine. Are you picking up any of the descriptors listed above? Don’t be discouraged if you don’t smell what you are “supposed to”. Instead, try and focus on what the smell reminds you of. Maybe you are getting a smell reminiscent of your childhood kitchen. Don’t let that association go! Perhaps you’re picking up on the apple and vanilla aromas in your chardonnay. There are no wrong answers!
Try giving your wine a big swirl, letting the air agitate the esters. Now take another sniff. Can you smell something you didn’t before?
Finally, Taste & Tell
Now for the part you’ve been waiting for, go ahead and take a big sip! See how the wine feels in your mouth. Is it light bodied, or fuller bodied?
Having trouble figuring out what “body” your wine has? Imagine milk! Lighter bodied wines slip off your tongue like skim milk while fuller bodied wines tend to feel heavier in your mouth like whole milk.
Does the flavor confirm what you expected or are you picking up something new on the palette? Does the flavor linger after you’ve sipped it or does it dissipate quickly?
Most importantly, do you like the wine? If you do, list out the things you like most. Maybe it’s the notes of dark fruit and the lingering finish. Or perhaps you enjoy the light feel and crisp taste. Being able to express your likes and dislikes will help you determine which wines you might enjoy in the future.
When I first started exploring wine, I was insistent that I liked full bodied reds the best. I would purchase cabernet sauvignon but I couldn’t put my finger on the elements I enjoyed most. After taking the time to study wine, I found I was most drawn to reds that “reminded me of my grandpa”. Instead of letting this association go, I delved deeper. I realized I was picking up the aromas of his cabin; the smell of wild mushrooms, leather bound books and his tobacco pipe. These are all notes commonly found in a cool climate pinot noir. If I didn’t latch on to that memory, I would have missed out on the subtle complexities of light bodied red wines I actually like most.
That’s why it’s so important to paint a picture in your mind. Know the grape and the region it comes from. Imagine the winemaker and the growing conditions they were faced with.
It may sound a bit poetic, but the reason wine culture has persisted for thousand of years is because of the stories that are corked inside each bottle. So next time you pour yourself a glass, let your mind travel to the volcanic valleys of Italy or the rolling hills of France. Picture the Napa Valley or the mountains of South America and savor the wine that has traveled around the world for us, when we can’t get there ourselves.