Wine tasting is fun, enjoyable and interesting. But at first it isn’t always easy. There’s a lot of folderol and BS. In this series, we’re trying to demystify wine tasting and help people get started.
After passing the WSET Level 1 exam (seriously, everybody can pass that test after a day or two of study), I decided to continue with WSET Level 2. That was a little harder, as we went through the main grape varieties and key wine producing regions for the first time. But no problems with the theoretical knowledge – it’s easy to master for anyone that is willing to dedicate some time and diligence to the studying process.
Level 2 introduced the concept of writing short professional tasting notes, using a simplified version of the WSET systematic approach to tasting. This was easy for people working in the wine industry and most of them jumping straight to Level 3. But me? Well, I struggled and struggled. I diligently bought the 20+ bottles WSET wanted us to taste. I read the label and Googled the wine to see what I should expect to identify. Lucky me, tasting was not examinable at Level 2, as I was not able to identify any secondary of tertiary aromas.
After the wine exam, Matthew and I went to the Kensington Wine Rooms in Notting Hill and took 4-5 samples of various wines (new world, old world, younger, older). The American Zinfandel did it for me and caused a revolution in my primate tasting brain: for the first time in my life I was able to clearly identify the aromas clusters: fruit and oak ageing.
Tasting tip: I bought all the wines required on the Level 2 list from the supermarket. They were mostly acceptable or good with only a couple very good wines. That’s fine for easy drinking but for tasting you need the aromas and flavours to be as precise and characteristic as possible. As a beginner, I believe you need to start with very good and outstanding wines. Plonk will teach you little!
Level 3 Professional wine tasting
So, full of hope, I registered for WSET Level 3. I chose the online class because I have a full time job. (I need it to support my wine habit!) With this course tasting starts to be important. The recommended tasting wine list was longer and surprise, surprise: there was a blind tasting in the exam. Ouch!
WSET organised a one-day tasting technique class at the beginning of the course, but I did not find it mind-blowingly useful. You have no theoretical knowledge from the course at that point and it’s a struggle not only with calibration – is my ‘full bodied’ the same as yours or WSET’s, for example. Worse you have almost no frame of reference or understanding of the concepts described. This is an important class so if you are taking it, I would recommend preparing for it very carefully.
(As an online student, I thought WSET should have included an additional full day of tasting class at the end of the course, so that you fine tune your technique. Or at least offer it as an option at additional cost.)
Leaning how to taste wine
Learning wine tasting from scratch is not easy. After my one-day tasting class I realised how weak I was when it comes to my tasting technique. I bought a number of books to help, listened to podcasts, especially the Guild of Sommeliers’ excellent series. And I even searched the internet looking for a manual on how to become a tasting guru in ten easy steps. You might say that one can’t learn to dance by reading a book and it may be the same with wine tasting. But it’s disappointing that there isn’t a simple and practical book to get you started.
I’ve also learned that developing your own tasting techniques needs time, practice and cross checking with other people. I guess you need to be patient with yourself and try to attend as many tasting sessions as possible.
But in the meantime, if you don’t have time nor patience, or too much money to spend on tasting classes, what do you do? Hands on, full of enthusiasm (and maybe a small fear of failure) I started my journey to become a blind tasting guru. During this process I felt like a spy, trying to gather as much intel to build my own map of professional tasting.
I might be wrong, I might be right, but here is my personal guide to becoming a tasting guru in 10 simple steps, based on what I learned over the last year and a half.
Step 1: Understand the influences on tasting
Your own body and the environment affect tasting. There are a few things you need to know before you even open the bottle:
- How you feel: be aware that if you have a cold, if you are tired, if you are having a bad day, if there is too much noise around you or somebody looks straight at you waiting for your feedback on the wine, your tasting performance may suffer. Unfortunately, we cannot press a button on our brain and switch on the “super taster” mode. If there is something you can fix, like going to a quieter place or asking for some space and privacy, or having a nap before tasting, don’t be shy.
- Environment: try to do the tasting in well-lit room, preferably with natural light, free of smells. Try not to wear perfume, aftershave, deodorant, hand cream.
- Palate: before you do the tasting, try not to have coffee, eat spicy food or food with garlic or onion. I always eat a small piece of bread before I do the tasting. You can also have bread in between the wines and rinse your mouth with water, to get rid of leftover flavours.
- Time of the day: the best timing to do tasting is lunchtime, before having your food. This is the moment when all our senses are very alert. Be aware that in the morning everything seems better than it is. As we had our tasting exam at 9:30 in the morning, we were advised to have a sip of wine before coming to the exam. They never suggested that at university!
- Tasting order: white wines should be tasted before red wines, lighter wines before heavier wines, save sweet wines for the end.
- Get into the role: One wine expert said that tasting requires two distinct personalities. First you need to be a detective to get as much data out of the wine as possible. Then you need to switch into the role of advocate, building a case out the information you collected to describe and identify the wine.
- Nobody is wrong: everybody smells and tastes things differently and uniquely, depending on our genetics and the environment we have been exposed to throughout our lives. The Wine Show episode 7 makes this point very clearly. Joe Fattorini goes to China and finds that the people there have a very different tasting palette and vocabulary. However, WSET expects students to use a very specific vocabulary to describe wine to ensure clear communication and consistency, so learning what they mean when they say ‘unripe green apples’ or whatever is an important part of the tasting journey.
- Reaching a conclusion about the quality of the wine: in the WSET systematic approach, there are four main elements you need to pay specific attention in reaching the quality level and level of readiness to drink conclusion: Balance, Intensity, Finish and Complexity (I use BIFC as my mnemonic).
- Bias: we are all subject to bias when it comes to making a quality judgement about the wine we taste if we know where is coming from and how much we paid for it. With blind tasting, you don’t let the wine’s label, price or provenance influence your judgement.
Step 2: Get the right equipment
- Tasting glassware. buy tulip-shaped ISO tasting glasses. You’re likely to see them on tasting courses and in exams so it makes sense to standardise, although more and more professionals prefer different styles of glass.
- Invest into a Coravin. It is pricey, but helps you save on buying your tasting bottles. When you taste 6 wines in a goal, Coravin solves the issue of opening too many bottles and having to drink them in a short period of time. With the Coravin, you can also come back a month later to the same wines you tasted before, compare notes or taste them against other type of wines.
- Aroma board. Build your aroma board with different aromas, or easier, invest into an aroma toolkit, like Le Nez du Vin. It is brilliant to build up memories of aromas. You can also involve the entire family or friend, by having a contest who guesses most of the aromas.
- Get a spittoon. This will help you get into the professional mindset when you taste the wine. Any recipient will do, but we liked this one, which is more easy to use. Perhaps with more practice, we’ll learn to spit with the accuracy of a Marine Corps sniper but this design certainly spares a beginner’s blushes.
- Buy bottle sleeves. Hiding the label is easy this way and saves you having to decant the wine into a blank bottle (as they will do during tasting exams).
- Get a white mat. This will help you assess the colour. A piece of paper will do, of course, but a mat is a more stable platform for glasses. You can use a mat with tasting reminders, like Wine Folly’s.
- Get a wine tasting booklet. I use an A5 size booklet, which helps me have one page for each wine I taste.
- Build a tasting mnemonic. I made my own following the WSET systematic approach. This made me make sure I don’t forget something when I write my tasting note (exam or practice). If you must know it’s: CICO CIAD SATABFFOF BIFC.
Step 3: Prepare the tasting
- Make sure your tasting glasses are clean, free of dishwasher soap or other cleaning products residue. Wipe them gently with a cotton cloth or a kitchen paper towel.
- Do not rinse the glasses with water prior to tasting, as water leftovers interact with the wine and dilute the aromas. To convince yourselves, do this experiment at home: poor the same wine in two glasses, one non-rinsed, one rinsed with water and smell the difference.
- It is ok to use the same glass if you are tasting the same grape variety.
- If you only have one glass for tasting and you change the grape variety, rinse the glass with the new wine, throw it away and then pour your tasting sample.
I would recommend taking out the wines for tasting from their storage place and keeping them for two or three hours at room temperature.
Opinions vary about the tasting temperature, but for me it works best at room temperature, as between 18-20°C a wine will have the most volatile aromas for you to identify (yes, whites too). Too cold and you will struggle to smell. That’s probably why cheap wine is best served cold – you won’t miss the complexity if you can’t smell it. Too warm and the aromas will become stewed and you will struggle to identify the complex ones.
In the end, remember: find your own preferred tasting temperature, but keep in mind if you are having a tasting exam that in the exam situation, the wines will always be at room temperature.
- A tasting sample should be around 50ml of wine. This means the equivalent of two fingers horizontally if you are using the ISO tasting glass.
- Pour your tasting sample at least 30-60 minutes before you start your tasting if you are using the Coravin or opening a new bottle of wine. For all professional tastings, wine are usually decanted or double decanted a couple of hours before. A complex wine changes with the air contact, so give it a little bit of time to breathe and show off its treasures.
Our next post in this series will cover the sight and smell. Stay tuned!