When asked to assess wine, there are a number of factors to take into account. These include sight, smell and taste. It would be impossible to determine what wine you were drinking without a degree of experience. Likewise, it would be difficult to identify a particular wine, or type of wine, having never tasted it. But your knowledge will increase with every tasting.

SIGHT

Look at the color. Is it deep or pale? Is there a positive quality to it, a specific hue that reminds you of a particular grape variety, the growing climate, or the area of production? Is the color vivid and youthful, or is there browning that might suggest its age? What does the rim, or meniscus, indicate? Does it retain the intensity of colour to the rim of the glass, which suggests a high quality product, or does it fade to an unimpressive, watery finish?

SMELL

If the first impression is very heady, is the wine fortified? (Classic fortified wines, such as port, sherry, and Madeira, do have easily
recognizable characteristics, but it can still be difficult to distinguish between a robust wine with a naturally high alcohol level produced in a hot country and a fortified wine.) Does the wine have any distinctive aromas, or are they obscure or bland, or simply reticent? Does the wine smell as youthful or as mature as it appears to the eye? Is it smooth and harmonious, suggesting the wine is ready to drink? If so, should it be drunk?

If it is not ready, can you estimate when it will be? Is there a recognizable grape variety aroma? Are there any creamy or vanilla hints to suggest that it has been fermented or aged in new oak? If so, which region ages such wine in oak? Is it a simple wine or is there a degree of complexity? Are there any hints as to the area of production? Is its quality obvious or do you need confirmation on the palate?

TASTE

This should reflect the wine’s smell and therefore confirm any judgements that you have already made. Should. But human organs are fallible, not least the brain, so keep an open mind. Be prepared to accept contradiction as well as confirmation. Ask yourself all the questions you asked on the nose, but before you do, ask what your palate tells you about the acidity, sweetness, and alcoholic strength.

If you are tasting a red wine, its tannin content can be revealing. Tannin is derived from the grape’s skin, and the darker and thicker it is, and the longer the juice macerates with the skins, the more tannin there will be in the wine. A great red wine will contain so much tannin that it will literally pucker the mouth, while early-drinking wines will contain little.

If you are tasting a sparkling wine, on the other hand, its mousse, or effervescence, will give extra clues. The strength of the mousse will determine the style—whether it is fully sparkling, semi-sparkling, or merely pétillant – and the size of the bubbles will indicate the quality; the smaller they are, the better.

CONCLUSION

Just try to name the grape variety and area of origin, and give some indication of the age and quality of the wine. Wise tasters will not risk their credibility by having a stab at anything more specific, such as the producer or vineyard, unless he or she is 100 percent sure. In the Master of Wine examination, marks are given for correct rationale, even if the conclusion that is drawn is wrong, while it has been known for a candidate to name the wine in precise detail but, because of defective reasoning, to receive no score at all. Wine tasting is not a matter of guessing. It is about deduction, and getting it wrong should be encouraged because that is the only way to learn.

HOW TO ASSESS WINE: AN EXAMPLE

SIGHT

Water-white, this wine has obvious cool climatic origins, although the tiny bubbles collecting on the glass suggest it could be a Vinho Verde. But the palest usually have a tell-tale hint of straw color. Probably a modest Qualitätswein from the Mosel region of Germany.

SMELL

This is not Vinho Verde. Its crisp, youthful, sherbet aroma is typical Mosel Riesling. Considering its color, the nose would confirm
that this is probably a Qualitätswein, or a Kabinett at most, of a modest vintage, but from a very good grower who is possibly as high up as the Saar tributary.

TASTE

Youthful, tangy fruit, the flower of the Riesling is still evident. More flavor than expected, and a nice dry, piquant finish with a hint of peach on the aftertaste.

CONCLUSION

Grape variety Riesling
Region Mosel
Age about 18 to 24 months
Comment Kabinett, top grower