Getting Acquainted – How to Taste Wine

A very common comment I receive from subscribers to my weekly newsletter on kosher wine is that, while they enjoy drinking wine, they don’t really know much about it and can barely tell the difference between a good and a bad wine. The truth of the matter is that most people are already experts in the most important aspect of enjoying wine – being able to identify the wine you like. If you like the wine – it’s a good wine, if you don’t – it’s a bad one. It really is as simple as that, and regardless of what one critic or another might say about any specific wine, from your perspective – it’s your opinion that matters, not anyone else’s.

Given my tendency toward more effusive tasting notes, I am frequently asked “How do you taste and smell all those different things in the wine?” In this post I hope to enhance your wine-drinking experience by providing you with some tips and tools necessary to identify some of the components of the wines you enjoy.

One of the most valuable tools in recognizing the characteristics of any wine is the ability to identify the various aromas present (such aromas are commonly referred to as the “nose” or “bouquet” of a wine). A wine drinker should try to accumulate as large a repertoire of associative smells as possible. The more smells and associations you have, the easier it will be to pick out aromas and tastes in the wine (the multitude of tastes of a wine, commonly known as the “palate”, are actually aromas you taste through your interior nasal passage). The best way to acquire such a collection of associative aromas is simply to smell everything you encounter and try to remember these smells, thus building a large library of smells that you will be able to use when trying to identify the aromas in any specific wine. While there are smells that are common to specific wines (blackberries, currants and cherries to Cabernet Sauvignon; honey, and apricots to Botrytis or Sauternes; apples and vanilla to Chardonnay), there is no right or wrong and everyone tastes and smells different things in a wine. This is part of what makes the experience so pleasurable and is why the experience is better shared with others.

Given the intertwining aspects of smell and taste, when tasting wine it is very important to get some air in your mouth to interact with the wine. This can be accomplished by taking a small sip of wine, holding it in your mouth and, through slightly pursed lips, sucking some air into your mouth over the wine (trying hard not to choke or dribble). Initially, this is probably something to be practiced in the privacy of your home. The next step is to swish the wine around your mouth as if you were chewing on it, then swallow (this is actually a quick process lasting no more than of a couple seconds but extremely important).

The best way to determine whether you like a wine and discern its characteristics is by comparison. Unless you have trained yourself to evaluate wines on their own, without a side by side comparison it’s difficult to evaluate wines that are tasted at different times and under differing circumstances. Trying three Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2007 vintage (i.e. Psagot, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, Recanati, Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 and Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon 2007) or even three Chardonnay wines from the same vintage, producer AND series (i.e. Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay, Yarden, Single Vineyard Odem, Chardonnay and Yarden Chardonnay) can provide a delightful side by side comparative tasting experience. Each of these wines is the product of a different winemaker, winery and wine-making style and the grapes for each wine were grown in different regions in Israel. This can have great effect on the characteristics of a wine (the effect of the land in which the grapes are grown is commonly known as “terroir” and recent years have seen a significant push to allow the wines to be more expressive of the terroir).

To start the tasting, open all three bottles (or just two of them if you feel like three bottles at once will be too much) and pour a glass of each bottle into separate glasses. Give the first glass a vigorous swirl and then get a good whiff of the wine. Repeat the process with the other wine(s). Then taste them in the same order in which they were smelled. Decide if you like one better than the other. Think about why. Without a doubt you will be able to tell the difference between the wines. You might like one better and you might not. Write down on a piece of paper, which wine you liked better and why (use any description you like, wine related or not). Write down any defining characteristics of the wine. You will find it easier to describe different characteristics of the wines as a result of the comparison.

Keep drinking. See if the wine tastes different as time goes by. See if the changing flavors and textures influence which wine you prefer. You might change your mind as time goes on, which is perfectly normal and doesn’t mean you are waffling. Wine changes over time, even in a matter of minutes. Try to enjoy drinking and forget you are doing a “tasting” – the more you try and think about it, the harder it will become to recognize the differences.

The best way to start off is by “cheating”. Take a look at a published tasting note you have for any of these wines, including mine (or use the back of the wine label which also sometimes lists the smells and tastes of the wine) and try and identify at least one scent they noted. Don’t try to get them all at once. I guarantee that once you use the method above and work at identifying smells and textures in a wine, you will be able to discern more and more in each glass of wine you drink. This will change your drinking experience forever and your enjoyment of wine will increase exponentially!