Wine Tasting Insights & Tips
2 March 2021
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee
- Overall – Taste wine with an open mind and remember that your sensitivity to tannins, acidity, alcohol, flavors and faults in wine will differ from others. Thus, finding out what you like and trying to figure out why you like it is the best approach for a novice wine drinker. Even at the beginner’s level, having the right vocabulary to describe what you are tasting is essential, so learn the wine language and its alphabet (more on this below). For more advanced tasters, knowing your weaknesses is crucial to understanding your palate and eliminating biases accurately – are you less sensitive to tannins? do you enjoy high acidity in wine? do you often miss wine faults like Brett or TCA? how accurately can you gauge alcohol? Discovering your strengths and weaknesses as a taster will then enable you to know why there are certain wine styles, varieties or producers that appeal to you or turns you off. As a wine lover, you will then understand your palate preferences much faster and more easily and the wines you gravitate towards will make sense. As a wine professional, this is key to self-assessing why you favor certain wines instead of being objective – e.g. regarding high tannin wines as being unbalanced because of your sensitivity to tannins.
- Finding the right words to define aromas/flavours – Wine has a language that needs to be learned, whether it is in English, French, Italian, etc (note it is limited to English & European languages). Learning to describe wine casually as an occasional drinker should be fun – don’t be afraid to use descriptors that have meaning and can be recognized again and again by the person describing it; this is important. Guidance by an experienced taster really helps and learning how to use the right words so that people who love wine understand what you mean takes experience and learning – I think of it as learning the wine alphabet. Look up what descriptors are used by many wine educators (WSET for example) for certain wines and grape varieties and remember those descriptors as though you are learning the alphabet and key words to be able to communicate with others in the wine trade/industry. But don’t take these as anything other than guidelines/reference points to begin your own journey. The wine alphabet and wine words are a conduit to expressing yourself and for being able to categorize, recall, and communicate your thoughts about wine, not a list to memorize. You don’t even have to agree with the descriptions given in a wine textbook, but you do have to recognize that it is a universal wine language that many others use and it becomes important if you are a wine student aspiring to become an MW or obtain a Diploma in wine.
- Gauging drinking windows – As a rule of thumb, 95% of wines purchased can be consumed without consideration of drinking windows. Even young Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois released in the market these days can be consumed fairly young. Drinking window and decanting only becomes important for premium wines that really benefit from bottle age and aeration. The factors I consider for drinking window depend on the style, grape variety, producer and vintage. E.g. Bordeaux cru classe reds at the 3rd to 5th growth level made in recent modest years like 2007, 2011, 2013 are definitely enjoyable young with a drinking window that starts at about 5 years old. Some wines will surprise you with how long they can age so the end of the drinking window is harder to estimate; this comes mainly from experience with that particular wine and producer. For example with experience you know that a Giscours will have a longer drinking window than d’Issan in the same vintage by experience. Gauging accurate drinking windows are challenging even for professionals and I think around half of the time we get it wrong. We improve with experience and time.
- Pairing wine and food – This is a vast subject with which I have some experience, having written a book on the subject about Asian cuisine and wine. One can take a casual approach which is eat and drink what you enjoy and hope they go together; since you are enjoying what you like, you are bound to have a good time. And there is the more serious approach which is to ensure that the wine doesn’t fight with the food and the food doesn’t overwhelm the wine. A few tips on pairing wine with Asian cuisine: 1) Consider that the seasoning, spices and condiments are often even more important than the key ingredient. 2) Consider texture of both the dish and the wine. Soft textured food requires silky texture in the wine; for example, soft tofu with mature, creamy-textured Chardonnay. 3) Consider choosing the most versatile wine, one that will pair with the majority, but not necessarily all, of the dishes on the communal table.
- Concluding thoughts – Nothing beats experience, especially ones that are recorded (written tasting notes help tremendously), and are remembered in detail (don’t forget the vintage or the exact region the wine was from). Tasting mantra: Taste, take notes, re-read your notes, and repeat.