The Fundamentals of Wine Tasting
By Chef and Sommelier, Joe LaVilla
Just in case there are some newbies out there gearing up for all things wine at the Savor the Central Coast event, we enlisted the services of our in-house sommelier to help you out. His expert advice will guarantee you fit right in whilst looking, sniffing, tasting and ranking the gorgeous wines from the Central Coast of California.
I’m approached by someone carrying a bottle of wine more often than I’d care to admit. Normally, this would be a good thing as I keep my cork screw and my tasting cup next to the cell phone….on my belt. The look of confusion and fear on his or her face tells me what’s coming – The Question. This question doesn’t necessarily fit into the more daunting genres of in-depth viticulture, growing practices in Southern Arizona, or the science behind biodynamic farming. Nope, it’s much more complex; The Question being, “Is this good?”
“Good” is a relative term. Whether for the goose or the gander, what is ‘good’ literally translates to “Do you think I will like this?” How the heck do I know? Unless the ruler of the universe allows me a direct link to your taste sensory perception, it’s nearly impossible for me to answer. There is some level of quality that can be determined by region, producer, grape variety, etc. Therefore, I will take the high road and educate you as best I can (it’s what I do) and in my own unique way, assist you in finding the answer to The Question.
Tasting wine, as opposed to drinking wine, is more about sipping and interpreting what you taste. We sommeliers do call that drinking. Tasting is a much more analytical process, and can yield a ton of information to anybody who wants to enjoy a glass by the pool, pair it with food, or expand their horizons. It’s easy if you try, so let’s get started with four simple steps to have you tasting like a pro!
Step 1: Look
That’s right – look at it! Tilt the glass away from you at about a 45 degree angle, and gaze lovingly at the variation in color. What you see can tell you if the wine is healthy or not, and potentially how old it is. If the wine is cloudy, you may not want to try it (this is pretty rare). Typically, a nice healthy wine is clear and somewhat shiny. Young white wines often start out practically colorless, and get darker (a little more golden) with age. Red wines start out very purple when young, and gradually get more red to mahogany as they get older.
A visual review matters because of flavor profile changes based on the wine’s age. The younger a wine, the fruitier and refreshing it may seem. As wines age, new flavors develop that are not fruity – such as leather and tobacco in red wines. If you like those flavors, look for older wines. If you like fruit bombs, go for the young ones.
Step two: Sniff
Smelling a wine is a great way to determine whether or not it will be appealing to you. The aromas and bouquet you perceive on the nose often, but not always, reflect what you are about to taste. Firstly, you should be able to determine if the wine is healthy or not. If it smells like musty books, burnt matches or boiled cabbage, I wouldn’t move on to step three. On the other hand, you may not always smell fruit. European wines often bring forth smells like stones, herbs, and good old terroir (dirt) before you notice the fruit. The rest of the world tends to make “fruit forward” wines, tending to give fruity aromas in the foreground. You may be able to detect bits of sweetness, acidity and savory on the nose, but the true test will come on your palate.
Step three: Okay, now taste it
At this point in the game, you may have already made up your mind – yum or yuck! STOP YOUR PALATES! If you are anything at all like the ladies at into the Soup, you’ll chug it no matter what the verdict. Let me remind you, however, that there is more to tasting than simple personal preference. If your first reaction upon tasting makes you pucker at the tangy, smack at the sweet, or cringe at the bitter, consider that those profiles may compliment a sharp cheese, a robust ragout, or a decadent chocolate dessert.
To taste alone does not a determination make. Consider context. What you like in a wine as a nice glass before dinner may not be the best match WITH dinner. I like orange juice and minty toothpaste…but I don’t like them together!
Step Four: Rank…and file
The final thing a sommelier does when he or she tastes wine is to determine its quality and maturity. For the casual wine taster, differentiation is the name of the game. Once you get some wine tasting under your belt, you will begin to see similarity in what you like and what you don’t; opening the door to greater appreciation and a wider range of choices. Personal preference does come into play once you open your mind and practice, practice, practice. With your newly acquired breadth and depth of knowledge The Question may now be “Hey, Joe! Care to have a glass of wine with me?” My answer, “Good question…and yes!”
Chef LaVilla is the Academic Director for the Culinary Arts programs at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Nashville. Besides being a Certified Executive Chef, Chef LaVilla also holds a certification from the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) as a Certified Sommelier. In addition, Chef LaVilla is experienced in food styling, food and wine pairing, the hospitality industry, culinary arts management, and more.