Wine tasting

Tasting, also known as “sensory analysis” is a way of measuring the sensory perceptions (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch).

The wine is analysed in four successive stages:

Visual sensations

  • The coulour (or robe) is revealed close to a light source on a white background. It is defined by its shade (pale yellow, golden yellow, etc.) and its intensity: pale, average, strong, dark, deep, intense, etc. It can give a variety of information to the taster: the nature of the grape variety (colouring or not), the maturity on harvesting, the vintage (the colour of red wines evolves from a violet-red to a brick brown colour as they age), the origin (northern red wines have a less intense robe than southern wines)…
  • Brillance reveals a certain “liveliness” of the wine due to the acidity present in the wine. Vocabulary used to describe the brilliance of a wine: crystalline, brilliant, bright, dull, dim, faint, etc. A very bright brilliance (especially in a white wine) can be the sign of a strong acidity.
  • Limpidity (or transparency) is the absence of cloudiness, observed by quickly upturning a bottle in front of a lamp in order to see if any sediment falls or simply through the glass. A wine can be brilliant, crystalline, clear, clear, dull, etc or on the contrary miry, broken, loaded, cloudy, hazy, etc.We can also determine if the wine has been filtered or not, or for example if it is the product of a hot and sunny vintage (more precipitation of colouring substances)…
  • Fluidity is the fluid and mobile aspect that the wine presents when the glass is turned. You should look at the disk: tilt the glass and observe the surface of the wine at the edge of the glass and determine its thickness. When you agitate the wine in its glass, the drops that detach themselves from this disk to run down more or less rapidly to join the liquid are called the “tears” or the “legs”.The disk and the leg reflect the glycerol content (fattiness), alcohol content (ethanol) and sugar content. The more tears there are, the higher the glycerol / ethanol content. The slower the tears are to run off, the higher the residual sugar content.
  • Effervescence is due to the presence of CO2. This is a defect in a still wine, but it can be desirable to give a certain freshness to very hot vintages like 2003. In an effervescent wine, we judge the fineness and the speed of the bubbles, the persistence of their emission, the resistance of the line of bubbles along the side of the glass.

Olfactory sensations

Smell is one of the most mysterious of our five senses. We differentiate between the odour perceived directly by the direct nasal function (by breathing in through the nostrils) and the aroma perceived by the retronasal function (retro-olfaction – passing internally from the mouth cavity to the nasal passages).

  • The classification of odours: The human nose is sensitive to almost 10,000 different odours, and generally speaking, we distinguish ten classes of odours: animal, balsamic, chemical, ethereal, spicy, empyreumatic, floral, fruity, vegetal.
  • Aromas: For a substance in a solution to be perceived as odorous, it has to be volatile. Volatility depends on the volatility factor, the evaporation surface, the renewal of this surface, the temperature.We distinguish:
    • Primary aromas: these are varietal aromas that come from the grape (grape variety). These aromas are observed immediately without making any circular movement with the glass (first nose). They correspond to the most volatile substances. They are influenced by the climate, the soil, the vintage.
    • Secondary aromas: these come from the alcoholic fermentation (vinous character). These aromas are observed for 10-20 minutes after circular movement of the glass (2nd nose). They depend on the sugar content of the grapes (degree of maturity).
      Generally, the higher the quantity of sugar involved, the higher the yeast activity and the more intense the secondary aroma. This is why, for example, syrupy wines have a higher secondary aromatic intensity.
    • Tertiary aromas (or bouquet): these come from the development (oxidation / reduction) and the soil. These aromas are observed after 30 minutes, even in the empty glass. They are the most complex.

Gustatory sensations

Les organes récepteurs gustatifs sont surtout localisés dans les papilles de la langue. Le renouvellement de la totalité des cellules gustatives est rapide (par exemple après s’être brûlé la langue).

  • The four elementary flavours:
    • Sweetness is particularly well perceived by the taste buds situated on the end of the tongue and its perception is immediate. The sensation reaches its maximum after two seconds and disappears after ten seconds. This sweet sensation is amplified by the alcohol. Therefore, a wine with a higher alcohol content will appear sweeter.
      Sweetness gives at once elements of softness, fattiness and mellowness. It is the most primitive flavour (appreciated from the first days of a baby’s life). The perception of sugars diminishes over time.
    • Acidity is perceived on the sides and on the underneath of the tongue and is perceived rapidly. Its flavour is persistent like a salty flavour. It results from the different acids in wine (malic, tartaric, citric) and participates in the notion of freshness in the mouth.
    • Saltiness is perceived on the edges at the front of the tongue, is perceived rapidly and persists for longer than sweetness. This salty flavour communicated by the mineral salts is often masked by the other flavours. It gives freshness and increases the savouriness.
    • Bitterness is perceived more specifically on the rear part of the tongue. This flavour is slow to develop, it increases and stays for a long time. Bitterness is often associated with a sensation of astringency (dryness) linked to the tannins.
  • Other gustatory sensations:
    • Tannins. These elements will constitute the “body” of wine (red only), its structure, its consistency. A wine which has no consistency is said to be hollow. The tannins in the mouth give relief, a tactile sensation on the tongue. Interpretation: a lower temperature exacerbates the hardness of the tannins and their astringent side.
    • Astringency. Astringency causes the drying of the mouth and gums as well as a rasping impression (a rough tongue). For example: scraping the inside of a banana skin. Interpretation: tannins not yet matured (integrated into the body of the wine) in a red wine in its youth? Bitterness linked to a lack of maturity of the grapes when they were harvested and / or presence of stalks?
    • Umami. This is the indicator of the flavours and the sapidity. Considered as the fifth flavour. It is the characteristic flavour of glutamate.
    • Fattiness. This is the unctuous character of a wine. Think, for example, of the effect of a dribble of olive oil in your mouth. Fattiness allows tannins that are a little too harsh in a red wine to be softened by enveloping them. For a white wine, a fatty side can reveal malolactic fermentation (transformation of malic acid into lactic acid) or maturing on fine lees.
    • Fizziness. “Fizziness” is due to the presence of bubbles of CO2 given off by the alcoholic fermentation. It is found essentially in wines bottled very early. In a sparkling wine (Crémant, Champagne), we look for fineness and persistency of the bubbles.
    • Pseudo-thermal sensations. Although two wines are served at the same temperature, we can feel different thermal sensations in the mouth. A sensation of warmth is often associated with a more marked presence of alcohol (ethanol) whereas a sensation of coolness can be due to menthol or eucalyptus, acid or fizzy (CO2) elements.

Gustatory analysis

Analysing a wine in the mouth means determining its attack, its balance, its development and its length.

  • The attack is the first sensation perceived after you put the wine in your mouth. It can be mellow, frank, soft… Mellowness is provided by the alcohols (ethanol, glycerol) contained in all wines and the residual sugars (glucose and fructose). A mellow attack can be judged short, medium or long. It will be long if the mellowness is high and/or if the acid or bitter flavours or the astringency only take over progressively. Evaluation of the length of the mellow attack is therefore relative.
  • The balance: this involves determining the balance between the mellowness (or sweetness), the acidity and the alcohol for white wines or the mellowness, the acidity, the alcohol and the tannins for red wines. The harmony of the constitution of the wine depends on their balance.
  • The development: when tasting a wine, we experience successive tastes. Often the last impressions (a bitter end note) can be very different from the first (mellow attack). The analysis of the development of the wine in the mouth (attack to development to end of mouth) reflects the gustatory qualities of a wine.
  • The length, or intense aromatic persistance (IAP), represent the time in seconds (or caudalies) during which the aroma persists in the mouth after you have swallowed or spat out the wine. When the persistence of the aroma (due to the less volatile constituents, that is to say the most tenacious ones) is no longer perceptible in the mouth (below our threshold of perception), salivation starts again. The longer a wine is, the more it will be interesting to combine it with suitable foods. For there will be more time for superposing wine / food flavours.

Overall evaluation

After having analysed the wine in detail from the three basic angles (eye, nose, mouth), it is time to step back for a few seconds and try to arrive at an overall evaluation. This involves trying to judge the wine for what it is (a varietal wine, a technological wine or a “terroir” wine), its cellarability over time and its gastronomic match.

A technological wine is a wine that has undergone a number of manipulations on the part of the winemaker during its making. Technological wines are general pleasing, attractive and easy to drink. If tasting them is pleasant, do not forget, on the other hand, that their aromas are stable over time (therefore little development to be expected of them) and their taste uniform to one soil or another. A “terroir” wine is the opposite of a technological wine. The original olfactory and gustatory complexity of the raw material and the soil is favoured.

To evaluate a wine, you need to go back to the different comments made during the three main phases described above. Ask yourself if the comments match or if, on the contrary there are contradictions. As a basic rule, a hypothesis with three 95 % matches has a chance of being right.

For example, if in a white wine we have observed green hues, smelt a hint of something vegetal and observed a tart taste in the mouth, then we may assert that there is a good chance that the grapes were not sufficiently mature when harvested.

Try to give a mark (subjective) to the wine and to combine it with a judgment: Exceptional, Excellent, Very good, Good, Average, Mediocre…

Organising a tasting

It can be interesting to organise amateur tasting sessions. To do so, it is necessary to choose a theme that will be a unifying thread throughout your tasting. For example: a grape variety, a family of grape varieties (the Pinots, the Cabernets), a wine-producing region, an appellation, a terroir (in Alsace, the different Grands Crus), a country, a vintage, a combination (wines and cheeses, wines and breads, wines and chocolate)…

The environment:
Tasting generally takes place in a well-lit environment, if possible in daylight, if not in white light. It is also preferable to have a white surface on the table to help with the appreciation of the robe of the wine. Professionals will have a washbasin with automatic rinsing, but amateurs can use a bucket or any other recipient that can be used to spit into. Ideally, tasting takes place before a meal, at the times when the senses are the most awakened (at about 11 am or 5 pm).

The different types of tasting::

  • blind tasting: this is the most common case, to allow the taster to better discover and memorise a wine, its vintage, its appellation, its grape varieties, without being influenced by the indications on the bottle. The simplest solution in this case is to render the bottle anonymous by concealing it with a cloth cover – a sock (there are specially made covers available for this purpose). The most perfectionist will go as far as to decant wines in bottles with special shapes into “standard” bottles so that they do not arouse any suspicions.
  • vertical tasting: tasting in which the same wines of different vintages are tasted.
  • differentiation tests: It can be fun to test the perception of different wines. The taster can be asked, for example, to a identify different wine from among three glasses – the triangular test – or to find two glasses containing the same wine out of five glasses – the duo-trio test…

Draw up an identical tasting sheet for each of the tasters so that the notes taken by everyone can be compared. Taking notes in this way also allows you to keep a record of the wines tasted. Generally speaking, this tasting sheet should include the following sections:

- Sight: coulour / limpidity / intensity
- Smell: description of the aromas perceived on the first nose and after agitation, intensity
- Mouth: attack, development, aromas, structure, persistence, length in the mouth
- Ovreall judgment: appreciation of balance, marking / general appreciation

In any case, only one thing is really important: