Okay. I have run into multiple folks just in the last few weeks who declare - “I love wine but really don’t know how to taste – I can only say if I like it”. Now, this is perfectly acceptable if you are okay with that. However, if you do want to learn to appreciate wine more methodically you can do it. Anyone can do it. It just takes some work and commitment.
Here are some basic tips to get you started. The essence of appreciating wine really boils down to three buckets:
1. What do you see?
2. What do you smell?
3. What do you taste?
It is important to note that every single aspect that you perceive by looking, smelling, and tasting is a data point – nothing more, nothing less. A good taster first collects a series of data points based on these observations and these deductively strings them together to construct a rational profile of what the characteristics of the wine are.
By practicing to identify the correct data points over a period of time, one can start driving them to the conclusions. One understands that it is indeed cool to see someone taste a wine and quickly tell you what it is and where it is from etc., but very few people can quickly get all of it right. It is ill advised for someone learning to taste to impatiently want to conclude. Learning to pick up the right identifiers are by far the greatest skill one can learn – and it only comes from practice.
This is a painstaking process but a rewarding one. The greatest tasters got there by practicing, not with sheer talent as is believed – I promise you!
The best way to cultivate good tasting habits is to constantly calibrate your senses. Pay attention to the smells and tastes in your everyday life. When is the last time you smelled a violet and thought about it? If you were fed a blackberry and a blueberry blindfolded, could you tell which one was which? Good tasters develop an incredible mind map of colors, smells, and tastes. They constantly calibrate and strengthen their maps. Thus when they pick up a scent or a taste in wine, they can instantly relate to an orange peel or fresh cut grass.
Moreover, good tasters are true to themselves. They are consistent about what a certain smell or taste is to them. If they learn a certain taste described differently, they will go seek that taste and ascertain if it is indeed so and add it to their map. Some sensory memories are very personal and even cultural. I grew up with a guava tree in my backyard, I can tell you blindfolded if you fed me a guava ripe or unripe or even the smell when you cut it. I grew up in India where we pickled mangoes. I can tell that smell of the chilly powder and salt with the sour mangoes that some other can probably relate to. It is fine to have your own map and markers. The most important thing though is to be consistent.
The skill that is slightly more difficult to pick up on ones own is identifying the intensity of structural elements. The key structural elements in red wine for instance are tannins, acid, and alcohol. This aspect takes a small bit of coaching but is relatively easy to grasp and practice. Any great taster will tell you that the structure of a wine is the most important aspect to get right. Structural parameters are also not something we can differ from each other on – if we do – one of us is wrong. This is different from the more qualitative markers like me smelling violets while you actually get lavender.
Finally, the great ones that can taste well and conclude well are those who study a lot. They have a great deal of knowledge about various wine regions, the varietals that are grown there, the blends, etc. They are then good at correlating a certain colors, smells, and tastes to a narrow set of varietals or regions. Additionally, they are on top of current literature and journalism, which keeps them apprised of vintages and current practices. All these aspects taken together makes a great wine taster conclude with confidence.
So there you have it.