For centuries wine has been referred to as “liquid sunshine.” But given the prices of some wines today, it could even be called liquid gold. Still, most people can acquire an appreciation for wine without much effort or great expense. Our experience has shown that due to a number of factors, including the way technology has helped level the playing field in the wine industry, good to great wine is available for $10-$20 a bottle, and sometimes for much less.
In fact, our favorite wine magazine, Wine Spectator, has a section called Best Values and often lists some highly rate wines for under $20 a bottle. World-class wineries that also produce in large quantities such as BV, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Geyser Peak, Kendall-Jackson, Mondavi, and Wente are just a few of the American producers of great value. And that’s to say nothing of some of the excellent values coming from some European wineries, and those in other countries.
For the novice, approaching a formal wine tasting can seem a bit daunting, and even for the casual wine enthusiast, some terms of art escape them. So before your next trip to the wine country or your favorite restaurant offering wine, here is a briefing based on our field research, and several authorities on topic.
We’ve also included some wine industry statistics that can be great fun to use in an impromptu game of trivia while you’re out and about in wine country. You can also include information we published in a related article: Top Wine-Producing States.
However, before reading the rest of this primer, it’s important to note that within the industry the issue of “bottle variation” is well-known if not equally understood. Basically, this involves what can sometimes be a wide variance in tasting experiences from one bottle to the next of the same variety, vintage, and vintner. This phenomenon can occur when you enjoyed a wine at a tasting room, restaurant, friend’s house, or what have you, then rush out to buy a bottle or case, and then discover that you don’t enjoy the wine nearly as much as when you first encountered it. This is somewhat akin to listening to a street musician, buying one of his or hers CDs only to discover when you play it at home that you don’t get the same level of satisfaction from hearing it again.
In wine tasting, this may be attributed to the wine aging slightly from one experience to the next, any change in storage conditions (see below) or pouring techniques (ex: not letting a young red wine breathe), or what you ate or drank before tasting.
Moreover, the story behind the wine, the winery, or winemaker may impact how much you enjoy a wine when you first taste it in comparison to tasting it on another occasion. Matt Kramer, a columnist with Wine Spectator magazine, points out in the August 2015 issue that he has a single sentence reply to people seeking a truth about wine. “People don’t drink the wine, they drink the story,” he said.
Yet another factor in wine tasting may be found in what a reader of that same magazine wrote in the May 2015 issue (our category top pick), “I have found the ingredient of the very best wines I have consumed to be something I refer to as the ‘mood of the moment.’ A charming companion, a candle-lit table, a nice meal…” can make a huge difference in the level of enjoyment found in tasting a particular wine. He may have a point.
‘Mood of the moment’ or not, please enjoy your wine tasting responsibly.
Wine Tastings Step-by-Step
1. Decant —or Not
The use of a decanter is a consideration in wine tasting, especially red wine. While decanting a white wine is generally unnecessary, unless you prefer the aesthetic value of your decanter. Decanting a red wine, on the other hand, may allow it to “open up”, especially younger vintages. As Wine Spectator magazine points out, this let the wine aerate “in the hope that its aromas and flavors will be more vibrant upon serving.” The use of a decanter for older wines also helps you separate the sediment from the wine.
Try to keep your mouth and nose clear of any taste and scent that could interfere. Avoid spicy food, coffee, and tea. Don’t chew gum or eat mints. Don’t wear perfume or a fragrant deodorant. Do drink at least one glass of water per glass of wine.
Look at the wine through the glass. It should be clear and not cloudy.
Use a glass that allows you to gently swirl the wine before tasting and occasionally as you finish. To a limited degree this has the same affect as decanting wine does, at least to a degree. Air getting to the wine, evaporates the alcohol and carries the aromas to your nose.
The sense of taste is enhanced by the sense of smell. With your mouth closed and one nostril or both over the glass, inhale deeply. What aromas come to mind?
6. Taste (Finally!)
Take a sip and gently swish it in your mouth. Continue to breathe in through your nose. It helps to know some basic descriptors to better communicate your likes and dislikes and to describe wine. You’ll find a wide variety of them on the back label of wine bottles and in tasting notes at wineries, restaurants, and shops.
You alone should decide if you like the wine or not. It may simply be yummy or not as suggested by a host at the award-winning Meadowcroft Wines in Sonoma, California. Or a particular wine may taste either yucky, good, or yummy as suggested by a wine club ambassador at the venerable Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, California. Or you can borrow or develop another scale. Just be sure it makes good sense to you because above all else, wine tasting is a very individual experience and should be enjoyable.
When tasting or judging wine, wine pros slurp and spit out of necessity. However, for most if not all casual wine tasters, it not necessary nor is it pleasant to taste and waste. Of course, wasting good wine should be avoided, but so should gulping or guzzling it. Drinking wine in excess is not recommended under any circumstances. Nevertheless, it’s up to you as to which side of the tasting room floor you stand on (figuratively speaking). As Wine Spectator’s James Laube refers to the eoneological divide, are you a tasting room sipper or a spitter?
Sensory Elements of Wine Tasting
Alcohol: The alcohol by volume (ABV) in wine usually runs between 9-16%. Dessert wines can be 20% or more. If the wine warms your mouth it may be high in alcohol. A big red is a red wine on the higher end of the ABV scale. High ABV can diminish or obscure other wine characteristics. Acid: The sharp, sour (tart) character of a wine is derived from the acid found in wine. High acidity makes your mouth pucker like citrus does. Not enough can make a flabby wine, like highly diluted lemon flavored water instead of really good lemonade. Like tannins, acids found in wine also affect the color and shelf-life. Balance: The sharpness, sourness (acidity), and the bitterness (tannins) should be balanced with its alcohol, flavors, and sweetness. Look for harmony in the wine thus making it pleasant to drink. Overall, is the wine simply good or is it great, or something in between? (To read the Manifesto of Balance, click here.) Body: This is how a wine feels in your mouth; commonly described as light, medium or full similar to skim milk, regular milk, and cream. A full-bodied wine is not necessarily an exceptional one. Buttery: A smooth, creamy, rich mouth feel and finish, usually because a white wine was aged in oak, but also can refer to the smell of butter or oak. Dry: A wine that lacks much sweetness although even an extra-dry sparkling wine will be somewhat sweet. Flavors: Ironically, most wines don’t taste like grapes. There are many more descriptors than the few listed in this guide. For instance, whites often have citrusy flavors while reds may taste like berries, or dark fruits like plums, or even hint of smoke, chocolate, etc. An overpowering single flavor is generally not good. A fruit bomb has an explosion of fruitiness when you first taste it. “Yummy” may not be an “official” flavor descriptor, but it can perfectly describe a pleasant wine. Finish: How long the taste lingers after swallowing and the aftertaste. Also see “body.” Fruit Forward: The fruitiness of the wine is tasted immediately. Jammy: Sweetness like syrup or, well, like jam. Oaky: A smoky, toasty, or vanilla flavor generally resulting from wine fermented or aged in oak barrels. Pairing: Matching a wine with food. This is essentially a matter of individual taste. Tannins: Substances found naturally in grapes affecting taste, color, and shelf-life. Higher tannins produce a bitter taste that makes your mouth dry like steeped black tea does. The level can increase when wine is macerated (fermenting wine in contact with the skins and other solids like steeping tea), or if added by the winemaker during vinification (winemaking), or when wine is aged in oak. The tannins soften, become smooth over time for a well-crafted, properly stored wine. Terroir (tear-wahr): A French term describing the interaction between the soil, environment, and climate in which grapes are grown. Being able to detect terroir between wines of the same varietal takes some practice. There is some debate in the industry as to which makes a bigger difference: the terroir or the winemaker.
Other Terms of Art:
Appellation: The specific area in which the wine grapes are grown and often legally defined. Barrels & Tanks: Barrels are usually oak (French or American) while tanks are usually of steel, concrete, and other man-made materials the choice of which intentionally alters the flavor and aroma. Fermentation: The process in which yeasts change the sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat. Fermentation starts naturally but sometimes a winemaker will add active dry yeast for various reasons. Maloactic Fermentation: Some winemakers reduce acidity through this second fermentation process while others don’t in order to preserve the natural level to produce a livelier wine. It’s commonly used for reds and many whites. Temperature: Serve wine neither too cold nor hot. For reds, 60-65° to room temperature, whites 40-50°, and medium bodied wines somewhere in between. Vintner: A winery owner or merchant. Winemaker: The person responsible for winemaking. Variety & Varietal: A grape variety is the type of grape (ex: Chardonnay or Merlot) while a varietal is a wine made predominantly from a single grape variety. Viniculturalist: Someone who cultivates (raises) grapes for winemaking. Vintage: The year in which the wine was bottled.
James Laube, the veteran columnist at Wine Spectator, didn’t mince any words when responding to a reader’s question in the Feedback section in the August 2015 issue. On the topic of storing wine over long periods, sometimes known as cellaring wine (with or without a cellar), he flatly stated “I don’t these days.” While he didn’t elaborate, there may be several reasons, including the availability of well-aged wine at reasonable prices directly from producers or retailers.
However, you may see fit to store a case or more of your favorite wines, especially when they are available at a good price, or if future availability is uncertain. After all, as a general rule the younger the vintage, the lower the price. This accounts for the cost of storage in commercial facilities and the dwindling supply as the years go by. So, for many wine lovers, it may make good sense to buy and store a modest amount of wine. For others of us, any excuse will do.
Regardless, here are some of the best tips on storing wines without spending a small fortune on a cellar or cooler.
- Choose a room, closet, or storage area that is not exposed to direct sunlight.
- Keep the area at a constant temperature, ideally 55° F. A constant temperature from 45° F to 70° F is acceptable.
- Humidity is good, extremely dry conditions are not because corks may dry out which may cause leakage and spoilage.
- In addition to the right humidity level, be sure to store bottles sideways or upside down in order to help ensure the corks don’t dry out.
|1 Acre||5 Tons of Grapes|
|5 Tons of Grapes||13.5 Barrels of Wine|
|13.5 Barrels of Wine||797 Gallons|
|797 Gallons of Wine||3,985 Bottles (750 ml)|
|3,985 Bottles of Wine||15,940 Glasses (6 oz)|
|Barrel of Wine||59 Gallons
1,180 Glasses (6 oz)
|Case of Wine||12 Bottles (750 ml)
48 Glasses (6 oz)
|Bottle of Wine||4 Glasses (6 oz)|
Sources: Sonoma County Winegrowers www.SonomaWineGrape.org, Food & Wine magazine, “Great Wine Made Simple” by Master Sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson, MasterSommeliers.org, WineSpectator.com glossary, Wikipedia.com, and GetCurrentFast.com “field researchers.”