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Wine tasting basics: describing the smell, the flavour and the texture

Wine maker, Jonathan Hesford, tells us how to describe wine and why we prefer one wine to another

As the wine warms up in the mouth it also releases new aromas Pic: stockfour / Shutterstock

It recently occurred to me that I have written lots of detailed articles about why wines taste the way they do but not about the basics of tasting, and appreciating wine. 

So here goes.

When we talk about the taste of a wine, we actually mean three different things. 

The smell, the flavour and the texture. 

Almost everyone can smell and taste, but not that many people would describe themselves as experts when it comes to wine tasting. 

I’ve often heard the phrase “I don’t know much about wine but I know what I like”. 

Most people can say whether they like a wine or not, even if they can’t explain why. 

More often than not, it’s the texture of the wine that makes people like or dislike it, not the aroma or taste, but let’s cover those two first.

Start with the smell

Appreciating a wine begins with smelling the aromas in the glass. 

Our noses can detect and identify thousands of different chemical compounds. Our sense of smell is closely linked to our memory. 

When we smell something, our brain searches through its database of memories to try to identify it. 

That’s why when describing wines we will say “It smells like...” something we have smelled before. 

We each have different memories, built up from experience. 

We each identify the smells that trigger our memories most quickly and strongly. 

So one person may say a wine smells of strawberries while another may say vanilla. 

They are both right. 

Often it is difficult to recognise smells because they may be either quite delicate or our memory is weak in that area. 

Wine aromas fall into groups

Professional wine-tasters use long crib-sheets to help them but a simpler, more useful way of working out what we are smelling in a wine is to decide which group of smells it belongs to. 

The aromas for wines fall into the following groups. 

  • Fruits, including berries, citrus, stone-fruits and tropical as well as dried and cooked fruit.

  • Meat and dairy, such as bacon, leather, wool, butter, yoghurt, boiled eggs and cream

  • Spices, which include things like cloves, vanilla, caramel, toast and coffee

  • Herbaceous, which could be various herbs, plants or vegetables, green pepper for example

  • Floral, including honey and dried flowers

  • Other things like vinegar, burnt rubber, wax and petrol 

Whether those smells you identify make you like or dislike a wine is personal and the relative concentrations are important. 

Neither too delicate nor overbearing.

Taste is next step

Our tongues can detect a combination of just four tastes – acidity, sweetness, bitterness and saltiness. 

Wine doesn’t generally have any saltiness so our appreciation of a wine is about it having a good balance of the other three. 

People often say they like wine to be smooth, which means not too much acidity, no bitterness and just a little sweetness. 

That applies whatever the colour, although white wines can handle more acidity and red wines a touch of bitterness. 

We still smell wine in our mouths

Flavour is a combination of these tastes and the retro-nasal smell. 

We are still smelling wine when it’s in our mouths. 

The aromas go back up our noses from the back of the palate and we can detect different characters from those we found by sniffing. 

As the wine warms up in the mouth it also releases new aromas. 

That’s why some wine-tasters will slurp air while tasting and why it’s important to keep the wine in your mouth while tasting, instead of swallowing it straight away.

Wines feel different in the mouth

Last and by no means least is the texture – or “mouthfeel“ as wine professionals call it. 

As well as flavour, our mouths can evaluate the density and viscosity of liquids. 

This is what we mean by thin or heavy and why some wines may feel oily. 

Perhaps the most debatable characteristic of wine is what we call dryness. 

I don’t mean whether a wine has any sugar. I mean the sensation of drying of the inside of our cheeks and the coating of our tongue. 

It is caused by tannins in the wine, predominantly red wine. 

High tannin wines go well with food

The tannins combine with protein molecules in our saliva, making it feel less slippery and more coarse. 

Most people who are new to wine find this sensation unpleasant but it’s an important characteristic of red wines, especially when drunk with food. 

Food contains its own proteins and also stimulates saliva production, so the drying effect is reduced. 

In fact the tannins in red wine make protein-rich food like meat and cheese more palatable. 

It feels as if the wine is breaking down the food and making it feel less cloying, cleansing the palate. 

It is difficult to taste a red wine without food and decide whether you would like it served with a meal. 

Most people find the tannins too dominant to be able to assess the wine properly. 

Also, if you tend to drink red wine without food, you most probably prefer wines with low or softened tannins. 

Wine tasting is very different to wine drinking

I believe that the ability to appreciate tannins in red wine is an acquired taste, a bit like appreciating heat from chillies or the bitterness of coffee or beer. 

It takes a bit of effort and experience and lots of people never make that transition, which explains the popularity of soft and fruity wines over earthy, complex ones and why wine critics and experts tend not to enjoy the same wines that normal people do. 

Wine tasting is a fascinating experience which, for me, is quite distinct from drinking. 

Taking the time to discover all the various aromas, flavours and textures of the wines of the world and learning to appreciate the more esoteric aspects, like tannins and minerality, is what makes wine such a wonderful and interesting alcoholic beverage. 

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