If you are reading this, I do hope you’ve had the opportunity to read over the last couple of articles regarding the balance of wine and then my last article on why it is beneficial at times to avoid the "top-rated wines". Step outside of your comfort zones and try new wines from new regions. Compare a Pinot Noir from the Northern Coast of California and then another from Burgundy, New Zealand or the Yarra Valley in Australia!
Today, we’re going to go a little more in-depth. By the end of this article you'll be able to distinguish whether you have a good or bad wine in your glass and what exactly that means.
First we’ll start with the label
There are millions of wine labels from various regions in the world; these can be confusing and a little frustrating, especially when you do not know what they say. If you haven’t read the 101 Series on Wine Labels, that would help, but for now if you have an experienced wine merchant, just ask them for help deciphering the the text and what each section on the label means. If you’re familiar with the wine labeling practices of Europe and are an educated consumer, you can not always judge a wine by its cover. For example, just because it might read "Table Wine", does not mean it will not be good. Of course, it goes without saying that there are wines from wineries that have a long-standing reputation in which you can always count on good wines.
Visual Wine Inspection
First have a look at the wine in the glass. Hold it up to some light, or with a piece of white paper behind your glass, if the color is brown, this white wine is past its age (though there are exceptions, especially some late harvest wines or sweet wines). If the color and reflections are not clear and the wine appears dull, the wine is not healthy. Swirl the wine, and if it washes down the glass like water, this is not a good wine. Smell the wine, and if you notice it is corked or smells of anything like acetone (nail polish remover), the wine is off and there is no need to continue onto the tasting. Unless you wish to for education purposes. You cannot get sick from consuming these wines.
The next step is observing the wine in your glass.
For white wines - First of all, to properly taste a wine, it needs to be at it’s correct serving temperature depending on the grape and style. See the chart below. (Another article later on, we’ll talk about reds and rose wine.)
Proper Serving Temperature
i.e. Chardonnay, Viognier
53-54 F (13-14 C)
Medium-bodied, floral/fresh fruity
i.e. White Burgundy, Rhone Viognier, some fuller bodied Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, some Rieslings, etc.
50-52 F (10-12 C)
Light-bodied, bright/light aromatic/mineral/acidic wines
i.e. Sauvignon Blanc, Rieslings (not all), Gruner-Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Sauternes, northern Italian Pinot Grigio, etc.
47 - 48 F (8 - 9 C)
I must emphasize, that it is important to have your wine at the proper temperature in order to taste it correctly. The temperature ranges can be a little tricky, but after a while, you won’t need a number to see, but rather have a general idea by just holding the glass in your hand. One more tip before we start tasting. A white wine should never frost your glass. A lot of Sauvignon Blancs are served in this manner, however it is too cold to properly taste it. It is not meant to be served that chilled. However, before you tell your server they are doing the job poorly, if you just give it a couple minutes at room temperature it will warm quickly.
We talked before about a wine’s balance in a previous article. These are the elements we are going to analyse in the wine. This is basically the overall taste from the sip, to the general attack on you palate, its body, texture or mouthfeel and finish.
For light-bodied wines (mentioned in the temp. chart), when you taste a wine for the first time, it is important to ignore the first sip. This only sets your palate. A second sip will be more telling of the wine's character. So, on your second sip, take mental or written notes on how the wine feels in your mouth and where. In general, for these style of wines, you’ll have some mouthwatering on the sides of your palate and on the front of your tongue. If the wine is good, meaning well-made, neither of these regions of your palate should be stronger than the other. In conjunction with the rule for these wines not to chill your glass; if the wine is over-acidic and you cannot taste or perceive any mineral, floral or fruit essence, your wine is too cold. Furthermore, you might have some pooling in the center of your palate of certain minerality or fruit essences and it should continue until the finish. This style of white wine will generally leave your mouth watering with a lingering aroma or aromas called tertiary aromas. Good wines will have a lingering finish for 3 to 5 seconds longer. Your palate should feel clean on the finish, not cloying as if you’ve just have had a sugary drink.
For medium-bodied, Floral/Fresh Fruity Wines
These wines are going to give you a different perception, though there might be some similarities than the previously mentioned. Again, on your second sip, take note of what is going on and where on your palate. Notice any acidity "attacks" on the tip of your tongue and/or on the sides. Some of these wines will have only a slight perception on the front of your palate. The sides of your mouth should water, however, it might come off slightly sweeter than lighter-bodied whites. It may also be slightly tart. This is because some wines of this style will go through a secondary fermentation in which more tart acids are transformed into softer acid. The wine will pool more heavily than the first style of wine. A medium-bodied wine such as these may also be lightly oaked. You’ll notice the presence of an oaked wine when there is a presence of any dryness or tannin on the back end of your palate. However, it should not overpower the wine.
I like to say that oak for winemakers is like salt for chefs. If there is too much, it is unpalatable and not enjoyable. Some tannins will soften with age, however, if a wine is out of balance in any way due to over-oaking, the wine will never "correct itself" with age.
Tertiary aromas and tastes should linger three to five seconds longer after your sip. Sometimes it is longer as well, which can be very enjoyable. And just as the first wine, your palate should never have a cloying finish.
One thing about tertiary aromas and lingering flavors. Some wines can be "oaked" using chips or sometimes even liquid oak, which are basically liquid tannins. They are also often flavored. For these wines, if you notice anything overpowering of a certain flavor and/or aromas that seem to be almost separated from the wine, it is probably because these liquid tannins were used in its elaboration. For oaked wines such as these, aromas and flavors of heavy vanilla, cinnamon and other heavy-warm spices are a sign of a flavored wine. Aromas and flavors as this should be more subtle if made in the correct manner with real oak.
full-bodied and/or Oaky Wines
These wines will typically be full in fruitiness and may or may not be oaked. If it is oaked, it will be indicated on the label. As mentioned with the previous style of wine, oak presence can be noted at the back part of your palate. These wines can be slightly acidic on the initial impression, but typically of fuller, mouthwatering, creamier acidity noted on the sides of your palate from front to back and it will pool in the center. Any oaky or buttery sensations will be due to a secondary fermentation, which soften more tart acid in the wine and round out the palate to match the body of the fruits both in aroma and in flavor. Wines of fuller-body, which have been aged in stainless steel are often full in fruit with sometimes a slight lingering mineral aspect or light, fresh fruit essences. Most of these wines will round out from front to back and have an even feel from front to back. A good wine, unless it is exceptionally sweet, should not be sweet or cloying on the palate. Good acidity can still be maintained with present sweetness. It should be noted however, that some wines with even no residual sugar can be perceived as sweet due to higher alcohols present in the wine as bi-products of fermentation. Again, just with the other good wines of varying bodies and characteristics before, the aromas and flavors should linger for a few seconds.
I do hope this has been helpful in determining what makes a good wine. All of it is based on the components, which make up the body that have been previously mentioned in other articles; acid, alcohol, sugar and tannin. As always, you educate your palate the more you drink consciously. So please, as always, enjoy.