You like wine but want to learn more, especially about the sometimes confusing world of appreciating wine through tasting. Maybe you think learning to taste wine is hogwash, and you know what wine tastes like already. In reality, appreciating the full character of the myriad different wines from different places requires practice. What’s the best way to start a wine tasting education? Let’s explore this topic in two parts, starting with how the 19th century French approached wine tasting. In the second part, we’ll explore what happened in the 20th century and current trends in learning wine tasting.
There’s general consensus, and there has been for at least a couple of centuries, that appreciating a wine means evaluating it. This includes not only the flavors of a red wine, white wine, or rose, but also its color and clarity in a clean, clear glass, how it smells (the aroma or bouquet), and also its feel (or shape) in the mouth, including acidity, tannins, sugar, alcohol, and body. Harmony, complexity, and balance should enter the picture as well. For sparkling wine too, the bubbles are important: fine or coarse, numerous, persistent, or fleeting. The finish is incredibly important for all wines. Finish refers to the length of the wine’s endurance in the mouth and any changes that occur during that period. One wine magazine critic, who has tasted tens of thousands of wines to score them on a 100-point scale, told me that for him the finish is the most important aspect of wine tasting. But don’t let all these categories worry you, the most important thing is your personal sense of taste (combined with being open) and its development.
Four kinds of occasions come to mind for wine tastings: formal evaluation or analysis (where you spit the wine out, for the sake of science); organized wine tastings, which may also have a social or travel aspect to them (you may spit or not); at social gatherings (you swallow); and in restaurants. Each one has a somewhat different purpose. For the latter, you’re looking to detect faults in the wine, not deciding if you like it or not after ordering. For the other three, relax, enjoy the process, and be ready to be pleased and surprised, or even astonished, as plucky wine writer Andrew Jeffords has put it. In fact, when you order wine online, or pick out a wine bottle in a store, look for potential astonishment, not only what you’re already accustomed to.
I’m afraid a kind of hegemony has set in, or is setting in, in terms of a standardized, formulaic, and even trademarked approach to wine tasting that express a single, elitist viewpoint. Others wine experts are too. So don’t feel intimated or even that you must learn a system. As Jeffords says, “It’s easy to use a received language of wine and assume that it has universal meaning. It doesn’t.” Before getting to that, however, let’s first go over some of the different approaches out there. Then, you decide on your personal approach.
How the French Used to Drink Wine (and Maybe Still Do)
In 19th century France, wine tasting (or degustation du vin) was already established as a professional activity, but becoming increasingly popular in terms of the dos and don’ts and understanding the wine appreciation experience. The Livre de poche du négociant en vins et spiritueux (Handbook for a Wine & Spirits Trader) published in 1870 provides a good example, especially if you want to order wine online from the best California wine store and then transport yourself to another time while sampling different wine bottles.
The book describes proper wine tasting in minute detail. “The wine,” it says, “introduced into the fore-mouth, with the head and face tilted towards the earth, makes the inner edges and tip of the tongue feel all its acid, sweet, astringent flavors.” Note that we go straight to drinking, placing of wine-in-mouth, not prior observation of the wine in the glass. “All these nuances combined,” the Pocketbook goes on, “must please the body by not letting acid, sugar or astringency (stiptic) dominate.” That’s a reference to what we might call the wine’s balance, and it’s based on bodily sensation, no mention of flavors or aromas. Next, the head is raised and the wine passes to the back of your mouth. This is where the “alcoholic weakness or strength makes itself felt; this is where the taste of the terroir, the blandness of the salts, the bitterness, the tastes of cask or cork are appreciated.” Here, we move to noting the wine’s flavor (not flavors), but without naming it, based on personal, physical sensations.
“If all the flavors please the back of the mouth through the absence of any unpleasant impression, to complete the wine tasting, it is necessary not to reject the wine by spitting it out, but to swallow it,” says the author. Swallowing, in 1870s France, was an essential aspect of wine tasting. This was because “as soon as the wine crossed the base of the tongue” you receive what today we call the retronasal aromas: “a very pronounced odor rises from the pharynx in the nasal cavities and brings new revelations there, more powerful than those of the outer flair, on the qualities or defects of the wine's bouquet.” The Pocketbook pauses on this theme because of the importance of the finish. The wine “leaves a long impression of flavor which, when that it is disagreeable, is designated by the name of déboire (disappointment).”
We’re almost done, but note that the description is becoming more literary, more metaphorical, based on bodily responses in the mouth and nose. The author finally gets to previously-unmentioned color and clarity, but almost as an aside. “If therefore a wine is of perfect clarity and of a frank color, if its smell is pleasant, if all the acid, sweet and astringent flavors are pleasing to the fore-taste by a fusion that seems to form a single unique flavor among many, of a perfect harmony; if to this first unique harmony, the after-palate adds a sensation of heat and vinous richness without the alcohol being identifiable there; if finally the swallowing crowns everything with a real bouquet without being followed by any disappointment, the wine is really good.”
In Part Two, we’ll move onto the 20the century approach to learning wine tasting promoted by the WSET and also examine current trends and concepts. Did you like learning about different options for learning to taste wine? Check out Bottle Barn’s other informational wine articles and please comment below!
By Charlie Leary