User Avatar

Nic's Wine Club

WINE 101 - How to taste

Nicolas Rezzouk
Nicolas RezzoukPublished on March 24, 2021

Darn writing is not easy. I had about 10 billion words down on this subject the other day and re reading it today, I just deleted everything. It was rubbish, nonsense and not even useful to anyone. The only thing I'll keep is this:

"An awful lot of words have been written and said about the tasting of wine. One of the most useful and accessible (and most SEO friendly) place to seek out general advice on wine is Madeline Puckette's Wine Folly and they have a brilliant, concise and ultra clear description of how to taste wine like a pro. No really. That's how they do it (that's how I do it too)."

But the one thing I have been mulling over since wanting to write about this subject is that there is most definitely so much more to it than that; if you really delve in and seek out "the truth" I mean. So let's write another 10 billion useless words.

The look? Yes, it is important. If you ordered a Sauvignon Blanc and it looks like the morning urine that comes out when you're thinking "I should have drunk more water yesterday", it's probably worth pointing that out in no uncertain terms to your waiter (because something might be very wrong with your wine). Somms use colour as an indication of what the wine might be when they're having fun with their mates but otherwise, they want to make sure that what you asked for is in good condition... or the right wine for that matter.

Smell? Now that's the MOST important if you ask me. The reason wine pros spend all this time sniffing is because that's where you get the majority of the info (and a fair bit of the pleasure too) from the wine. Your nose gives you the flavours and aromas. Not the mouth. Cherries, apple, horseshit... if you don't have your nose, you wouldn't know. Sniff it!

Taste? Well duh! Nah seriously, when you eat or drink something, your airways still operate and provide you with that all-important olfactory data. But your tongue, cheeks and gums add an extra layer. Sweetness, acidity, saltiness, tannins and umami. That's all you get from your palate but that's a lot and it's important. How does a wine feel? Weight, balance, start-middle-finish.... More on this soon.

Brain... now that might seem evident but most of us discard that bit too hastily I reckon. When you're listening to a tune for the first time, you have to use your brain to decide if you like it or not. If you don't, I've got nothing else to tell you, go back to playing Coldplay on Alexa. Everything else is the same. Pay attention to your sensations, be present, in the moment, if only for a few seconds and try to make sense of what's happening. What do you like, what do you not like about this experience? Make a mental note.

So we've covered the basics. But what makes the world of wine such a thing that sends people mad, arguing on twitter (when do they not?), spending huge sums of money etc? On the latter, sure there's the supply/demand rule that applies to rare items, but these have had to establish themselves at the top of the quality scale first. So how to taste wine not so much like a pro, but like a wine lover? Follow me.

That brain part is key. Sensations, awareness, focus. A good wine has so much going on, you could spend a long time just sniffing it you would keep discovering new things. A bit like a really good whisky, the true meaning is on the nose. Fruity? yes. What kind of fruit? What state they're in? Young, cooking, liqueured, ripe, unripe...rotten? is there something else than fruit? A bit like.... stone? Earth? is it nice and pleasant though? Yeah? cool... keep digging. Anything.... savoury, like salt, meat, cured meat, almost feral? or is it more like the sea breeze and the iodine? Is there wood/toasted wood? Cream/butter? Any spice? All of this things can find their way in a good wine.... together!!! Summon your inner Sherlock Holmes, not because a crime as been committed, but because a game is being played and you want in.

And there is more to consider. Always go back to your enjoyment. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much fun are you having? Because a symphony is not gauged by the number of instruments and musicians in the orchestra but by its tempo, its composition. Where does it take you? When it's finished, have you ended up somewhere else than you started? How far away? And was it fun?

A truly good wine, worth paying good money for, will have something to say every step of the way...and so long as you're present, that you're paying attention, the best wines will not require you to know much about wine or to make tremendous efforts. Here's a little tale:

"I am having a stroll, on a sunny Spring day in the countryside, some flowers are blooming, other plants have the nascent buds showing timidly. It's early morning so the humidity is dense underfoot. But the sun has some warmth already. The air is lifting, carrying scents with it. Grass, earth... I bite into an apple as a snack, fully ripe and juicy. The flesh and juice are sweet, the skin is bitter and chewy. I'm going up that hill, the morning is getting drier and warmer, I have a ripe peach next. At the top of the hill, the wind carries subtle fragrances while I bite into my buttery sandwich. It's a long way down, I remember the view at the top while I discover another side of the hill, different plants, different people even. When I get back to my car, or home, I am not the same person anymore. Something has changed, just a bit." That could be a tasting note.

There are the things you can describe in one world, and there are the sensations that take full sentences and paragraphs to communicate accurately. Nobody ever indulge in the latter that much unless they are writers like Ernest Hemingway. So when you read someone's tasting notes, know that it's about 5% of what the wine can offer. All the bits in between, it's for you to take on that journey and carve your own path. Who will you be when you come out on the other side?

Tonight, I am lucky enough to have 6 wines from the Northen Rhone valley in France to taste, 2 whites and 4 reds. All 3 reds are made from the same grape, Syrah... but taste really different from each other. Same place...ish, same grape...ish... What's the trick? The truth lies in the -ish. The place where the vines grew is a few kilometers away, they weren't planted at the same time, the way the grapes have been handled to make wine is slightly different. So many things come into play to make a wine taste the way it does. Pinot Noir isn't just Pinot Noir. I love what Pinot Noir can do, and some Pinot Noir wines I despise.

Go on a journey, have a leap and discover. It's not as predictable as Coldplay, but it's a ton more fun.


PS: Not all wines will provide you with that kind of journey unfortunately. But more on that in a future missive.

Nic's Wine Club Newsletter

Get occasional updates from Nic's Wine Club in your inbox