Picture this; some smartarse has plonked an unknown glass of wine down in front of you and said, “Right then, tell me about this.” God I hate it when that happens. You’re trapped, but you have three options.
Adopt a wide-eyed look of studied innocence, glance upward slowly at your halo and announce, “I am so sorry, the Chief Medical Officer was right and I cannot allow a drop of this, the greatest evil the world has ever seen, to pass my lips.” Yeah, right. Like that’s going to happen.
Grasp the glass like an old friend, raise it to your mouth and lower its contents at a gulp. Beam at your tormenter and announce brightly, “It’s wine!” They will think that you are a tit.
Go through a few tried and tested motions in a relaxed, confident manner and demonstrate that, even if you are unable to identify it, you clearly know what you are doing. Beaten at their own game, they will dissemble uncomfortably and back off leaving you conspicuously the better person.
The following sequence can be carried out quite quickly without any of the dramatic gestures, rolling eyes, exaggerated throat gurgles and loud hums of lavish appreciation that TV producers seem to require from their favourite wine bods. You can, in fact, remain reassuringly normal.
Take a look at the wine; reds get paler as they mature, whites become darker. Density can give clues about fullness in reds. Is it bright and clear or dull, even cloudy? Are there any bubbles yet your wine isn’t a sparkler? Are there any little particles suspended in the wine - if it is bottled unfiltered this may not be a problem, if not it might be. If red is it purple/black or garnet or somewhere inbetween? If white is it water pale or gold or a shade between the two?
Gently swirl the wine and look for “tears” on the sides of the glass; this can point out alcohol content and/or viscosity. Before you move to the next stage you already have clues to the condition, body, possible age and a guess at sweetness/dryness from a glance.
Time to employ your hooter - this is the really important bit. First check for faults - does it smell clean? If not, does it smell musty like wet cardboard or old damp cellars? If it does it’s probably corked. Does it smell a bit like Sherry or Madeira? If it does and it is neither of those delightful drinks, then it is likely that the air has got to it and it has become “madeirised”. Is there an acetic, vinegar-like odour? This usually indicates microbial spoilage, not as has been supposed before, a strange prog rock band from 1971, but contamination by bacteria.
Does it remind you of another fruit? Different grape varieties suggest, say, blackcurrant or plum in red wine or perhaps gooseberry, lemon or apricot in white. Are there any floral components - maybe a touch of elderflower or eucalyptus, perhaps green leafy aromas? Can you smell oak? Look for vanilla or woody spice like a hint of cinnamon. What other aromas can you find - mushroom, leather, mocha?
Do any of these help you to identify a grape variety, or varieties in combination? Look out for the signature aromas to match to a grape name; it takes time and experience but you never stop learning which is the perfect excuse to keep practising. It is unhelpful to generalise too much but, to illustrate, watch for blackcurrant in Cabernet Sauvignon and nettley/gooseberry aromas in Sauvignon Blanc.
Is the aroma mild or intense, subtle or in your face? Is it straightforward and fruity or more complex? Are there mineral notes or honeyed, glycerin aromas indicating ripeness and/or dryness/sweetness?
In a couple of sniffs you can add to or confirm what your eyes have told you in phase one;
you now know if it’s in good nick, you have clues to the maturity and grape variety/ies, an evolving idea of the quality and expectations of fullness/lightness, as well as sweetness/ dryness. With experience the sum of these details may give you pointers to the country and even region of origin and you haven’t even tasted it yet.
Next, use your palate to confirm the above and assess the flavour which is made up of other influences beside taste. Different parts of the mouth are particularly adept at recognising acidity, sweetness, alcohol and tannin; where do you feel them most?
Is it high or low in acidity? Is it sweet or dry? Is it full-bodied or lighter? Do you think that there is any oak present, or clearly high or markedly low alcohol content? Is it generously fruity or more austere? Do you find it instantly agreeable or is it a more subtle wine that grows on you?
If it’s red you will detect the presence of tannin, a compound found in the skin of red grapes which is what can make your teeth feel furry. Contrary to popular, inexperienced opinion this is not usually a negative thing as it is a natural preservative, important in red wines destined for laying down and adds texture to the palate.
Does the flavour linger or fade away quickly? The flavour that remains after your mouth is clear is called the finish and a long finish is an indicator of quality.
Finally, add it all up. The first question is, quite simply, do you like it? What is it that you particularly enjoy or dislike? Would you drink it on its own, with food or both? If you reckon that it’s a food wine, with what dish do you think it might work best? Is it worth the money?
Please note that this is not intended as a fully comprehensive, meticulously ordered, all-covering set of instructions. This is merely a somewhat random list of pointers to help you get a little more out of a glass of wine. If it starts a little spark of extra interest and encourages you to want to learn more then it’s done its job.
Above all, keep tasting different wines. Try outside your comfort zone. Have fun!