Updated: Jun 9, 2020
I recently visited a winery in Illinois. Yes, you read that correctly…in Illinois. Wineries seem to be popping up in every state. This particular winery was having a grape stomp and Lucille Ball look-alike contest. You know the episode where Lucy is stomping grapes? Hysterical!! We thought we’d enjoy the beautiful weather with a nice glass of wine while watching the look-alike Lucys stomping grapes. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.
This all went according to plan except for the nice glass of wine. We tried some tastings to figure out which ones we liked. However, the friends joining me have very specific tastes but had difficulty explaining what they liked and disliked.
I thought I could guide them by asking the right questions along with the help of the person sampling the wine. It was no use. They were not happy with any of the wine they tried. And yes, a big part of this could be the winery itself and the need to add a bit more – shall we say – finesse to the wine.
Regardless, all of this got me thinking about how best to describe wine. What are we actually tasting and what wine characteristics do we like and dislike? How do we understand this for ourselves and how do we explain this to wine experts so they can help guide us to the wine that we’ll enjoy?
First, we need to understand what we are tasting, then we can more easily put it into words. Let’s identify the different wine characteristics through this tasting method.
Identify Wine Characteristics
By taking the time to look, smell, taste, and evaluate our wine, we’ll learn so much more about wine and what we like and don’t like.
Understanding the colors of wine gives us many clues about the type of wine that is in our glass and how it was made.
White wine has a range of pale straw to deep yellow. The light end of the range indicates a cool climate wine which is likely more acidic. The deep yellow end of the spectrum reveals that the wine was aged in oak. Do you like an oak-aged white or do you prefer no oak or light oak?
Red Wine ranges from light ruby to dark plum. The light ruby color points to the light reds like Pinot Noir. A dark plum color points to a wine that’s on the heavier end of the spectrum like a Syrah.
Our sense of smell is a big part of how we taste and smelling wine gets us ready for tasting it. We can even start identifying the type of wine through its aroma.
White Wine ranges from fruit like pear and peach to floral and herbs. A Sauvignon Blanc is described as herbaceous and many Rieslings have pear and floral notes.
Red Wine ranges from red fruits like raspberries, strawberries to black fruits like blackberries. Pinot Noir has notes of red fruit, while Cabernet Sauvignon reveals notes of black fruit.
Identifying the overarching structure like acidity, bitterness, alcohol, sweetness, and body can all help to guide us away from the elements we don’t like and toward the elements we do.
Acidity is the sour puckering sensation you get when tasting something citrusy like a lemon or lemonade. In wine, this comes in a range of intensity. When the intensity is high it usually gives the wine a bright crisp fresh zip, but when the levels are too low the wine is considered flat or flabby. Cool climate wine tends to be more acidic than wine that comes from warm climates.
Tannins come from the skins and seeds of the grapes and create a drying, bitter sensation. This is found in red wines because the grapes, skins, and seeds are all fermented together.
Alcohol is created during the fermentation process when yeast “eats” the sugars. The amount of alcohol reveals itself as heat in your throat. Wine has a range of about 10-16% alcohol by volume. The lower the alcohol the sweeter the wine and vice versa with the higher the alcohol the drier the wine.
Sweetness is a function of the sugar level in the wine. The higher the sugar content in the wine the sweeter and if there is no sugar in the wine it is considered dry. The sweetness levels are described as bone-dry, dry, off-dry, sweet, or very sweet
Body references the weight of the wine. It can range from light-bodied to medium-bodied to full-bodied. It’s similar to how the weight changes in milk from skim to whole.
Finally, take a moment to consider how all of these elements come together. Evaluate overall how you like the wine and consider what characteristics you like and don’t like.
Wine Characteristics Simplified
To make this simple, learn what you like by using the 7 Noble Grapes as your baseline. By using the approach I’ve just outlined, you’ll have a good understanding of the different taste characteristics that you like and why. Then all you have to do at these tastings is explain that you prefer a Sauvignon Blanc or you really enjoy a Cabernet Sauvignon and ask what they have that is similar.
Then, when you sample the wine and you feel a strong sour pucker, you can ask if they have something a little less acidic.
You’ve got this! Taste, learn, and enjoy!