How to Taste Wine Like a Pro

Ever feel like the pros at wine tastings are speaking their own secret language? In a way, they are. Learn the ins and outs of “tasting grids,” which set the standard for how we evaluate wines and the words we use to talk about them.

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Ever wonder how the pros tackle a wine tasting?

Whether it’s the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) Systematic Approach to Tasting, the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Deductive Tasting Format or any other wine education system, most have a common element: The tasting grid.

The tasting grid provides a guide for an objective description of a wine’s character and quality. While there are differences between various grids, they allow the taster to gauge a wine based on appearance, nose and palate, which leads to an unbiased conclusion of quality, age and development.

So how do wine tasting grids work, and what should you do when you approach a new pour?

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Judging appearance

The first step is to look at the wine against a white backdrop, like a blank piece of paper. This ensures that wines are not distorted by external colors.

In addition to the color, there are various levels of intensity to gauge. White wines gain color as they age, ranging from lemon and gold to dark caramel. By contrast, reds lose color and intensity with age, as they progress from purple to ruby to deep tawny. So while a typical aged Barolo might be described as pale or medium garnet (a hue between ruby and tawny), a young Australian Shiraz may lean toward deep purple or ruby.

Approaching the nose

Here’s where it starts to get fun. First, you swirl. Swirling allows for increased oxygenation, which can bring out more complex secondary aromas.

The first assessment is to determine if the wine is clean or faulty. Faults can include excess levels of brettanomyces, cork taint, volatile acidity or oxidization. Once you’ve determined a wine is free of faults, the next step is to gauge intensity.

Intensity is usually measured on a scale of low, medium or high. If you can smell a wine from a few inches away, it’s generally regarded as high intensity. If you must put your nose slightly inside the glass, that would equate to a medium intensity. Medium-minus and medium-plus cover the ranges in-between. If you can detect the wine’s aroma with the glass just below your nose, it might be considered medium-plus.

Aroma characteristics are where much obscure wine-geek jargon originates. Aromas of pencil shavings, cat pee, rubber hose or wet dog? The tasting grid tries to eliminate these subjective and eccentric descriptors with specific, standardized terms for each aroma cluster.

Wine tasting notes
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Evaluating the palate

The description of the palate, or what you taste, is by far the most in-depth category. A complete tasting note would include levels of sweetness, acid, tannin, alcohol, body and intensity. Once again, these are all graded at low, medium and high levels, with plus or minus used as modifiers for the medium range. Flavor characteristics and finish are factored in as well.

With flavor, the wine is to be described in terms of primary attributes like fruit, floral, herbal or spice. Secondary characteristics include oak, earth, and flavors that result from production techniques like malolactic fermentation and lees contact. Tertiary factors can be bottle age, oxidation and long-term fruit development. Just as with the aroma descriptions, fruit should be organized in clusters.

For example, a young Napa Cab could boast black fruit flavors (black cherry, blackcurrant), where a Sonoma Coast Pinot would more likely exude red fruit character (red cherry, strawberry and raspberry).

Once you’ve nailed down the flavor profile, determining the length of the finish and the wine’s overall complexity is the final step.

Drawing conclusions

For the Court of Master Sommeliers’ grid, there are two conclusions to be drawn. The initial conclusion is to deem a wine as Old World or New World, examining the type of climate, possible grape varieties and country of origin. This gives way to a final assessment of vintage, grape, country, region and designation.

The WSET conclusion starts with an assessment of quality and readiness to drink. That leads to a similar final assessment of grape variety and origin, but also includes style and method of production.

While some variance exists between programs, the premise remains the same for any tasting grid. Dissecting a wine using a formal system based on sight, smell, taste and feel can be equal parts art and science, but the first time you’re able to guess a vintage or variety at a blind tasting accurately, the payoff is worth it.

Check out these samples of the WSET and Court of Master Sommeliers tasting grids, and see if you can taste like a pro at home.

A Joseph Drouhin Wine Dinner Hosted by GlenArbor GC

Wine pairing dinners are popping up all over the culinary world these days. No longer are they limited to high end restaurants or wineries. You can find these carefully curated menus matched alongside their perfect wine counterparts at such venues as local pubs, car dealerships, real estate openings, corporate functions and most recently country club dining rooms.

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I attended such a dinner at the scenic GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills which featured the wines of Joseph Drouhin. With club members expressing an interest in overall wine exposure and education, ownership brought a Certified Sommelier on board to help quench that thirst. Fernando Silva, a Master Somm in training, has overhauled the club’s entire wine list and worked diligently to put together this event showcasing the 2011 vintage of selected Drouhin wines as well as the culinary creations of GlenArbor’s kitchen.

In keeping with a Burgundy themed evening, the Chef prepared a menu highlighting a few traditional French dishes including a celeriac risotto with marrow accent, a local striped bass dish and crepinettes of guinea hen alongside a guinea hen roulade. While there was some confusion regarding which wines were to be paired with which dishes for the first couple of courses, it did not seem to bother the members who appeared more than content with the wines in their glasses as well as the quality of dishes being served.

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The white wine selections for the evening were the Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault and the very impressive Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru all from the 2011 vintage. The Batard was quite a treat, as there is not much wine to come out of this small Grand Cru vineyard. Layered and complex with notes of honey, lemon, and tropical fruits playing beautifully off the buttered toast, smoky oak and nutty backbone. It possesses amazing structure and length as well. While tasting through these whites, Laurent Drouhin (a Westchester resident) expressed his passion for not only his wines but for the region in general. His motto was “If you can’t come to Burgundy, Burgundy comes to you” when tasting his Drouhin wines.

The reds were up next and they were all served alongside the duo of guinea hen main course. Choosing to serve three wines with basically one dish was a little unorthodox, but in this relaxed environment where everyone knows and seems to enjoy one another’s company, it was not an issue. The Gevrey-Chambertin was showing nicely already with forward cherry and fresh strawberry fruit laced with hints of peppery spice and vanilla. The famed Clos des Mouches wine started a bit musty and gamey. However with some time the dark berry fruit, classic minerality and licorice nuances came about giving it a good amount of charm while displaying that classic Burgundy terroir.

But the wine of the night was easily the 2011 Echezaux. It took about 2 hours to finally show its true colors, but when it did it was truly stunning. Offering aromas of dried red cherry and berry, plum and raspberry with intensely fragrant notes of rose petals and sage. It maintained elegance and balance that only a well made Echezaux can, and is clearly a wine for the cellar as it will age over the next decade or more.

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On top of the quality wines being served, what the members seemed to enjoy most was the explanations and descriptions of the wines given by Laurent. He provided insight into the vineyards, the winemaking process and his family history giving those in attendance a glimpse into the Drouhin way of life. Since Laurent is not only a Westchesterite, but a golfer as of a few years ago (and apparently he has been bitten by the bug pretty seriously), everyone seemed to relate to one another on some level and enjoyed the vibe of the evening.

Golf and wine are a perfect pairing of passions for many, so why not indulge in both all in the same day?! However it’s not as easy as it may seem to pull off.  The club needs a kitchen staff that has the skill to execute a serious dinner service and put together an appropriate menu. Some high quality juice needs to be served, preferably with a host that can entertain and educate the members throughout the course of the evening. But the most important factor is the desire of the members to act on their passion and create an environment where wine becomes a priority within the workings of the club. If that all adds up, you have a pretty special scenario that can lead to some wonderful culinary experiences.

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