Julie Harrison - Wine Tasting, Sight And Smell

Publish Date
Tuesday, 19 July 2016, 12:29PM
Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

By Julie Harrison

Sight and smell are very important when wine tasting and experienced tasters can learn a lot a about a wine before they even have a sip.   When tasting wine make sure you are using a decent wine glass, have the wine at the correct temperature and have plenty of light.  Being able to look at the wine against a white background will help assess brightness and colour.   The first thing to look at is the clarity and brightness of the wine.  Wines that have spent time in oak or aged on lees may not be as bright as wine fermented and stored in stainless steel tanks and of course red wines are never as bright as whites due to the red pigments in the wine preventing light reflection.  A good example of a wine that should be very bright is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  Wineries also vary in how much final filtering they do with some producers believing that filtering takes out some of the interesting bits, so these wines will be less bright and you could expect more body and complexity.    If a wine has a distinct haze then it is probably faulty but this should not be confused with the sediment you might see in an aged red or tartrate crystals that you occasionally find in wine, both of which are harmless, natural wine components. 

Next up is Transparency.   White wine of course will be transparent but reds vary in transparency giving clues to variety and age.   A heavy red like an Australian Shiraz or Argentinean Malbec will be opaque and intense whereas a Pinot Noir will be much lighter and you will be able to see through it.   As red wine ages the colour pigments drop out of solution so the wine may become more transparent.  

You assess a wines primary colour by looking at it in the glass from above.  Holding the glass tilted against a white piece of paper will reveal the different colour hints.  White wines can range from very pale yellow with greenish hues through to gold and amber. Green hints in whites indicate a young wine from less ripe grapes from a cooler climate; again New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a good example of this.  Hints of gold indicate riper grapes from a warmer climate and the wine will have more fruity flavours.  Oak treatment can affect colour; a young unoaked Chardonnay is pale and bright but a young chardonnay that has been fermented in oak will be have golden hues and may be a bit duller.  As white wine ages it will develop a richer gold/amber colour.  Young Red wines go from purple/red when very young through ruby red and ultimately turn a brick red colour.   Rim variation can help with determining the age of a red wine.  Red wines 10 years or older will have a much deeper colour in the centre of the glass compared to at the rim.  Colour can indicate a fault in a wine in particular oxidation.  A white wine that is amber or brown is quite likely to be oxidised as is a red that is brick or brown in colour.  Swirl the wine in a glass and check out the viscosity of the wine.  You will see “tears” or “legs” form on the side of the glass.  If the tears are slow to move down the side of the glass it indicates high alcohol or residual sugar or both.

Now it is time to use your nose.  The taste of anything relies heavily on smell so the aroma is very important in the tasting process.   Give the wine a good swirl in the glass to release the aromas and get that nose in for a good sniff.   Do aromas leap out of the glass or are they more restrained?  Being restrained is not necessarily a bad thing; some wines just need time of open up.  Look for complexity, do you smell a range of aromas or is there one dominant scent? 

A wines aroma gives you some big clues to a wines variety, age and winemaking practices so here is a list of some classic aromas for the most common varieties:

  • Sauvignon Blanc - gooseberry, tomato leaf, bell pepper, passion fruit, canned asparagus.
  • Chardonnay – vanilla/toasted bread (if oaked),buttery (malolactic fermentation), stony (Chablis), melon, tropical fruit.
  • Riesling – flowers, lime, grapefruit, honey/petrol/kerosene (aged Riesling).
  • Pinot Gris – pear, apple, honeysuckle.
  • Gewurztraminer – lychee rose water, spice.
  • Shiraz (Australian) – blackberry, ripe berries, leather, chocolate, cigar box, vanilla, gamy, jammy (overripe).
  • Syrah (New Zealand) black pepper, white pepper, berry fruits, plum.
  • Merlot – plum, blackberry, violet, chocolate.
  • Pinot Noir – raspberry, black cherry, strawberry, plum, red cherry, forest floor, earthy.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – Blackcurrant, eucalyptus (Australian), mint, cigar box, plum, berry.
  • Tempranillo – strawberry, cherries, plum, herbs.
  • Malbec – blackberry, cherry, plum, leather.

Wine making treatments and aging confer different aromas to wines:

  • Bottled aged reds – cigar box, leather, mushroom, earthiness, truffle, gamey.
  • Bottle aged whites – honey, kerosene (Riesling) canned asparagus (NZ Sauvignon Blanc), figs
  • Malolactic fermentation – butter, cream
  • Oak treatment – Vanilla, coconut, toast, smokiness, butterscotch, pencil shavings, nutty

Faults of course can be identified by smelling the wine:

  • Mould/wet cardboard/damp cellar – corked wine.
  • Reduction – rotten eggs.
  • Band-aids, sweaty saddle, spice, mousy – Brettanomyces (yeast contamination).
  • Nail polish remover – volatile acidity.
  • Struck-match aroma – excess Sulphur Dioxide.
  • Apple, Roasted nuts – oxidation.

This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to descriptors for wine aroma but the good thing when wine tasting is you can’t really be wrong.  If you are under pressure to make an informed comment about a wines aroma the first thing that pops into your head when you smell a wine is probably the right answer. Next time it’s taste and touch.

Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you