Assessing and appreciating wine is a sensory experience. This process introduces wine to four of our five senses: Vision (sight), Olfaction (smell), Gustation (taste) and Tactition (feel). Auditory senses are only used to gauge a wine by hearing the crack of a screw cap, pop and fizz of a bottle of sparkling or listening to the opinions of fellow tasters.
Temperature can have a big influence on the way wine tastes. Australians often serve their whites too cold and their reds too warm. White wines should be served at temperatures between 2-10ºC and 12-18ºC for red wine – noticeably below the average room temperature in Australia. When white wine is served too cold it dulls the aroma and reds may seem harsh on the palate.
Glassware is important when it comes to appraising wine. A clear glass will let light interact with the liquid and 30ml is usually enough to taste the wine. Holding the glass by the stem rather than the bowl allows for an uninterrupted view but also reduces the amount of light loss in the wine. Holding the stem also prevents the warmth from hands altering the temperature of the wine.
In scoring wines, wine show judges give greater weight to certain senses. Sight receives the fewest points total whereas taste is by far the most important and accounts for half of the available points for competing wines.
Sight/Appearance - 3 points
To assess a wine’s appearance you should tilt the glass on a 45º angle against a white background. Look for differences in colour between the core and the rim. As wines age they lose some vibrancy in colour and slowly takes on a slightly brownish hue. Young white wines appear green and red wines start their life as purple or crimson in colour.
Sight tip: The appearance should be clear and bright, not cloudy or hazy. Don’t spend too much time looking at the wine unless it’s an old wine that has been cellared. For sparkling wine a steady stream of persistent, fine bubbles in the glass is a good indicator of quality.
Smell/Nose - 7 points
Before smelling the wine swirl it around in the glass to make sure the wine fully releases its aromas. Hold the glass by the stem or base so the wine maintains the temperature at which it was poured and that the bowl remains clean and clear. Swirl the glass so that the wine covers the inside walls but doesn’t spill.
Smell the wine with 2-3 full quick sniffs. Be aware that continually sniffing the wine may lead to confusion or fatigue. If this happens, it’s best to rest and smell your skin to readjust. The aroma should be clean and fresh and if the wine is young the characteristic scents associated with the variety should be noticeable. For example, Riesling smells of citrus fruit, Chardonnay often smells like peaches and melons, Shiraz often smells of blackberries and spice, while Cabernet Sauvignon smells like blackcurrants and herbs. After assessing the make a note of the aroma and bouquet.
Smell tip: Practice by swirling on a flat surface so as not spill the wine. Also, a well-travelled sense of smell will help. Take note of smells in the kitchen such as vegetables, fruit and bread or in the garden such as flowers, grass and herbs. With practice, the aromas present in wine will become more familiar and easier to detect.
Taste/Palate – 10 points
Take a mouthful and, through the teeth, suck in some air. Swirl the wine so that the inside of the mouth is covered. For a large selection of wines or a formal tasting, spitting the wine is recommended to keep a clear head. For smaller tastings, or when the wine is particularly fine or rare, then swallowing is often the norm. As with the nose, make a record of impressions of the wine.
The dominant tastes and odours are best detected with an empty mouth, as the volatile chemicals will rise through the retronasal passage. As the wine warms, swallowed vapours will also rise up for further odour detection. Many perceived tastes are actually more related to a sense of smell.
Taste tip: If tasting several wines place and taste them in a logical and orderly fashion. Whites before reds, dry wines before sweet, light-bodied before full-bodied. In formal tastings, wine is always tasted from left to right.
Tasting will also reveal the wine's texture: whether it is thin, luscious, smooth, dry or astringent (excessive tannin) or hot (high alcohol).
If a red wine leaves your mouth excessively dry it means the tannins have negated he lubricating effects of saliva. This can often mean that the red has good cellaring potential.
How Show Judges Score Wines
Wine Show Judges score each wine out of 20 points, comprising of:
3 points for sight – clarity, depth, intensity. Wines generally always receive a score of ‘3’ for colour unless they’re faulty (cloudy or hazy).
7 points for nose – initial aroma, bouquet, fruit character.
10 points for palate – flavour, complexity, balance and length.
Wine Show medals are awarded according to the following scores:
Gold-medal 18.5–20.0 points
Silver-medal 17.0–18.4 points
Bronze-medal 15.5–16.9 points
Very good wine for its class
Remember that tasting wine is one of life’s pleasures and it should be fun. Tasting is subjective and each taster is different. Practice smelling in the kitchen and garden and try to get a system of making notes when tasting wines to remember initial impressions of sense. Don’t forget to enjoy the experience.
And one final tip: A Gold Medal winning wine may be stylistically correct, but the styles e.g. Sparkling Red, may not appeal to all palates. It’s difficult to appreciate a wine if the particular variety doesn’t appeal. A wine taster must know their own palate as they are the only judge that counts.