Tasting wine is a lot like golf or chess: You get better at it by doing it. As the astute wine writer Alexis Lichine noted, “I tell people to throw away the vintage charts and invest in a corkscrew. The best way to learn about wine is the drinking.”
Here are some general guidelines for improving your tasting skills:
*Aroma: Absolutely swirl and sniff, and don’t hurry it. There’s a strong relationship between what you smell and what you taste; some say as much as 80 percent. Smell is also the sense with the closest tie to memory; you might detect something from your childhood, like a summer-camp activity or a just-opened pack of baseball cards with bubble gum.
It’s perfectly fine to look for elements, but not always useful, especially since two people can get varying elements from the same wine because our palates all differ. Instead, look for focus, sharpness, distinctiveness, flaws and alcohol.
*Flavors/ripeness: Learn to discern ideal ripeness. Underripe fruit has a “green” aspect — unless it’s bell pepper :o) — or might taste “stemmy.” Overripe fruit can be treacly or cloying, and makes it very hard to discern other aspects of the wine, even the varietal: A fruit-bomb cabernet might taste just like a similar syrah or merlot.
How expressive is the fruit in particular and the wine in general?
Look for textural aspects such as acidity, minerality and tannin structure. Minerality is a feeling — of slate or gravel, for example — not a flavor. Acidity at its best is mouth-watering, whereas overly tannic wines leave the palate dry and “pucker.”
Is the wine firm or flabby?
*Balance/focus/harmony: Are the fruit, tannins and acidity/sweetness integrated? Does one of them (or alcohol) dominate? Does the wine “stop” in the mid-palate (what I call a doughnut wine, with a hole in the middle)? Does the wine seem focused or diffuse? Does it have “tension”?
*Character: How expressive is the wine? Does it have a sense of place/connectedness or does it seem generic (a la other food)? Does it have “personality”? How much intensity/power/concentration is there?
*Finish: Look here for balance and texture (silky, hearty, layered), plus of course length.
It’s OK if some of these elements are ambiguous. Some of the best wines are mysterious, coy, elusive. As wine savant Hugh Johnson said: “Great wines don’t make statements; they raise questions.”