by Henk Botes

Learning to appreciate wine is similar to learning to appreciate music or art – the pleasure you receive depends on the effort you put in.

Following a few basic guidelines will go a long way to enhancing your wine-tasting experience, starting with the way in which you hold the glass: Always hold the glass by the stem, else the heat from your hand may warm the glass and alter your experience of the wine.

The first step in the process is to hold the glass in front of your eyes at a slight angle so that you can get a view of the wine's colour and clarity – doing so in front of a white background is all the better. Cloudiness indicates faulty or unfiltered wine. A younger wine is lighter in colour while an older wine's colour is deeper and richer.

Give the glass a gentle twirl with your wrist, making sure that the entire bowl is covered by the wine. The droplets formed on the inside of the glass are called "legs" and are used to determine the wine's body – thin legs indicate a light-bodied wine while thicker legs imply a fuller-bodied wine. The "body" of the wine describes the feeling of the texture of the wine in your mouth – full-bodied wines have a bolder taste while light-bodied wines are more refined. Wines with high alcohol content show more droplets than wines with a lower alcohol content.

Swirling the wine in the glass allows the taster to experience the full aromatic spectrum of the wine. The movement of the wine in the glass increases the wine’s exposure to oxygen, enhancing the aromas. To experience the "nose" of the wine, place your nose over the edge of the glass and keep your mouth open while sniffing deeply. Repeat the exercise after a few moments and try to identify familiar aromas. General terms to describe the aroma of a wine are words like "floral", "fruity" or "earthy". An unpleasant musty smell indicates that the wine has been "corked", meaning that a fungus has contaminated the cork and therefore also the wine.

The first sip of the wine should be accompanied by an intake of air, an action called "trilling", which aerates the wine and releases the aroma. The wine should be rolled over the tongue for a number of seconds before it is swallowed. Exhaling through your nose as you swallow will enhance the taste experience further. Swishing the wine around the entire mouth is an action called "chewing", which assists the drinker to experience the flavour of the wine through the nasal cavity via retro-olfaction (smelling through the mouth).

A wine's taste is comprised of flavour and structure. Structure refers to the major elements that can be assessed when tasting a wine: acidity, sweetness, body, alcohol and tannin: 

  • Acidity often makes wines seem lighter, drier and tart or sour. The more the wine makes your mouth water when tasting, the higher the wine’s acidity.
  • Sweetness refers to the presence or absence of sugar, ranging from dry (no perceptible sugar) to sweet.
  • Body refers to the amount that a wine fills up your mouth (mouthfeel) and sits on your tongue (weight).
  • Higher-alcohol wines will be fuller-bodied, and lower-alcohol wines will be lighter-bodied.
  • Tannins are polyphenols found in grape ligature (skins, seeds, leaves and stems) and oak. They coat the mouth and leave a drying sensation.

To evaluate the wine, determine how long the aroma of the wine stays in your mouth after your last sip, the longer the aroma lingers, the better the quality of the wine.

Now all that is left for you to do is to pop down to your nearest tasting venue or function and start enjoying you new-found knowledge.

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