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11.28.2004

Wine Tasting: My Techniques, Ratings, and Notes

A while back, someone who was interested in getting more formal about the way they taste wine asked me to tell them a little bit about how I do it -- my techniques, my ratings, etc. Here's a slightly extended version of my answer.

MY RATINGS
I use a 10 point system here at Vinography because that is the simplest system that makes sense to me. I don't believe in the 100 point rating system because, really, what is the difference between a 92 point and a 93 point wine? No one has ever been able to give me a reasonable answer to that question -- and certainly not one which I could then use to base my own judgments upon.

First, wine is so subjective and personal, and second, the enjoyment of it is so subject to the context of food, environment, emotion, etc. that rating it numerically is difficult enough to begin with -- trying to do it at a level of granularity required to support a 100 point rating scale amounts to splitting nonexistent hairs in my opinion.

My decision to use a 10 point system was based on the basic acceptance of the notion: "a perfect 10." Ten point rating systems seem to be very common across the globe for everything from gymnastics to scholastics. I briefly contemplated using the U.S. letter grading system (A thru F) but decided that might alienate some foreign readers, so 10 points is what I settled on. I use half points where necessary because there IS a fairly big difference between an 8 and a 9.

HOW I TASTE WINE
One of the most important things I do when I'm tasting wine seriously -- and by seriously I mean sitting down to taste 10 or more wines at a stretch, not just making notes about what I drank with dinner -- is prepare the day before. I have found that the amount of sleep I get the night before I taste makes a pretty significant difference in my sensory perception as well as the stamina of my palate.

I also try to taste after having eaten something, but not on a completely full stomach. When I'm going to wine tasting events, my favorite thing to do is eat a turkey and cheese sandwich (no onions) before I go. It's fairly neutral food, so it won't mess with my taste buds (onions, garlic, and very spicy foods will) and it keeps me from getting tipsy.

So when it comes to tasting, it's pretty simple. I make sure I have a clean glass, I pour a small amount of wine in the glass. I swirl it around to aerate it. I look at the color by tipping the wine glass away from me preferably against a light colored background. I stick my nose deep in the glass and smell the wine. I take a mouthful, swirl it around for a while. Sometimes its helpful to me to sort of gargle the wine in my mouth (with my lips closed) and exhale gently through my nose, which I find makes some flavors and aromas easier to pin down. Finally if I'm just tasting the wine for dinner, I swallow, but if I

At events where I'm tasting literally hundreds of wine, I like to eat mild cheese (often provided at such events), like Cheddar or Jack, to refresh my palate. I find that these cheeses clean my mouth of tannins from red wines as well as counter the acid from white wines.

MY TASTING NOTES
Some people use a specialized tasting form, but I tend to make notes about wines everywhere all the time, so I just keep a specific format to my notes and scribble them wherever is convenient -- my notebook, my PDA, on a napkin, etc.

First, I write down the year, the name of the wine, and the producers, as well as where it's from. Then I write:

Color:
Nose:
Body:
Score:
Price:

And I go about making notes next to each of those. In the section about the body of the wine, I also try to make notes about the finish (the aftertaste of the wine.

The other thing that I found helpful when I started doing more formal tasting is some sort of aroma wheel or card (there are various incarnations out there). I don't use one anymore mostly because I can't be bothered to drag one around with me all the time, but they are helpful. I'm considering designing a Vinography branded card that is sized so that it can be kept in a wallet or a purse easily.

FORMAL TASTINGS
I'm a huge advocate of formal blind tasting of wine, not just as the most objective way to evaluate wines, but as the best way to develop your palate and learn a lot about wines. Whenever I hold wine tasting evenings with my friends, we always taste blind (each person wraps the wine they bring in a paper bag, taped at the neck of the bottle).

I also recommend having as many glasses as you do wines to taste. This way you can go back to earlier wines as well as compare and contrast different wines together. The trick is keeping the glasses in the right order, and making sure everyone (if you're doing a group tasting) fills their glasses in the same order at the beginning.

I have no strong opinions about tasting glasses -- I don't buy into the commercial hype about "special" tasting glasses. I typically use Bordeaux or Burgundy style glasses which have rims that are somewhat smaller in diameter than the bowl of the glass, but are big enough for me to stick my (not so small) nose into.

FINAL SUGGESTIONS
When I first started doing this (being structured and disciplined about tasting wine) it seemed really geeky to me, and to a certain extent, it still does. It can be a little awkward when you're out with some friends or business colleagues, and if you're a little self-conscious it can be a bit embarrassing. I usually offer a slight self-deprecating apology about how I do this obsessively, I have a web site, blah blah, and just get it over with so that I can focus on the food and the company. When I was dating, I always tried to do it when my date went to the restroom, and if I couldn't I always tried to rope them into the process, so at least there weren't awkward moments where my date was sitting around waiting for me to finish my note taking.

You should go about tasting wine in whatever way is the most comfortable for you, and with the amount of formality that you think is appropriate. Being consistent about how you do it, however, will go a long way towards helping you improve you abilities to evaluate wines.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.