Don’t Judge Me Mondays: Wine Tasting 101
My friend Betsy bought me a ticket to the “How to Taste Wine” class at The Pantry in Seattle as a birthday gift. The class was last week and it was an amazing gift! I love giving and getting experience gifts because you get to try something new and do it with a friend or loved one! I really enjoyed learning so much about wine tasting and it was fun joking and laughing with Betsy while I did it! After this class, I definitely plan on taking more at The Pantry!
Our instructor was Janet Beeby, a certified sommelier and founder of Pairable. While I’ve always appreciated sommeliers at restaurants, having Janet as an instructor really made me appreciate all of the vast knowledge a trained sommelier has! She shared so much great information about how to taste wine, the wine-making process, types of wines and food pairings. I’m going to share with you some of what I learned!
At the beginning, Janet warned us that this class was going to be more about analyzing wines and less about experiencing it. In other words, we were going to sip and spit, rather than drink. She also warned us that all of the info she would be sharing might be overwhelming, but learning about wine is a constant process. She reminded us that she’s still learning things about wine and that every time you might learning something new.
We did get a glass of Cava, a sparkling wine from Spain, to sip while people arrived. The class started but more wine wasn’t poured for awhile.
Janet talked to us about the sense of smell and it was fascinating! She told us that our sense of smell is the one most closely linked to emotion. She also reminded us several times that taste + smell = flavor. As proof she had us taste belly beans first with our noses plugged and then again with them unplugged. It was amazing to see just how much the flavor popped when our sense of smell was engaged!
Janet also told us that some people have blind spots when it comes to scents, giving every person has a unique sense of smell. We also learned that our olfactory glands change every two to four months, so smell is something you can get better at with practice. 🙂 Then we did a really fun activity. They passed around little vials of various scents labeled with just numbers and we all had sheets with scents listed. Our assignment was to link the numbered vials with the scents on our lists. One tray was for scents associated with white wine like white flowers, butter and honey and the other with red wine scents like chocolate, black pepper, and berries. Our side of the table started with the red wine tray. Some of them like chocolate and licorice were easy to detect, but there also five different fruits listed which were tricky. I did fairly well, mistaking only two of the eleven. I did horrible with the white wine tray, though! For her certification Janet has to do this activity with 75 scents, which is crazy!
Next Janet talked more about taste. Apparently about 25% of the populated are “super tasters”. This means everything has a very intense taste and they can pick out a lot of flavors in things. I think Derek is one of these because he can easily detect flavors in foods that I can not pick up at all! Sometimes I’ll even test him by putting a spice in something I make and not mentioning and sure enough he’ll say “is there nutmeg in this?”. It’s amazing! To test our own sense of smell, they handed out little slips of paper. Everyone put one in their mouths. Those that are super tasters would taste something really bitter and those with little sense of taste would taste nothing. I only tasted a faint bitterness but others spit it out right away! This sense of taste obviously impacts what people like. Super tasters are less likely to enjoy something with a real alcohol taste and prefer something lighter.
Janet reminded us that many things can impact the way we perceive and enjoy wine. An ideal environment to taste wine is to have a medium temperature, well lit space with no other competing smells. Obviously, that’s not always possible but still a good tip (we had a pizza making class next door, so eliminating competing smells was impossible, lol).
When the first wine was poured we did several things to evaluate the wine before tasting. First we just looked at the color of the wine. The color can tell you what kind of wine it is, but also the age. A red wine that has a brownish hue or a white wine with an amber tone is more likely to be an older wine. This is also true of a wine that has sediment at the bottom. On the other hand, a wine that is “bright” in color is young.
We also looked at the legs or tears of the wine. These are the tiny droplets that form on the glass when you swirl it. These also appear in other types of alcohol. They indicate the sugar and alcohol content of the wine. A high density of legs indicates a higher alcohol content and slower legs indicates higher sugar content.
Then we smelled the wine. Janet recommend two ways to do this: taking a big whiff and if you don’t detect anything take a few smaller sniffs. That really worked for me! When trying to detect scents, Janet suggests starting general and whittling that down. For example, I smell fruit. What kind of fruit? Tropical. Ok, what kind of tropical? Pineapple. These are primary aromas and also include things like spices, flowers, or earth. Then you might move on to secondary things like mushroom or butter. The final tertiary step which has to do with the aging. Oak aged might mean scents like vanilla or cigar box. In our packet to take with us we were given this aroma wheel that I plan to use.
Finally on to the tasting! First we swirled our glasses, which decants the wine or gets air in it. Volatile aromas like alcohol need to blow off to get to the fruit aromas. Janet taught us the best way to sip and spit. Take a small sip of wine, swish it in your mouth and gurgle it a little between your lips to let air in and then spit keeping a teensy amount in your mouth. I was honestly surprised how I could actually taste more doing this. You can also then take a full sip and swallow if you want to taste again. Before we would taste each wine, Janet would give us an overview of the wine like the region it was made, alcohol content and most importantly if we liked this wine other wines we might like. In the packet we got to take with us, each wine was listed with a summary and a yes and no, so we could make notes about what we liked. This was so helpful because it was a record of what we liked and ways to identify other wines we would enjoy. I am definitely going to try one of the recommendations soon!
After we went through the seven tastings, we were tested. There were two wines poured, with the bottles covered. We had a sheet to record attributes of the wine, like scent, age, color and flavor elements. It was fun to test what we’d learned!
This class was truly amazing! I learned a TON about tasting wine that I can start using. The information about the various wine types was also invaluable. Thanks again Betsy for the great gift!
Here’s a summary of what I learned from the class:
- Take a look at your wine- first evaluate color and alcohol content
- Give it a good sniff
- Swirl in the glass to release the best scents
- Swirl in your mouth and gurgle before spitting to get the true flavor
- There’s difference between enjoying wines and evaluating them
- There’s no wrong answer! Since everyone’s sense of taste and smell is different if you smell fresh cut grass, don’t be afraid to say that!
- Good wine doesn’t have to be expensive. The most expensive wine Janet served us was $27.
If you have a chance, you should definitely take a class like this, and if you live in the area check out The Pantry!
Also, here are some tips I’ve learned along the way about more leisurely wine tasting, where you’re imbibing rather than evaluating:
- Eat first!
- Don’t be intimidated. I know this can be tough, but I am become more assertive as I get older and have realized the I am a paying customer that shouldn’t be ignored. If I go to a tasting room and it seems like an employee can’t be bothered to help me, I’m out. Life is too short! I am also trying to get better about asking questions. More often than not, the person serving the tasting is a family member of the winery owner and has great info on how the wine is made or what foods can be paired, or even how to join a wine club if you’re interested.
- Don’t feel like you have to buy something….but know that you’ll most likely get your tasting fee refunded if you do buy a bottle.
- Check ahead of time to determine if an appointment is required
So there you go! Are there any other tips you have? What’s been your favorite wine tasting?