Understanding the 4 Sensory Characteristics of Wine
Tasting wine? The more correct term is actually “smelling the wine while it’s in your mouth”. The process looks simple enough from the outside. You take a sip of wine, and either spit it, or swallow it. In reality, there's a whole lot more going on behind the scenes, where many of your senses will come into play. I'll explore this in more detail in this article.
The first question I'm always asked from those that are new to wine, is what exactly is that noise that wine tasters make? What’s the deal with all the slurping and gurgling noises?
If you have seen people do this when they take a sip of wine, make slurping noise, what they are actually doing is trying to get the most out of the wine. While the wine is in their mouth, they open their mouth slightly and have a quick intake of air, in the form of a ‘slurp’, this does two things:
- This pushes the aroma compounds to the olfactory bulb at the base of the brain (the same place as aromas go from the nose)
- Enhances the tactile sensations that the wine has on the tongue and in the mouth
Wine to Taste
In order to understand how to experience wine, let's have a look at the general tastes that we experience when we drink wine. They are actually quite limited. There are primary tastes that we experience in wine
That sweet sugar sensation is mainly due to the sugar content in the wine. This can be actual sugar sweetness or fruit sweetness. Alcohol itself is also a sweet liquid, so higher alcohol wines can give the perception of a ‘sweet’ taste.
Acidity is a fresh, tart like taste in the mouth. Acidity usually is the result on the ripeness of the grapes used in the winemaking. As grapes ripen, the acid content goes down and they become less acidic, this is especially true for white grapes.
Bitter tastes in wines should be very limited. Bitter tastes can come from extremely young wines that have not matured, and be connected with tannin content.
Although rare, some particular wines can be salty to taste, this comes about from where the grown. Sea spray is the biggest culprit for salty wines.
Wine to Touch
The body of a wine is a reference to its perceived weight. This is like comparing how a mouthful of water compares to a mouthful of olive oil. This is a misconception that ‘body’ is directly related to the alcohol content. This is not correct, it is a contributing factor to the perception of weight. The weight is effected by compounds in the wine, the amount of sugar and the alcohol content.
The burning sensation is directly linked to alcohol. It’s the experience similar to having ‘shots’ or ‘shooters’ with liquor. Some highly alcoholic liquor burns and makes it hard to take a breath than other types (we’ve all been there!) Wines are the same, the more alcohol, the hotter they get.
This is the name for that drying sensation in the mouth. Red wines that have high levels of tannins cause this feeling. You can feel it on your tongue, teeth, gums, lips and cheeks. Tannins interact with the saliva in your mouth and restricts the lubrication action, this is what makes your mouth feel dry.
How severe or gently the tannins occur is related to texture.
The texture of a wine is related to the wines weight, but not isolated from it. That drying feeling from a wines tannin can be very ‘soft’ and others can feel ‘coarse’ ‘and sandy’.
Texture is a tactile sensation, you can experience this in wines that a more ‘creamy’ than others that are more ‘crisp’. A smooth, soft texture is a mouthfeel that all good quality wines should have, you should not be experiencing anything harsh or aggressive.
Time and quantity related sensory experiences are a subset of the wines feel. These are things like:
- Length - How long do the sensations hang around in your mouth?
- Finish - When the wine is immediately swallowed, what is the sensation of it? Is it sharp, dull, flat, clean?
- Aftertaste - Any lingering sensations? Are they positive or negative? Bitterness is a classic aftertaste in wine, as it really comes through up to 20 seconds after being swallowed.
Wine to Smell
Although our sense of smell is not fully understood, it is the wine’s volatiles compounds going up our nose in the form of a vapor, which gives us the impressions of fruit, citrus, oak and herbaceous characters. The aromas that are present in the finished wine are strictly the result of:
- Grape variety
A wines ‘cleanliness’ will be apparent as you first sniff the wine. You'll be able to recognize faults immediately through your sense of smell.
After a wine is confirmed by you to be clean, what we are looking for is a recognition of aromas and intensity of aromas.
- Identify - What are the dominant aromas? Is it complex? More than one? Can you differentiate the fruit/wood/floral notes?
- Intensity - How intense are they? Is one coming through to give you a big kiss? Or are they lighter?
Some wines are more non-descript than others and you may find wines that are “a bit dull on the nose”. This is a perfectly legitimate critique, so is only being able to smell wine. A few short sniffs of a glass is enough to pick up the aromas, any more and you will have exhausted your sense of smell and all you will smell is wine.
Wine to Observe
A wine is described as being ‘complex’ in the aromatic and flavor observation of wine. When its termed complex in flavor, it is describing the layers and diversity of:
- Fruit characteristics
- Winemaking techniques (oak, aging, fermentation style)
Complexity means there is not just a single sensation or recognized sensation being experienced.
This concept of a wines structure can be a little tricky to explain, but it’s the culmination of all the above sensations in the wine.
All the sensory experiences of the wines elements should be well integrated and complement each other. This is the term for how the wine is put together and whether it has a good backbone.
The key component to whether a wine has ‘good structure’ is then the balance.
Putting it all together
High quality wines have excellent balance of all the components, like acid, sugar, alcohol and varietal character. Achieving this is a wine is the goal of every winemaker alive. But it’s not the reason behind why wine is enjoyed by so many.
Where the magic happens
The most exciting and magical part of wines is how the grapes expresses themselves.
How can a simple grape give off aromas and flavors the way that it does? How can you smell passion fruit when there is no passion fruit in there? Citrus when there is no lemon? Freshly baked bread, when there is no bread?!
As you become more sensitive to the wines components; you will likely love it even more. It could be things like realizing how floral the wine is; or how the taste of cherries coats your tongue and is gone so fast you are left wondering “What the..?”
You may be in this spot now, and when you taste a wine that tastes perfect to you, it’s an exciting moment! When you find ‘the one’ or the many, finding favorites can set off our inner hoarder and we buy cases of the stuff, like its treasure that must be kept safe.
It’s this excitement, these sensations, which deepens our senses. Its opens you to a world of beauty that exists in the smallest things.
What’s not to love?