Learn how to taste wine like a sommelier
Love wine, but don’t know your chenin blanc from your chardonnay? Here’s an expert guide to swirling, sipping and slurping wine like a pro.
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There aren’t many sounds better than the glug of freshly opened wine as it’s poured into aglass. But, even if you’re a self-confessed oenophile who’s partial to a glass of vino in the evening, the world of winemaking and all the terminology that comes with it can be baffling.
Someone who knows a thing or two about grapes is Henna Zinzuwadia, a sommelier at West African restaurant Akoko in London. Her love of wine grew through working in hospitality and she’s gone on to train in the stuff with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).
“The first rule for wine is that there are no rules,” says Henna. “Talking about wine can be super intimating, but it’s actually really subjective because everyone’s palate is completely different.”
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Wine is also becoming ever more accessible thanks to a burgeoning group of female sommeliers and winemakers. “The number of women working in the industry has expanded a lot,” says Henna. “I’ve been lucky to be in touch with a lot of female sommeliers who are really open and understanding and make no judgement about how much someone knows about wine.”
If you want to get a better understanding of why you like certain kinds of wine more than others, or just want to get more confident ordering a bottle at a restaurant, here’s Henna’s guide to tasting wine, understanding its flavours and characteristics and how you can take your knowledge to the next level.
How to taste wine like a sommelier
“There definitely is a right way to taste wine,” says Henna. “But, it’s not as exaggerated and dramatic as a lot of people make it seem.”
Tasting wine using the right swilling and slurping techniques can really help to bring out its different aromas and give you a better idea of what you’re drinking. To taste wine like the experts, it’s best to follow a three-step process.
The first thing to take note of when you’re tasting wine is its colour, which gives you more of an insight into what you’re drinking than you might think.
Deeper coloured red wines are usually fuller bodied, while white wines tend to gain colour as they age, becoming more golden. Paler whites also tend to be fresher and crisper.
The next step is to examine the wine’s aroma. “Wine usually has three aromas you should look for,” says Henna. These are primary aromas that come from the grapes themselves and give it fruity and floral smells; secondary aromas that come from the winemaking process; and tertiary aromas that develop as the wine ages in a bottle.
Henna recommends giving your wine an initial sniff and noting down what flavours and notes you can smell. Then swill the glass in a circular motion before giving it a second sniff to see if any other aromas come to the fore.
“Wine glasses usually have a tulip shape, this means the top of the glass will always be a lot thinner than the bottom,” Henna explains. “This is so that when you smell the wine, all the aromas are concentrated towards the top. Swilling the wine around in the glass allows the aromas to build up towards the top of the tulip.”
The first rule for wine is that there are no rules
Then it’s time to sip the wine. Begin by taking a small sip and noting what flavours you can detect. Then take a bigger aerated sip.
“The best way to do this is to tilt your chin down, breathe in air through your mouth and sip the wine with a sucking sound,” says Henna. “This aerates the wine so it coats your whole palate.” If this is tricky, you can also swill the wine around in your mouth slowly.
Henna explains that there are three main factors to note when you’re tasting wine. The first is acidity. “Once you’ve taken a sip, notice how much your mouth salivates,” says Henna. “The more your mouth salivates, the higher the acidity in the wine.”
The second is the tannins – bitter natural compounds found in grape skins, pips and stems. These are usually only present in red and orange wine where the grape skins are kept on through the winemaking process. “Tannins produce a drying sensation on the roof of your mouth and the side of your teeth,” says Henna.
The third thing to note is the level of fruitiness. “A lot of people tend to confuse this with sweetness,” says Henna. “It’s quite common for someone to say they like a sweeter wine, but what they actually mean is that they want something a bit more fruity.”
The sweet notes in the wine are due to the level of residual sugar left in the liquid after it’s been made. “Wine is made using sugar and yeast. When it’s heated the yeast eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide,” says Henna. “So, the lower the level of sugar, the higher the alcohol.”
This means lower-alcohol wines are fruitier and sweeter. “Usually, sweeter wine styles tend to be up to 11% alcohol,” says Henna. “Anything higher tends to be on the drier side.”
When you’re swilling wine around your mouth, you should also try and detect different flavour profiles in the wine. This is done in a similar way to smelling it and looking out for primary, secondary and tertiary flavours.
This is often when wine language can become quite complex, but Henna says tasting wine is really subjective. “There’s no right or wrong way to detect flavours in wine,” says Henna. “Everybody’s palate is so different. I might pick up a lot of lychee notes in a glass of wine because I’m familiar with it and ate it growing up. Someone else may not have that flavour profile and recognise it as something else.”
How to serve wine
Temperature can have a dramatic impact on how a wine tastes. Often, Henna explains, people can serve wine at a much cooler temperature than it needs to be, which can mask a lot of the flavour.
“If you think about how wine was made thousands of years ago, it wasn’t able to be kept in the fridge,” says Henna. “White wines, as well as red, were made to be drunk at room temperature.”
Many white wines, particularly fuller-bodied and richer varieties, should not be drunk extremely chilled. According to Henna, a good rule of thumb is to take wine out of the fridge 10 minutes before you drink it and then judge whether you can taste its full flavour in the glass.
“Leaving wines out at room temperature means you can pick up more delicate flavours,” says Henna. “It’s also worth keeping an eye on how the flavour develops as you drink it and it gets warmer.”
“I’m also a huge fan of slightly chilled reds,” says Henna.“Often lighter-bodied red wines, like gamay or pinot noir, can taste really refreshing when they’re chilled and it makes them super juicy.”
Decanting, or pouring wine into another container before serving it, allows more air to get into the liquid and can bring out more flavour and aroma.
“If you feel that the roof of your mouth and sides of your teeth feel dry, that indicates a wine with high tannins that could benefit from being aerated,” says Henna.
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How to build your wine know-how
Exploring different grape varieties is a good place to start to understand wine better. The grape variety refers to the type of grape used to make the wine, such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon or merlot.
Henna suggests trying wines from as many different kinds of grape varieties as possible to get an understanding of what they taste like and which ones you like. “I carry around a notebook with me and write down any flavours I notice when I try certain grape varieties to give me an indication of what they might taste like,” she says.
“Trying lots of wines, even if you think you won’t like them, is key,” adds Henna. “A lot of people think they don’t like specific grape varieties, but grape varieties can be so versatile. Even if you don’t like one specific style, there’s definitely something out there you will like.”
The country a wine comes from can also tell you a lot about the characteristics it should have.
Wines from cooler climates tend to have higher acidity. For white wines this means they’re fresher with green apple and citrusy flavours.
Wines from warmer climates are generally lower in acidity and tend to be fruiter. “Warmer climates generally grow more ripened fruits and you’ll be able to taste this in the wine,” says Henna.
A wine’s vintage, or the year in which the grapes were grown and harvested to make it, can have a huge impact on its flavour and, contrary to popular opinion, older wines aren’t always best.
Certain years may have had better growing conditions for certain grapes, which is why certain wine vintages are more sought after. Generally, however, fresh white wines with low acidity are generally best enjoyed when they’re younger.
How to take your wine knowledge to the next level
If you want to expand your wine knowledge, Henna suggests trying lots of different wines at guided tastings and fairs.
Henna suggests looking for a wine bar that’s local to you and going regularly to try different wines you may not have had before. “This is something that really helped me initially,” says Henna. “Speaking to the people who worked at my local wine bar helped me to slowly learn about my palate.”
Lots of bars and restaurants also offer one-to-one tasting sessions, or even public sessions if you prefer to go as part of a group.
Henna also recommends visiting wine fairs and trade tastings that are open to the public. “This is a great way of speaking to the producers themselves and learning about how they work,” she says. “Wine isn’t just about what’s inside the bottle, but what’s happened behind the scenes and gone into making it.”
Wines to try to expand your palate
No, it’s not made of tangerines. Orange wine is essentially white grapes that have had their skins kept on during the winemaking process, which is how red wine is made. This gives it a deep golden colour.
“Orange wine is a huge thing at the moment and there’s a massive range of styles out there that are all very different from each other,” says Henna. “Some styles are fruitier, others are more aromatic and some are earthier, mustier and spicier. Tasting the different styles is a really good place to start when it comes to getting into wine.”
Crémant is a sparkling wine that comes from specific regions in France. “A lot of people stick to champagne, but I really recommend crémant,” says Henna. “It’s a lot kinder on the wallet and can help you understand the different varieties of sparkling wine out there.”
Fuller and lighter-bodied red wines
Henna recommends trying different kinds of red wine to get an idea of what sort of body you like.
“Tasting beaujolais or pinot noir is a good way to get to grips with lighter-bodied wines – fruitier wines that are low in tannins,” says Henna. “Then try something like merlot and malbec, which are fuller-bodied and more rounded. Drinking both is a good way to differentiate between the body.”
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Henna Zinzuwadia, sommelier at Akoko
Henna is a sommelier at Akoko, a West African restaurant in London. She is currently studying for the WSET Level 3 and is preparing to take an expert-level diploma qualification.
Images: Getty, courtesy Henna Zinzuwadia
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