Tasting Wine
How do I learn more about wine? That's a frequently asked question with an easy answer: Taste it. The first step in tasting is to pour the wine into a suitable glass. The glass should be clear so that the color and clarity of the wine can be appreciated. It should also be large enough to swirl the wine without spilling it, releasing the aromas that are so important in tasting. There are some useful tasting terms to help you describe the wines you taste and various scoring systems to assess them. It's useful to be aware of wine faults, too - their causes and how to detect them.

The Tasting Process
Evaluating a wine involves four stages-looking, swirling, sniffing and tasting.

Tasting a wine begins with the eyes. What does it look like? Hold the glass against a white background to get a true idea of the clarity and color, which should be brilliant and clear in a red wine, and limpid and bright in a white wine. Hold the glass by its stem in order to keep the bowl free of smudges and handprints. Wines from hot climates generally have a deeper color than wines from cool climates. Older wines usually have a less intense color than young wines. Very old red wines may show slight browning at the rim, which you will see if you tilt the glass and look at the edge of the wine. Any cloudiness or discoloration may indicate wine defects.

The next step is to swirl the wine in the glass. This introduces oxygen into the wine, which helps release the wine's essential aromas. A young wine should be swirled fairly vigorously, while an older wine should be treated more gently.

Now put your nose over the rim of the glass and take a long, deep sniff. Really expand your nostrils to take in the smell. Try to think what memory you associate with the smell. You may want to repeat this process several times. The olfactory memory is one of the strongest memories we have, and the sense of smell plays a more important part in your perception of a wine than your sense of taste, which is fairly limited. What did the wine smell like? Professional wine critics have a special vocabulary for wine aromas, but most important is how it smells to you. Let your imagination run loose here and don't limit yourself to standard terms. Younger wines usually have stronger, more aggressive aromas, while older wines are generally more subdued and subtle.

After satisfying the ol' factory sense, move on to tasting the wine. Fill your mouth about half full and swish the wine around thoroughly. Two things are happening now: First, more aromas are being released into the nasal cavity, which is where the real tasting happens; and second, you are covering all parts of your mouth, tasting with the whole palate to gain a complete impression of the wine. Some people describe this process as "chewing."

Spit or Swallow
Now you may either swallow the wine or spit it out. Spitting is a must if you are tasting a number of wines in a formal tasting situation. When you swallow the wine, pay attention to how it tastes as it slips down your throat. How long does the aftertaste linger? If the aftertaste is hot, the alcohol level is probably too high or the wine is out of balance in some other way. A good wine is all about harmony. The wine should be full of flavor, with all the elements-fruit, tannin and acid-in balance.

Tasting Note
It is helpful to jot down a few notes while tasting a wine. Notes help fix the wine in your memory and are fun to come back to when you retaste a wine to see how consistent your palate is or how the wine has changed in the interim. The notes need not be formal-a simple description of your impressions of the wine's aroma, taste and finish should suffice.

For a list of key tasting terms, click on the link at right.

Scoring System
Scoring wines is popular among both professional and amateur wine tasters. There are many ways to score a wine. While the 100-point system is the most common, a simple 10-point system will work perfectly well. Some systems assign a numerical score to wine elements such as appearance and aroma in an attempt to make them seem more "scientific."

Wine Faults
Faulty wines, which are the result of errors in winemaking or storage, are not as common as they once were. The one exception is corkiness, a problem of which producers are increasingly aware. Modern winemaking technology has saved the consumer from many unpleasant winetasting experiences. However, there are still a few faults to look out for.

Corked Wine
One of the most common faults is corky, or corked, wine. It is caused by a mold in cork bark that may contaminate the cork used in wine bottles, and thence the wine. This corkiness masks the flavors of the wine and, at its worst, leaves the wine smelling like wet cardboard, with an unpleasant flavor. On the other hand, the cork taint may be so light that even experts have trouble detecting it. In such wines, the flavors and aromas are dulled and cut short, leaving the typical consumer thinking it is simply poor wine. Cork producers and vintners are working to combat the problem, although cork mold can be hard to detect before the wine is bottled. It is estimated that 3 or 4 bottles out of 100 are corked.

Oxidized Wine
A wine that has been exposed too long to air, either during the production/bottling process or because of a faulty cork, is said to be oxidized. The wine takes on a dull brownish color and an unpleasant, sour apple taste. Oxidized wines are less common than corked wines.

Vinegary Wine
A vinegary wine-sharply unpleasant to smell or taste¿is a wine that has been infected by the same bacteria that produce vinegar and is virtually undrinkable.

Other Wine Defects
Brettanomyces, or Brett, is a wild yeast that can give wine a metallic flavor if a high level is present, a low level of Brett does not spoil wine. Another wine spoilage compound, called mercaptan, is formed after the fermentation process. A foul odor (somewhat skunklike) may form and the wine is ruined. Cloudy wine, caused by instability during fermentation or by the wine refermenting in the bottle, is generally the result of poor winemaking.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Guides, The Wine Guide, by Larry Walker and Wink Lorch (Time-Life Books, 1999).