From Arbois to Zinfandel, Champagne to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the world of wines is vast and utterly fascinating. Whether you’re a keen amateur taster, or you’re looking to embark on a career in wine, a wine tasting course is a fantastic introduction to this age-old practice (and a great excuse to try some delicious wines among like-minded enthusiasts, too!).
Wine tasting courses may focus solely on perfecting your palate, whilst others will offer more of an insight into wine production and even hints and tips for restaurateurs wanting to expand their wine offering. You’ll most likely have the opportunity to taste a range of wines, lead by an expert in the field, ask plenty of questions and being to decipher just how your senses work together to get a sense of flavour.
Getting to grips with tasting
Wine tasting can usually be broken down into four areas - Colour and Clarity, Opacity, Smell and Taste - let’s have a look at what these terms really mean…
Colour and Clarity
When you first pour a glass of wine, you’ll begin by tipping the glass slightly in order to be able to examine the colour. Moving on from simply identifying a wine as red, white or rose, you’ll be encouraged to begin thinking about wine in terms of tone; maroons, purples and even brown; pale yellow, straw-like or golden amber.
Is the wine watery? Does the wine have a dull appearance? Is it translucent or cloudy? Perhaps it’s clear, or can you identify any sediment? These factors, you’ll learn, will start to give you clues about the quality, age and flavour of the wine before it even touches your lips. For example, an older red wine is likely to have more of an orange tint around the edges than a younger red, whereas older white wines are often darker in comparison to a younger white of the same grape.
It’s important to remember that, whilst you can smell thousands of unique scents, your taste is limited to identifying salty, sweet, sour and bitter. It is in fact, the combination of smell and taste that allows you to discern real flavour – so learning how to smell wine is vital to the tasting process.
Take a small sip and let the wine work its way around your mouth. Tasting is made up of three components - attack, evolution and finish. The attack is the initial taste and is determined by the alcohol content, the acidity, tannin levels and residual sugars. Evolution is how the taste changes after the initial attack; do you detect citrus notes, perhaps a fruity flavour or spices? Maybe there are floral notes or a rich, buttery flavour?). Finally the finish concerns how long the flavour impression lasts after the wine has been swallowed (or spat out). This may be a lingering flavour, or a different aftertaste. At this stage you can also better discern the body of the wine; light-bodied wines have the consistency of water, medium is more milky, and a full-bodied wine is more like cream.
As you taste, both during a course and in your more general life, take notes. On a course you’ll learn how to begin describing wine beyond the rather arbitrary terms such as “oaked” or “dry”. You’ll be encouraged to develop your language to better explain the flavours and feelings you encounter, and by keeping a record you can begin to compare and contrast different wines.
If you’re looking to embark on a career in wine, there are plenty of options available to you. Perhaps you’re a super-salesperson and fancy your chances selling wine retail or wholesale, or working on PR or marketing? Some students go on to open their own wineries, or work as a wine critic or writer. Even if you’re only interested in wine tasting for your own pleasure, a course can really help you understand the production and science behind the processes, which give you a much deeper understanding of wine as a whole.
For restaurateurs, you may want to find a course that helps you understand staff education, wine lists, storage, service and glassware; and many courses will also encourage you to explore food pairing. Understanding how to best pair wines with food, be it with complementary or contrasting flavours, your tutor will guide you through and allow you to experiment for yourself.
Do it yourself
If you think you’d like to try your hand at winemaking, a course may be able to explain how a grape develops and ripens, how vines mature, spacing and types of trelissing systems. You may have the opportunity to visit a vineyard, and you may learn about how the cost of corks, bottles, labelling, barrels, lab work, storage, shipping and sampling affect your profit margins.
Many aspiring winemakers will also undertake a business course to help them project profits, develop a business strategy and understand bookkeeping, staffing and other important areas.
Did you know?
A corked bottle of wine is wine that has been damaged by the chemical compound TCA, which can develop on corks. However, if you spot someone examining the cork for evidence of corkage, they’re wrong. TCA is not visible on the cork, and that mouldy taste isn’t accompanied by any visual signs that anything’s amiss - it’s all down to taste!
By Carrie Barclay