So a few weeks ago I decided it was time to get serious, and I enlisted the help of top Sommelier Niels Toase. Honestly, how many times have you been to a restaurant, ordered a bottle of wine and sat there dreading the moment someone at the table will be asked to taste it? Many of my friends confessed, they just don’t know what the “right” thing to do is. What exactly are we swirling and smelling for? After a few minutes of speaking with Niels, I knew I had gone to the right source.
Top tips from Bernard Massard’s Niels Toase
First step: have a look
Looking into your glass isn’t a definite predictor of taste, but you can find a lot of clues about what’s been poured.
First, try to take a look at your wine from different angles; gaze straight down into your glass and go at it from the side. The obvious thing you will notice, is the wine’s colour. Although Niels is not a huge fan of worrying about colour, he noted that it can be an indicator of many things such as age, state of acidity and whether the wine is off.
The white wines you find with light bright colours, usually indicate a more refreshing wine that spent less time in contact with the grape skins. As the colour becomes more yellow-gold you will likely find a more complex white wine, with the deepest yellow shades usually indicating an ageing period in an oak barrel.
Red wines follow much the same philosophy. If you find a brighter red the wine will more likely be refreshing and light, while a darker colour will indicate a more complex wine that has likely been aged in an oak barrel.
Traditionally, you were also advised to look for indications of cloudiness, as this would mean a wine was “completely off”. However, some modern wine makers have stopped filtering their wine, to avoid the loss of character that comes with filtration. As many of these wines are top quality, cloudiness in the glass no longer means you’ll necessarily be sending the bottle back.
After assessing the colour, tilt your glass for a second and have a look at the tears of wine running down your glass. This will give you an indication of the wine’s viscosity: fast tears indicate higher alcohol and more sugar, while slower indicate the contrary. Again, Niels noted that this can mean little when it comes to taste. As vineyards move away from quantity and more towards quality, the grapes are becoming riper and more nutritious, leading to more sugar and potentially more alcohol. This has increased the overall level of alcohol in wines by around 2%, making it more common to find fast tears and decreasing any sure indication of taste.
Next: give your glass a swirl
Swirling the wine oxidises it, allowing the wine to really open up. It’s important though that you don’t swirl your glass too much as this can over oxidise the wine. In order to understand the state of the wine, and the level of need for oxidation Niels suggests smelling the wine directly; this will help to avoid initial over-oxidation. If the wine has powerful, but tight aromas it probably needs more oxygen, if the nose is already very full, there’s less of a need to decant.
Next: time to smell
When you smell the wine Niels advises to give yourself a bit of room- don’t be too aggressive. If you go right into the glass, you actually smell less as you’re taking up the space that gives you the aroma, leaving you with a nose full of alcohol vapours- not ideal. Instead, try moving the glass around under your nose while taking little sniffs. Also try to keep your mouth open while you smell, it’s a huge helper in experiencing a wine’s aromas.
You have primary aromas, secondary and tertiary aromas. The primary aromas come from the grapes and include fruit, flower and herb notes. The secondary and tertiary aromas come from fermentation and ageing and include yeast, spice and nut aromas. Often times people are looking for wines that have a vanilla smell or chocolatey notes- in these cases they will need to consider the ageing process, as no grape directly produces this note.
It’s important to note that aromas are completely subjective. Niels explained that strawberry has an aroma that is also present in pineapple, so often times Europeans will smell strawberry and Asians will interpret the same smell as pineapple. This is just one example of many.
Finally: have a TASTE
When tasting wine Niels suggests focusing on the structure of the wine rather than simply the flavour. A wine’s structure is based on its acidity, alcohol, tannins and sugar content- which combined give the taster a fuller picture.
Acidity– tingling sensations, like your mouth is puckering
Tannins– dry your mouth out
Sugar– we only taste sugar above 6 grams- anything below is very dry
Alcohol– alcohol creates body, heat indicates alcohol
When taking the first sip, try to take in some air with it- yes it makes a very strange slurping sound, but this will give oxygen to the wine while your trying it. Do your best to hold the wine in your mouth for at least 10 seconds as this will really coat your entire mouth. I’m personally working on perfecting my slurping before debuting it in public, but if you’re not shy dive right in.
Niels’ last and what I believe to be his best piece of advice is to be fair to the table you’re tasting with, you can always disagree, but no one is right. Cheers to that!
- Best time to taste wines is 10:30 am. Your palate is open, your appetite is there and your body is curious for new flavours.
- Use a universal wine glass (check back soon for a review of several glasses) and fill it 1/5 of the way to leave enough empty space.
- Hand-wash your glasses using just a tiny drop of soap to clean and rinse with really hot water; it’s more work, but you won’t have any residual detergent scents in your wine.
- Don’t change your glass with every wine- if you’re in white or red, better to just give it a swirl with a bit of wine, this will better set the acids in your glass.
- Try to taste a wine at several points, let it go through different temperatures and you’re likely to discover its maximum potential.
- Red wines should not be served at room temperature- this is a rule from the middle ages when room temperature was 15-16 degrees, not 23. Try to serve both red and white wines at a starting temperature of 14-15 degrees and see how the wine progresses.
- Onvolved in a big tasting, when you need a break have a glass of high-acidity bubbly- it’ll clean and liven up your palate
Niels Toase, Sales Representative at Bernard-Massard, won Best sommelier of Luxembourg in 2014. Born in Germany and raised in Northern Ireland, he knew at a young age he wanted to work in wine. After completing his sommelier training he worked in various Michelin starred restaurants before moving into sales. Niels has been living in Luxembourg for the last 5 years and in addition to his work at Bernard-Massard, he runs various wine-tasting classes throughout the year.
Bernard-Massard is a family managed company that has producing many award winning wines for the last 95 years. They sell approximately 4 million bottles of Cuvees and still wines a year to loyal customers based in Luxembourg and beyond.
8, rue du Pont
L- 6773 Grevenmacher
Follow Amanda on her journey to uncork the Luxembourg wine scene, and stay tuned for information on tastings and tours. www.luxuncorked.com
Featured photo: Henry Fournier/unsplash