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Drinking Out Loud

How to Really Taste Wine

The six most important words in wine tasting

Matt Kramer
Posted: December 18, 2012

The past few weeks have put me in situations where I've been called upon to talk about wine. I'm not a shy sort, so such occasions are fine with me. For example, I was recently in Seoul hosting a wine dinner.

Now, there's all sorts of nonsense making the rounds about Asians and wine. Some of this talk is even put about, I gather, by Asians themselves in the mistaken belief that because they're not Western they can't readily grasp the fine points of wine.

So when I stood in front of 65 people at the wine dinner in Seoul, all but a few of whom were Korean, I was politely blunt. I said that being a newcomer to wine was just that. It transcends culture. Being Asian was meaningless. Everybody is a newcomer to fine wine at some point in their lives, and that includes Europeans.

I went on to say that 40 years ago we Americans were collectively as ignorant about wine as any group of Asian wine newbies. And that we generated our own horror stories of rich guys who swaggered around insisting that they only wanted the "best" and that they didn't care what it cost.

Then I asserted that talking about wine doesn't involve flavor descriptors. This, it turned out, was the real jolt. I could sense the surprise when I said it. I, in turn, was myself surprised.

Since when did flavor descriptors become the basis of intelligent wine discussion? I later learned from guests at the dinner that the wine instruction that they had received was invariably just a string of flavor descriptors for each wine under "discussion."

We all know, of course, how this I-Spy game of ever more precise-seeming associations of scents and tastes—coffee, chalk, bergamot, road dust and so forth—came about. It was we wine writers who did it. And we then did yet more of it as wines from everywhere increased exponentially.

You, the reader, want to know what a wine tastes like. And someone saying, "This here wine tastes really good," is hardly going to satisfy. With thousands of wines a year to review, writers had no choice. How many times can you describe a Pinot Noir as being "cherry-scented"? So you get more specific, summoning up black cherry, wild cherry, pie cherry, maraschino cherry, cherry jam and cherry liqueur.

There's nothing wrong with this and I, for one, will happily defend my colleagues in the tasting-note trenches.

That said, anatomizing the scents and flavors of a wine hardly tells the whole story. Nowhere is this more true than during a wine tasting such as the one I was doing at the dinner or, earlier, at two training sessions for the hotel's eager-to-learn restaurant staff.

So how should you talk about wine? Every taster is different, and I'm not about to say that the following features represent the entirety of what could or should be examined and discussed.

But I will say this much: If you're missing these points, you're not going to fully grasp the qualities of the wine at hand. For me, these are the six most important words in wine tasting:

Complexity. The single greatest standard used in assessing the quality of a wine is complexity. The more times you can return to a glass of wine and find something different in it—in the bouquet, in the taste—the more complex the wine. The very greatest wines are not so much overpowering as they are seemingly limitless.

Complexity is not an arbitrary standard. We are, in fact, set up to respond favorably to it. We have big brains and cortexes. We know from decades of work in experimental psychology that over a period of time, we always seek more complex stimuli.

In music, we invariably progress from the simple, or the “banal” as one researcher referred to nursery rhymes, to more complex melodic patterns. It appears that we favor—relish might be a more descriptive, if less exact term—uncertainty or lack of predictability. One researcher contends that uncertainty in music is complexity. And that uncertainty gives greater “meaning” to music.

Complexity is more than multiplicity. For a wine (or a melody) to be truly satisfying, especially after repeated exposure, it must continually surprise us (uncertainty) and yet we must still be able to grasp these surprises as part of a larger and pleasing pattern.

So it is with wine. A multiplicity of flavors and aromas without some sort of cohesion becomes jarring and eventually irritating. True complexity keeps surprising us, but never fatigues us. That's no small trick. But it's one that the world's greatest wines regularly pull off—and it's why they're so acclaimed as the greatest.

Texture. This is a feature of wine that too often is overlooked. Yet pay attention to texture, as it may be the most important "hidden" feature of wine quality. This is especially true with white wines; one of the "giveaways" to quality (and potential longevity) in dry white wines is revealed by texture.

If you have the privilege of tasting white Burgundies made in the 1950s or earlier, you will be surprised to discover how thick and dense the texture of those Chardonnay wines is. What made it so? Very low yields and small berry size. These features also were (and are) critical to longevity. Simply put, texturally thin wines are a giveaway to dilute flavors and short life span, never mind the gussying-up of a lot of new oak and showy flavors from lees stirring. Texture tells the tale.

Midpalate Density. Every taster has his or her go-to feature. For some it's bouquet. For others it's a wine's finish, whether it's short or long, intense or faint. For me, it's midpalate density.

The midpalate feature is sometimes hard for tasters to recognize. The easiest way to grasp the notion is to imagine a candy with a hard, dense center. You suck on the candy and figure that it's soon to be gone. Then you reach that hard, dense center and you discover that there's a lot more yet to come. Voilà! Midpalate density.

For you Pilates types, think of midpalate density as core strength. Without it, a wine is weak. Wines, like trees, die from the inside out. If a wine lacks midpalate density, it will, over time, prove to be shallow and merely showy. Midpalate density comes from the vineyard, rather than from the winemaking. It's a creation of low yields and small berries, often from old vines. I consider it absolutely essential in assessing both a wine's probable longevity and its potential greatness.

Proportion. The element of proportion is easily grasped. A wine, like an attractive person, should be reasonably proportionate. It shouldn't finish "short." You should have a sense of the wine's flavors being metered out to you in roughly equal amounts and time spans: the scent, the beginning taste, the midpalate and, critically, the finish.

Sometimes, especially with very young wines, these proportions can be skewed and later come into greater equality. But with a mature wine, you should expect reasonable proportion. If it's not present, then the wine is either on its way out or it never had the stuffing of real quality to begin with.

Finesse. The feature of finesse is a favorite of mine. It's something I look for almost obsessively. Finesse is how the flavors of a wine are delivered. Imagine a lay-up in basketball where the player drives toward the basket, gracefully leaps up and the ball rolls off his fingertips and falls effortlessly into the net. That's finesse. That's how wines should deliver themselves to you. Without finesse, wines are clunky, never mind how much complexity they might have. Finesse, like good manners, is essential to refinement.

Balance. The concept of balance means different things to different tasters. It's one of those classic you-know-it-when-you-see-it qualities. At its most basic, balance refers to an equilibrium created by roughly equal amounts of “fruitiness” and acidity in wine (and sweetness in a sweet wine).

Balance is essential in that it makes a wine invigorating to us. A wine that lacks balance palls very quickly. We sense it almost from the first sip. It's not easily measurable and it's far from exact. A wine, unlike a ballerina, is not either in balance or out. There's always a range in what constitutes balance for every person.

In recent years, as wines have become more alcoholic as a result of grapes picked at high ripeness levels, the concept of balance has come to include a wine's ability to "balance out" its alcohol level with buffering fruit density. This is why balance has become such a prominent term in today's wine vocabulary.

Taylor Barnebey
Irvine, CA —  December 18, 2012 12:19pm ET
Wow! A huge breath of fresh air. Couldn't agree more. Thanks Matt!
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  December 18, 2012 12:58pm ET
Matt, you really nailed it; one of your best !!!
I must share this article with all my wine drinking friends who are solely focused on trying to identify the specific aromas and tastes in their wine and not the totality of why they are, or are not, enjoying the wine.
Christian Wyser-pratte
Ossining, NY —  December 18, 2012 1:46pm ET
Thank heaven for the most intelligent commentary I've ever read on wine appreciation. Gosh! And I thought it was just my inadequate sensory perceptors and cerebral cortex unable (or unwilling) to discern that road tar and lead pencil taste in a $900 bottle of wine!
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, California —  December 18, 2012 2:52pm ET
What? You mean that the most important thing in judging a wine's quality isn't how much it cost and whether it came from some fancy schmancy big name producer? Oh, what are some pretentious name-centric wine geeks to do? Matt, thanks for putting into perspective the kinds of things that are really important in judging a wine's quality, and how important it is to really think about and engage a wine in order to evaluate it's merit. I'd like to add a quality to your list, deliciousness, a term Terry Theise speaks of in "Reading Between The Wines." While the notion may seem a bit pedestrian, I believe that for me to really enjoy a wine, I have to feel it's delicious. Maybe not a very scientific attribute, but since when does stirring the soul require a scientific explanation?
Atlanta, GA —  December 18, 2012 3:18pm ET
I am an avid enjoyer of wine and a (very) modest collector but have always struggled trying to identify flavors. Complexity, balance and finish have been my measuring sticks and they have served me well. Great article for those among us who enjoy wine but might not have the keen enough sense of smell and taste to identify notes of decaying burlap hanging from a Japanese maple.
Hoyt Hill
Nashville, TN USA —  December 18, 2012 4:34pm ET
I could not agree more, especially with regard to balance and mid palate density
Joel Rosenthal
Toronto, Canada —  December 18, 2012 9:09pm ET
Loved this. Really well written and informative. Thanks, Matt.
David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  December 19, 2012 8:54am ET
Great article. Thanks Matt.
Thomas A Kramer
Northbrook IL —  December 19, 2012 9:01am ET
Could you elaborate on the difference between proportion and balance?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  December 19, 2012 11:33am ET
Mr. Kramer (no relation): You write: "Could you elaborate on the difference between proportion and balance?"

As for proportion compared to balance, I think that the distinction (if not the terminology) is clear enough.

Proportion is fundamentally relational, much in the same way that you can't say that someone has a short torso or long legs without the context of the rest of the body. It's the same with wine.

Proportion infers a sense of equality or inequality, e.g., a short finish relative to an expansive scent. Or a sense of only a brief, fleeting middle. The best wines are always proportionate.

La Tâche, for example, can deliver a hugely complex, expansive scent that sets you up, if only unconsciously, for a comparably proportionate follow-through in the mid-palate and finish. Famously, it delivers. It never falls short anywhere along what might be called the trajectory of its taste.

Balance, in comparison, as I previously wrote, is the inter-relation between fruit and acidity, as well as sweetness in a sweet wine. Here, the sense is not one of proportion but of one element offsetting another, bringing it into, well, balance.

As I mentioned, today's high alcohols from ultra-ripe grapes add yet another element where buffering fruit offsets (and obscures) the otherwise likely "burn" of high alcohol.
Philip Barr
Lincoln, RI —  December 19, 2012 1:26pm ET
You've just expressed the perfect way for novice drinkers to start enjoying wine (and avoid a lot of the snobby pretense). Thanks!
Jason Frame
Petaluma, CA —  December 19, 2012 5:30pm ET
Agree with the comments of others that this was an outstanding short piece on tasting and more importantly enjoying wine. Most of us will never be professional writers but all of us get to pay to enjoy wine. My only addition to this criteria is the "would you buy a case of this wine (if you could)". I have answered yes to this on far fewer wines than I have ever tasted as would I expect most people to as well. That to me is what hits my "classics" (95+ pointers if you will).

I haven't had the pleasure of some of the professionally rated classics at the top end (perhaps someday) but I do have a handful of wines that after trying them I would absolutely buy a case and finding those is part of the fun of collecting and drinking wine!

Again, great article in terms of content and brevity!
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  December 20, 2012 7:29am ET
Brilliant piece, Matt. You have eloquently summarised what many of us have been preaching for a long time. I continue to wonder why so many wine critics omit these important qualities in their tasting notes. I hope all of them read this piece and incorporate the observations in their writing.
It will make the work of wine evaluation more demanding of the critic but it will also better serve the consumer.
That would be a 'win-win' of immense proportions.

Thomas A Kramer
Northbrook IL —  December 20, 2012 9:26am ET
Got it. Thanks!
Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles —  December 20, 2012 3:24pm ET
Great article! I am especially happy to see that "texture" made your list. I don't see it very often in wine reviews, but "great texture" is usually the first term that pops up in my head when tasting a really good white, like a high-end sancerre, chablis, alsace reisling, or a muscadet. Coincidentally (or not) these wines can be very difficult to describe using tradition flavor descriptors. Texture can be a very important term for reds too. The most important thing that I want from a good Burgundy is the silky texture. By the way, do you distinguish between texture and mouthfeel, or do these terms mean the same thing to you?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  December 20, 2012 9:48pm ET
Mr. Bjorlin: You write: "Do you distinguish between texture and mouthfeel, or do these terms mean the same thing to you?"

This is a good question and here, I'm afraid, we get into the murk of both subtleties and semantics. Obviously, the concepts of texture and mouthfeel are interrelated. And for some--or even many--tasters, the two terms are one and the same.

Personally, I do distinguish between the two, although I don't think that it's a powerful or critical distinction.

For myself, the term "mouthfeel" is what I would personally use to identify and highlight a textural effect that I, rightly or wrongly, identify as coming from a particular winemaking technique.

The most obvious and easily identified such technique is when white wines are barrel-fermented. As many wine lovers know, white wines fermented in small oak barrels acquire a "thick" mouthfeel, something invitingly unctuous, almost slippery (in a good sense).

Barrel-fermenting white wines, especially such varieties as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, makes them seem fuller, richer and rounder.

Is that "texture"? Sure it is. But because it's a textural element that is easily identified and traced to a particular winemaking technique, I tend to identify that feature as "mouthfeel". I see it as a narrow term.

In comparison, "texture" is a broader term that, for me, captures a sense of fruit density, as well as the nature of the tannins. As is well-known, tannins are frequently described as being ripe or green; coarse or fine-grained; gritty or silky. Obviously, the nature and quality of tannins will dramatically affect "texture", as will acidity.

Of course, various winemaking techniques in both fermentation and barrel-aging, as well as the intrinsic nature of the grapes from due to variety and site, also influences the quality of the tannins.

Bottom line: I use the term "texture" to encompass the complete tactile experience of a wine. And I use the narrower term "mouthfeel" when identifying the result of a particular winemaking technique.

Wine terminology is hardly exact, however much some university professors would like to make it so. At this level, especially, it's best to be careful not to get too tangled in semantics.
James Van Dyke
Portland Oregon —  December 20, 2012 10:39pm ET
Terrific article. As a faithful reader of your column I appreciate how you demystify wine for me.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  December 22, 2012 11:18am ET
Not sure what I liked more - the original blog or your response to the questions regarding proportion/balance and mouthfeel/texture! Thank you for getting to the heart of the matter of tasting, rather than the ability to identify sensory identities such as cherries, wet stone, anise and currant!
Alfonso Cevola
Dallas, Texas, USA —  December 23, 2012 9:20am ET
Thanks Matt...

Nice piece, will be printing it out to hand out in classroom settings.

Happy Holidays

www.alfonsocevola.com
Derek Vinnicombe
Nackenheim, Germany —  December 27, 2012 8:54am ET
and thanks also from the other side of the pond for this great article. Wine as a living product matures over the years, i.e. all those adjectives used when "rated" as a youngster become obsolete, and a consumer or myself says "am I tasting the same wine?". I also like to first and foremost consider the potential that a wine has, give 'em a chance, so Matt's article hits the nail on the head!
Ross Michels Md
New Orleans, LA —  December 27, 2012 11:33am ET
Hey Matt - longtime avid reader here. This article is phenomenal in so many ways. I sincerely hope that this is the one that makes it into the print edition - this would be an enlightening read for not just the wine neophyte but also an eye opener for those who have been at it for years and somehow get stuck in the rut of focusing so much on descriptors and less on the experience and the most important characteristics of the wine. The most important part, despite your very reasonable suggestions, however, is the individual bottle and the situation in and people with which it is enjoyed. Cheers, and thanks again for the great insights!
John Norkus Jr
Houston, Tx., USA —  December 28, 2012 10:20am ET
Matt,

Thanks so much for giving us terminology and explanations that can act as an excellent guide for a person to enhance their tasting or appreciation of various wines. We can all use these terms to help us desribe and define what we taste in a wine to others.

Pamela Heiligenthal
Willamette Valley, OR —  December 29, 2012 9:27pm ET
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at that Seoul wine dinner! Insightful article, thanks Matt. I think describing a wine depends on where someone is at in his or her wine journey. Years ago, I started using imagery to jot down what I tasted. My older images simply list aromas and flavors. However, as my tasting evolved, so did my imagery. Scents and flavors complimented and juxtaposed additional descriptors of tannin, acid, body, finesse, texture and sweetness levels. I found this fascinating so I started sharing this imagery as a teaching tool. Visual aspects seem to resonate more than the written word for many, so I’ve found it an invaluable tool and fun way to share and learn.

Wishing you the best in 2013,
Pamela Heiligenthal
Enobytes
Steve Buck
Pleasanton,CA —  December 31, 2012 12:47am ET
Matt,

I actually think your six most important words and concepts are helpful but are severely lacking in a few respects:

First, a caveat: wine tasting always enjoys the "safe harbor" of subjectivity. And yet there is this urge to create a quasi-scientific or "objective" set of criterium to evaluate something very subjective. Often times when called on technical points or logical inconsistencies, people will run for the safe harbor. And yet, we use numerical scores and "blind" tasting techniques borrowed from science. Go figure.

Second, your words are highly interrelated. In science this is tricky to deal with. You have to be careful with this because it makes someone think of the six words as distinct criteria versus interrelated. For example, can a wine with good mid-palate density really lack complexity? Perhaps to some extent but its messy (and hence subjective). This makes keeping the concepts distinct less useful.

Third, your explanation of proportion in the comments section is troubling. You again use a quasi-scientific like analogy to explain proportion. Torso lengths are easily measured. This concept of proportion in wine is understood but not assessed using any unit of measure that is commonly accepted. However, you suggest that the wines flavors should be "metered out to you in roughly equal amounts and time spans: the scent, the beginning taste, the midpalate and, critically, the finish". I've never heard such a standard actually employed in such a precise manner. In fact, I'm not sure what "roughly equal amounts and time spans" really translates to or if it even makes sense for a finish to have an "equal time span" to a scent. My conclusion is this is an attempt to be precise and introduce objectivity. However, it doesn't quite make sense due to its lack of definition and inconsistencies. I'm not convinced that the "best wines" are always proportionate in the manner you suggest.

Lastly, what set me off was your use of LaTache. Frankly, most people do not drink LaTache and the number that could relate to tasting most vintages of it has got to be so utterly small. Basically, you've cited an example that would be difficult to challenge. However, you were a bit sloppy. You failed to check your Wine Spectator historical ratings for LaTache. It turns out that LaTache is a great wine, especially over the last 10-12 years. However, the average WS score for LaTache since 1934 is 91 (excluding the "50" given to the '83). In some years, LaTache has been very average - such as '86, '87, '92, and '94 - all with ratings in the low to mid 80s). The review for the '94 LaTache said the following: "a wall of green, astringent and dry tannins makes for a rough and hard-as-nails finish that seems, frankly, unbalanced. This finish is crisp, ungenerous and somewhat short." Hardly "never falling short" on its trajectory of taste.

I'm not trying to dissuade people from being technical in wine tasting. I simply do not find the creation and use of quasi-scientific techniques to confer authority status in this pursuit. It leads people to think too much about "right" and "wrong" ways to do things when the methods themselves may be flawed.
Allan Martineau
Canada —  January 2, 2013 4:03pm ET
Matt,
Well written and easy to understand and easier to transmit to others.
Complexity is "for me" the key word and I have often described it analogously as the number of chapters in a good book.

Thanks again
Ramona Peterson
Chicago, ill —  January 2, 2013 7:44pm ET
That was a three week seminar in a glass. So succinct! Thank you.
Bradley Wright
Cincinnati, OH —  January 7, 2013 11:09am ET
Great perspective on tasting. Thanks Matt.
Tim Mc Donald
Napa, CA USA —  February 4, 2013 6:14pm ET
Matt, it appears that you are more brilliant than we all thought, well done! Texture, Complexity, mid-experience, balance, finesse, and length. It really is not the price or the points or the reputation, it is always the sum of the parts. Nicely written and cheers!
Mary B Cotter-goldberg
Bedford, NH —  February 5, 2013 2:56pm ET
Matt- great article and very refreshing. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience
Esther Mercedes Juergens
Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy —  February 6, 2013 9:27am ET
Great article! 6 very comprehensible terms that everyone can relate to and which take the focus away from lables, prices and winespeak - thanks!
Marjorie L Valvano
Cincinnati, Ohio —  February 7, 2013 1:26pm ET
Congradulations, Matt!
Finally someone has described the true make-up of a wine. I have been in the industry and around wine for over 60 years. I am sure many of my early mentors, both in California and Europe, would be rolling around in their graves a thousand times if they could hear the outlandish descriptions around today. Wines are made from grapes (except fruit wines) They should taste and have the complexity of the grape. What's with this tobacco, licorice, ink, pencil shavings, tar, etc. etc. How ridiculous!
Dan Tudor
Tudor Wines, Santa Lucia Highlands, California, USA —  February 12, 2013 10:30pm ET
Matt,

Thank you for the excellent article. You sound more like an experienced winemaker than a wine writer or sommelier.

I would just add that yields, old vines and berry size do not always correlate with complexity, texture or mid-palate. Some AVA's, in typical vintages, can produce higher yields without sacrificing quality than other AVA's when growing the same grape variety, especially when it comes to pinot noir.

With all other factors relatively equal canopy management plays a large role. Sometimes we see lower yields and/or smaller berry size producing thinner, less complex pinot noir.

Site vigor, row orientation, soil density, when the fruit is picked, and handling all contribute to the end result as well.

Cheers!

Dan Tudor
Winemaker @ Tudor Wines

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