When tasting any wine, whether formally or just for your own pleasure, there are three main components you should examine: appearance, nose and palate. You might even use terms like ‘legs’ (an indication of alcohol content), or recite a laundry list of fruit, spice or savory aromas that can be detected on the nose when discussing wine. If you’re really geeky, you may even start to discuss and discern the various sugar, acid and tannin levels in the wine, and what those components do to the overall wine structure.
But at some point, you’ll ask a most important question: is this wine any good?
Once you get past describing the wine’s color, what aromas are present on the nose, and what sort of flavors and structural components are detected on the palate, it is time to gauge the wine’s quality. Mind you, that is a different question than ‘do I like this wine’. You may love Two Buck Chuck for various reasons, but when going through this four-step quality checklist, you will understand the difference between determining if you like a wine or if it’s a good wine.
This word gets thrown around quite often in the world of wine, and is arguably the most important element necessary for a quality wine. But the trick to detecting and judging balance is to understand what balances with what: Fruit with tannin; alcohol with sugar; acid with fruit. If all those things work together, meaning one component isn’t at odds with or overpowering another, . then you can put a checkmark in the proverbial Balance box.
Length describes how long a wine’s flavor or other components stay on your tongue. When assessing length, ask yourself whether the flavors of the wine linger in your mouth for several seconds or if they quickly dissipate after imbibing. Are those flavors enjoyable or are they somewhat harsh, astringent or bitter? A wine’s length and finish can be enchanting, practically begging for you for another sip (or maybe a second glass!). So, when a wine has a long, intriguing and satisfying finish, you can check off Length as being present.
Intensity and Expressiveness
Intensity is detectable on both the nose and the palate. When a wine’s aromas jump out of the glass, or when the flavors practically taste three dimensional, those are signs of an intense wine. If a wine has identifiable characteristics that are clearly tied to a particular grape variety, region or terroir, it can be said to be expressive of that particular grape or region. In other words, when you sip a Premier Cru Chablis and detect green fruits and minerality coming through, then the Intensity and Expressiveness box can get checked off.
Some wines can be considered simple if they only display one or two characteristics. For example, an entry-level Pinot Grigio wine may have high acid, citrus fruits and maybe a hint of floral notes, and would be considered a simple wine. However, that does not indicate that it isn’t well made or enjoyable; it’s just the inherent style of some Pinot Grigio. But to be considered complex, a wine should have various aromas and flavors that are primary (fruit, spice, floral notes from the grape), secondary (flavors and aromas that come from oak maturation or fermentation techniques like lees stirring), and tertiary (flavor components that come from bottle age, e.g. earth and mushrooms). Plus, there should be notable acidity and/or tannins on the wine that give the structural composition some interesting personality. So, when a wine has all of these glorious aromas and flavors in combination with possibly mouthwatering acidity, gripping tannins and is full bodied on the palate, well, my friend, you have a complex wine on your hands.
Now that you have determined if a wine possesses these four important qualities, you can determine overall quality. If none of the boxes get a check mark, that could be a sign of a poorly made wine, as all wines should be able to display at least one quality characteristic. If just one of the boxes gets a check, think of that wine as acceptable, but maybe nothing too special. If you can taste a wine with two given checkmarks, you probably have a good wine. And when a wine receives a check mark in every box on this list, then you are fortunate enough to be sipping on an outstanding wine… and life is good!