Wine and wine tasting can be intimidating. I recall watching with both envy and disdain as some wine snob at a tasting swirled the wine around the glass (while holding not the stem but the base of the glass), thinking, how do they do that? I am proficient with a pair of scissors and multiple makeup brushes. But that wine swirling thing, barely. And definitely not while holding the base of the glass. C’est la vie.
The good news: it is not a requirement to know how swirl wine in a glass to enjoy wine. Nor is it required to pass the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) exams. I’ve mentioned taking this course in previous articles and how helpful it has been for me in not only learning about wine, but enjoying wine. The happiness I get from drinking a glass of wine I like has increased tenfold. Why? A key component of the WSET program is known as the Systematic Approach To Tasting, or SAT. As a direct result of learning this method of tasting wine, I now know what kind of wine I really like and why.
The WSET website states: “its core values and its drive to deliver wine and spirit education to the very highest of standards the world over – is central to the continued growth of the industry.”
While at the Wine Blogger’s Conference in Lodi, California last month, I had a chance to refresh my WSET knowledge (and get a peek into the level 3 course), during a session taught by Deborah Parker Wong, DWSET. The D in DWSET stands for diploma, and indicates someone who has completed a rigorous two to three year course of study and is eminently qualified to teach.
What exactly is the SAT? It’s a four part approach to tasting wine. As you progress through the different levels of WSET study, the four parts become more nuanced, but the basics are always there. It’s been one year since I took the course, and this class was a great reminder for me to return to the basics –just in the nick of time. Attending the wine blogger’s conference without a game plan would not have gone well at all.
Want to know more about the SAT?
The WSET does not allow reproduction of this material without written consent, so it you want to see the official material take a gander at the website. I’m going to give you the CliffNotes here:
Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine (the author’s version)
Look at the wine before you guzzle it. Study it. What does it look like? Notice the color and clarity of the wine. This will also give you information about the kind of grapes used to make the wine and how old the wine is. And that’s just the tip of the grape.
Smell it. Don’t swirl it around yet. Stick your nose in the glass. Then, swirl it around (but not with your nose in the glass, ha!), and smell it again. Does it smell different? If you don’t notice anything different at this point, I recommend you just go ahead and drink it and forget the rest of the steps. Kidding. What you want to notice are the aroma characteristics. Does it smell like fruit, flowers, spices, or vegetables? Is it intense? Pronounced? Don’t worry if you don’t notice much at first. I remember in my classes, the instructor would ask us to just blurt out what we smelled. I heard people say things like, “I smell the rind of a melon.” What? What the heck does that smell like? I didn’t get that. If you don’t get it either, it’s ok. The great news is that this is somewhat subjective.
Now you get to finally taste the wine. Take a good mouthful and swish it around a bit so every part of your tongue and mouth are coated. Think about this wine in your mouth…how does it taste? Is it dry, sweet, acidic, tannic? Does it have a light, medium or full body? What are the flavors?
But wait. Don’t swallow it, spit it out. Don’t worry, you can taste it again. But there’s a good reason for spitting it out. Remember you’re tasting wine, not guzzling wine. If you don’t spit, in no time at all you’ll no longer be able to make objective decisions. Learning to spit changed wine tasting for me in the best way. I promise. You’ll still absorb some alcohol, so don’t think you can’t get tipsy even if you spit. It can’t be helped.
There’s a lot more to this, but you get the idea. For example, if you taste a wine with a lot of tannins, you cannot mistake that. You know that feeling you get when the inside of your mouth feels like your tongue is going to stick to it? Tannins.
Finally, there’s the conclusion: How was the wine? Was it good quality? Excellent? Ok? This in no way has to do with the price of the wine, though some may argue this point.
Those are the basics of the SAT. Once you’ve practiced them about zillion times, it gets easier. Things start to make sense. You will taste and smell the inside of the melon rind and a whole lot more. It even begins to get exciting.
Finally, if you want to learn more about wine tasting, watch this uber-fun video by Wine Folly. Even if you don’t want to learn about wine tasting, you’ll laugh a lot.
Thank you, Deborah Parker Wong, for a great class and presentation.
Many thanks to the Consorzio Italia di Vini and Sapori for their sponsorship of the Wine Bloggers Conference 2016 and the Wine Bloggers Scholarship fund for assistance with travel to Lodi. It has enhanced my understanding and appreciation of wine.