Understanding the 4 Sensory Characteristics of Wine
Wine is not just about taste and smell. We explain the four sensory characteristics of wine and how to identify and enjoy them all!
Wine tasting should be simple right?
Well, in order to 'get the most' out of the wine, it's not just a matter of drinking.
The more correct term might actually be something like 'smelling the wine while it’s in your mouth'.
The process looks simple enough from the outside. You take a sip of wine, and either spit it, or swallow it.
In reality, there's a whole lot more going on behind the scenes. Many more of your senses will come into play and I'll explain this in more detail down below.
What's With All the Slurping and Gurgling?
The first question I'm always asked from those that are new to wine, is what exactly is that noise that wine tasters make?
What’s the deal with all the slurping and gurgling noises?
If you have seen people do this when they take a sip of wine, make slurping noise, what they are actually doing is trying to get the most out of the wine.
While the wine is in their mouth, they open their mouth slightly and have a quick intake of air, in the form of a ‘slurp’, this does two things:
- 1This pushes the aroma compounds to the olfactory bulb at the base of the brain (the same place as aromas go from the nose)
- 2Enhances the tactile sensations that the wine has on the tongue and in the mouth
The 4 Sensory Characteristics of Wine
These are the four component experiences that we can break wine down into.
A good wine should provide an enjoyable experience in each way.
We'll explain how down below.
1. Wine to Taste
In order to understand how to experience wine, let's have a look at the general tastes that we experience when we drink wine. They are actually quite limited.
These are primary tastes that we experience in wine:
That sweet sugar sensation is mainly due to the sugar content in the wine.
This can be actual sugar sweetness or fruit sweetness.
Alcohol itself is also a sweet liquid, so higher alcohol wines can give the perception of a ‘sweet’ taste.
However, the sweetest wines are usually lower in alcohol content as less sugar is converted into alcohol. The winemakers intentionally interrupt the fermentation process for this reason.
Related: Don't miss our winemaking tutorial on sweeting wines.
Acidity is a fresh, tart like taste in the mouth. Acidity usually is the result on the ripeness of the grapes used in the winemaking.
As grapes ripen, the acid content goes down and they become less acidic, this is especially true for white grapes.
Bitter tastes in wines should be very limited. Bitter tastes can come from extremely young wines that have not matured, and be connected with tannin content.
Although rare, some particular wines can be salty to taste, this comes about from where the grapes were grown. Sea spray is the biggest culprit for salty wines.
2. Wine to Touch
This is usually described by the word 'body' and we'll explain this. However, there are other ways wine can affect us in this way.
The body of a wine is a reference to its perceived weight.
This is like comparing how a mouthful of water compares to a mouthful of olive oil.
There is a misconception that ‘body’ is directly related to the alcohol content. This is not completely correct. Yes, it is a contributing factor to the perception of weight but it's not the sole contributor.
The weight is affected by compounds in the wine, the amount of sugar, and the alcohol content.
Light Bodied Wines
Think of certain sparkling wines, this lightness of weight. Dry white wines also have this certain light body characteristic. Wines that lack body are usually ‘watery’ and ‘thin’.
Medium Bodied Wines
German and Eastern European are famously medium-bodied. They hold a certain weight because of the climate and naturally produce a wine of that style.
Full Bodied Wines
Think of oaked Chardonnays, they have a heavier weight to them in the mouth. Full-bodied wines rarely come from locations like New Zealand, Switzerland or Germany.
They do come from France, Italy and Spain. These wines have a lot of flavor and are termed full-bodied.
The burning sensation is directly linked to alcohol. If you've had high ABV liquor like whisky before then you'll be familiar with the sensation of burning.
This whisky level of burning isn't something you should get from a wine and would indicate a serious problem, but you can get a sensation of heat from wines with higher alcohol levels.
This is the name for that drying sensation in the mouth. Red wines that have high levels of tannins cause this feeling.
You can feel it on your tongue, teeth, gums, lips and cheeks. Tannins interact with the saliva in your mouth and restricts the lubrication action, this is what makes your mouth feel dry.
How severe or gently the tannins occur is related to texture.
The texture of a wine is related to the wines weight, but it's not the sole contributing factor. That drying feeling from a wines tannin can be very ‘soft’ and others can feel ‘coarse’ ‘and sandy’.
Texture is a tactile sensation. You can experience this better in wines that are more ‘creamy’ (like an oaked Chardonnay) than others that are more ‘crisp’.
A smooth, soft texture is a mouthfeel that all good quality wines should have, you should not be experiencing anything harsh or aggressive.
Time and quantity related sensory experiences are a subset of the wine's feel. These are things like:
3. Wine to Smell
Although our sense of smell is not fully understood, it is the wine’s volatiles compounds going up our nose in the form of a vapor, which gives us the impressions of fruit, citrus, oak and herbaceous characters.
The aromas that are present in the finished wine are strictly the result of:
- 1Grape variety
A wines ‘cleanliness’ will be apparent as you first sniff the wine. You'll be able to recognize faults immediately through your sense of smell.
After a wine is confirmed by you to be clean, what we are looking for is a recognition of aromas and intensity of aromas.
Some wines are more non-descript than others and you may find wines that are a bit "dull on the nose".
This is a perfectly legitimate critique.
A few short sniffs of a glass is enough to pick up the aromas. Any more than that and you'll exhaust your sense of smell. Then you'll lose the ability to pick out individual notes and all you'll smell is generic wine.
4. Wine to Observe
A wine's color mainly results from the contact time between the grape skins and the grape must after juicing.
Usually grapes with thicker skins will make a wine with a bolder color. Aging a wine with oak will also make a darker colored wine. You see this well with oaked Chardonnays. They a more bold golden color.
With white wines, a darker yellow color usually indicates aging in oak barrels.
With red wines, a lighter color usually means a fresher wine that may be tart. Darker, bolder red wines are usually more complex and probably have more age. The deepest, darkest red color usually means it has seen some oak too.
Taking time to observe a wine before tasting or smelling can give you vital clues regarding the winemaking methods and techniques. You may also be able to have some idea of what it may taste like before it touches your mouth!
This skill comes with experience. The more that you know about different grape varietals, the more instinct you will have for its relationship with wine coloration.
A wine is described as being 'complex' in the aromatic and flavor observation of wine.
When it's complex in flavor. it is describing the layers and diverstity of:
- Fruit characteristics
- Winemaking techniques (oak, age, fermentation style etc.)
This concept of a wines structure can be a little tricky to explain, but it’s the culmination of all the above sensations in the wine.
All the sensory experiences of the wines elements should be well integrated and complement each other. This is the term for how the wine is put together and whether it has a good backbone.
The key component to whether a wine has ‘good structure’ is then the balance.
High quality wines have an excellent balance of all the key components.
Balancing acidity, sweetness (or dryness), alcohol and varietal character are the goals of every winemaker
But it’s not the reason behind why wine is enjoyed by so many.
The most exciting and magical part of wine is how the grapes expresses themselves.
How can a simple grape give off aromas and flavors the way that it does?
How can you smell passion fruit when there is no passion fruit in there?
Citrus when there is no lemon?
Freshly baked bread, when there is no bread?!
As you become more sensitive to the components of wine you will likely love it even more.
It could be little things like realizing how floral a wine is, or how the taste of cherries coats your tongue.
You may be at that stage now, and when you taste a wine that tastes perfect to you, it’s a truly exciting moment!