A small introduction to tasting.

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Is tasting an art? Perhaps. For sure, however, it is a practice that requires competence, method and experience to be conducted at its best. It’s one thing to taste as a profession, though, and another thing to do as an enthusiast.

Professional tasting and amateur tasting

In the first case we will consider, very roughly, who deals with the wine directly; above all, the producer and the winemaker. Then there is a whole series of professional figures who must taste the wine in order to classify, judge and promote it, and propose it to the public (critics, sommeliers, restaurateurs, etc.). The need for a professional taster, therefore, depends on a variety of very precise commercial needs.

The enthusiast, on the other hand, tastes purely for pleasure. If for the uninitiated distinguishing a Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG from a Franciacorta is basically irrelevant, for the enthusiast it is almost a matter of principle.

In fact, it is one thing to abandon oneself to the first superficial sensations. To adopt a conscious attitude to tasting is a different thing; certainly more difficult but incomparably more rewarding. And since, as they say, no one is born a doctor, it is fair also to say that if tasting is a skilled practice, and certainly it is, it also requires a technique that needs to be taught and learned.

While not pretending to be a professional sommelier, (we would remind those interested of the courses organized by the Italian Sommelier Association and the Italian Federation of Sommelier Hoteliers and Restaurateurs), the more we are able to appreciate a wine according to a series of more or less codified criteria, the more we will come to understand and love it. But we have to start with the basics.

A multi-sensory experience

Maybe we don't realize it, but when we learn to savour a glass of wine all of our senses are involved. There are three phases of a tasting – visual, olfactory and gustatory.

  • The visual (appearance). The first impact with wine we have is with our eyes. The colour, clarity, depth and effervescence, (as in the case of a Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG), already provide us with a lot of information. The state of preservation of the wine, for example, its age and, although to be confirmed later, its quality. The so-called perlage, for example, is an important clue for sparkling wines; the finer the bubbles, the finer the wine will be.
  • The olfactory (smell). In tasting, the sense of smell is perhaps the most complex of the senses because it is responsible for both the decoding of the perfume and, in large part, the taste we experience in the mouth. To realize this, it is enough to think about how much our perception of flavours changes when we have a cold – we cannot tell them apart, and everything tastes bland.
  • The gustatory (taste). It is the taste that we sense in the mouth. It starts from the tongue (whose “geography” allows us to distinguish the sweet from the bitter, the sour from the salty) and extends to the palate. To be fully appreciated it needs the help of the sense of smell, as we have seen.
  • Touch. Apparently the most alien, it is actually a fundamental sense. The perceptions of astringency, due to the tannins present especially, in reds, are actually tactile. The bubbles of a Conegliano Valdobbiadene that press on the tongue are also tactile. So are the temperature and volume or “body” of the wine.
  • Taste and smell. These are responsible, in the last phase, for the perception of the “finish” or aromatic persistence – what we have left of the wine after swallowing it. The correspondence between what was previously felt and how much persists in the mouth.

Olfactory/gustatory memory

Each of us has a sort of sensory database from which we draw, most often unconsciously, to distinguish smells, scents, flavours. A culinary aroma that spreads through the kitchen already tells us a lot about the type of dish we are going to taste; we can, almost tactilely, foretaste it in the mouth. The same happens with wines. Thanks to our taste memory we can make distinctions and compare the aromas that come from the present glass to other previous tasting experiences.

After all, tasting is a continuous comparison; immediate sensations, (those caused by the wine we have in front of us), and past sensations that provide us with the key to identifying the present. While we can recognize certain flavours immediately, for example sweet or savoury, when it comes to more complex, less precise taste nuances, we must rely on our gustatory/olfactory memory to bring to the surface scents already experienced. This does not happen without effort.

In short, wine tasting is...

...a sensory analysis very different from the simple act of drinking. It involves reflection, recognition and judgment. And, therefore, a certain commitment. Commitment aimed at mastering the basic techniques, to be able to appreciate the most diverse nuances of a wine. But the effort, which, in the company of the right friends turns into a beautiful shared experience, is amply rewarded by the satisfaction and joy of discovery; the pleasure of grasping some aspects of a wine that we were not able to recognize before.
The civility of drinking well starts here.