The Five S’s of Wine Tasting
Blog Post By Gina Verkamp
Clif Family Virtual Wine Educator and Sommelier
Have you ever had the experience of tasting a really great wine and then a week or two later, you go to a restaurant and try to describe to the waiter what you liked about that wine so you could order something similar, but struggled with how to describe it?
There is a systematic way of tasting wine, that any wine professional will use to evaluate wines. We call this, the Five S’s. Writing down the notes of your 5 S’s when you taste a wine can help you remember the qualities of the wines you like. There are also many great apps you can use on your phone to record your wine tasting experiences such as Tipple and got Bottle: Wine Tastings. Recording your notes will help you create better memories and build your “tasting muscles” so to speak.
Here’s how to evaluate a wine using the simple, five S’s model.
Pour about 2 ounces of wine into your glass. Before you do anything else, give the wine a swirl in your glass. Do this a few times to allow the wine to coat the sides of glass. By swirling the wine, you’re increasing the surface area of the wine exposing it to more oxygen. This allows the wine to “open up” or release more aromas inside the glass.
The next “S” in wine tasting is reflecting on what you see in the glass. Make sure you have a white or light-colored background when you are looking at your wine (a piece of paper or white napkin/tablecloth will do the trick). What color is the wine? If a white wine, is it lemon color? Or do you see gold tones? How about amber? Usually with white wines, the varietals can be slightly different colors. However, in general the older the wine, the more golden and eventually, amber the wine can appear. With a red wine, the color of a young wine is usually ruby, however, some grape varieties can have a blue/purple hue when young. As red wines age, then turn to garnet then tawny.
What is the intensity of your red wine? As you look through the top opening of your glass, can you easily see the stem? Or is the red wine so opaque, you cannot see through it at all? Rate your wine as pale, medium, or deep in your notes.
Once you have swirled up to at least half of the glass, stick your nose in and have a few good sniffs. What kind of fruits do you smell?
Generally the fruit and floral aromas come from the grape fermentation process and are called primary aromas. You might smell, apple, cherry, blackberries, and other fruits. Primary aromas also include white flowers and herbs like eucalyptus, mint, fennel and green peppers.
The aging process (before bottling) creates the secondary aromas, such as butter, toast, vanilla, cloves, coconut, charred wood, and coffee.
The aromas of bottle maturation are referred to as tertiary aromas and can be described as dried fruits, leather, earth, tobacco, caramel, petrol (gas), ginger and honey to name a few.
Write down what you are smelling.
I often get the question about the different fruits that you smell and taste in wines. Grape wines are made with a species of grapes called “Vitis Vinifera” which is very different than the table grapes you purchase at the grocery store. Vitis Vinifera grapes are much smaller than table grapes and have more concentrated flavors with woody seeds and thicker skins (red grapes) in a lot of cases.
When you ferment fruits, like table grapes, the wine will taste just like table grapes, if you ferment strawberries or blueberries, the wine will taste just like strawberries or blueberries. However, the Vitis Vinifera species of grapes are so amazing! When they go through the fermentation process, the finished wine can resemble other fruits that were never included in the fermentation with the Vitis Vinifera grapes. It’s kind of magical, and therefore folks like me have been fascinated with the study of wine. So, every time I have a glass of wine, I say “time to study”!
Now it is finally time to taste! The most important thing to remember about tasting, is to take your time before swallowing. Really let the wine coat your tongue, the roof of your mouth and the inside of your cheeks.
Are you tasting the same fruits and other notes that you sniffed? In general, yes. But sometimes you can detect even more flavor profiles on the “palate” (your tongue) than you can smell. Remember, every person’s ability to smell and taste are slightly different. I like to think of it as your ability to see. Some people have 20/20 vision and others need to squint or wear glasses. Every person can have slightly different flavor profiles, or ability to smell or taste delicate wine notes. This is what makes discussions about wines so much fun! Be sure to record what both what you are tasting and the feeling in your mouth.
Many people ask me why some wines make their mouth feel rough and dry. This is “tannin”. Tannin is a sensation that can be described as astringent. Tannin comes from the grape skins, the seeds and the oak barrels. Mostly wines made with red grapes have grape skin tannins because the skins stay in the juice during fermentation. White wines generally have the skins removed just after crushing and do not stay with the juice during fermentation.
While tannins can create a drying sensation in your mouth, it does not mean the wine is “dry”. The term “dry” in wine means the absence of sugar in a wine. Wines are referred to as sweet, off dry (semi-sweet) or dry (not sweet). It is important to know the difference between dry and tannin when you are describing what you like to your wine professional so they can sell you a wine to your specific liking.
Expert Tip: Wines high in tannin pair very nicely with salty and acidic (tart) foods. Try pairing a high tannin wine with cheddar or goat cheese. See how the wine changes after you take a nibble.
The most enjoyable part! Once we’ve worked through most of our senses, we also want to assess the length of the “finish” of the wine. The finish of the wine is the length of time in which the pleasurable flavors last in your mouth after you have swallowed or spat the wine out. The persistence of the flavors that reside after swallowing, indicate quality wines. You are not looking for the length of bitterness, or tart sensations here, you are specifically looking for fruit and other desirable flavors that linger for some time after the wine has left your mouth. The longer the finish, the higher the quality of wine.
Now that you know how to properly assess and record your tastings, you are ready to successfully describe what you like in a wine to anyone. Remember this takes practice and the more you work through these steps, the easier you’ll be able to identify characteristics you like or dislike, in a wine.
So how would I apply these steps to my favorite Clif Family wine? Here’s my example of my all-time favorites, our Kit’s Killer Cab Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
This wine has a beautiful medium ruby color. I love the aromas of plum, cedar and spice with touches of dried lavender. On the palate, this wine has medium body tannins with a smooth mid palate and quite long finish. Since I am a vegetarian, I love to pair it with grilled eggplant and root veggies.
Cheers and happy tasting!