How to improve your wine tasting game

Picking a wine: Knowing your price range is a good place to start.
Picking a wine: Knowing your price range is a good place to start. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Researchers have brought great news to those of us who prefer sipping vino to doing algebra. (That's all of us.)

In his book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, Gordon Shepherd goes into the physiology behind the tasting of wine which is actually more complex than just knocking back a glass of red. In interviews since, he talks about doing maths problems or listening to music by way of example, to point out exactly how complex wine tasting could potentially be. Cue mass internet hysteria. Unfortunately, there's no real scientific evidence to back this up and, contrary to other reports it's not actually in the book. But the fact remains that tasting wine triggers a series of actions in the brain which take it beyond a simple motion. 

Shepherd described the process of wine tasting in Flavour Journal: "These stages include the initial cephalic phase, visual analysis, ingestion, formation of the wine perceptual image, formation of the wine perceptual object, swallowing, and post-ingestive effects."

It all combines to create a complex combination of motor skills , Shepherd claims.

He writes: "Recent research suggests that the movements of the tongue in manipulating food (and wine) in the mouth are more complex than the movements used in creating the sounds of speech."

He surmises that this process is "engaging more of the brain than any other human behaviour".

Thinking about what you're drinking makes you enjoy the wine more.

 Smart wine tasting

Of course, this is all welcome news to wine appreciators – but first we need to get over the idea that we can't identify the flavours within different wines.

Adam Nicholls, who runs Yarra Valley tasting tours through Wine Compass, says people can be a little confronted by wine tastings, but should instead relax into it. "Lots of people drink wine, but there are so many who haven't really tasted it before," he says, adding that we all have the ability to get that full experience. "Most people have a reasonable palate and it's about identifying what those flavours are."

Training yourself to be more active in your wine tasting is the perfect way to get more than just a basic enjoyment from a glass of wine. "Thinking about what you're drinking makes you enjoy the wine more. It's like anything you practise: if you try to connect the wine with all your flavour receptors, you'll really enjoy it," Nicholls says.

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So how can you really become a smart wine taster?

Swirl and smell

"There's a connotation around people who swirl their wine around the glass and swirl it in their mouth, but it's important to do this to get the bouquet out," Nicholls says.

It's all part of immersing all your senses into the wine, and once those aromas are released you can really take them in. "Have a couple of big smells to prepare yourself for the taste of it," Nicholls says. "You're getting something out of the wine before you've even tried it, so when you taste it you've enhanced the experience."

Tune in to where you're tasting the wine

Interestingly, the parts of your mouth that are engaged during a tasting give you clues to the subtleties of a wine.

"Different parts of your mouth have different receptors; the outside of your tongue picks up sweetness, for example," Nicholls says. "So if the wine has some residual sugar you'll be able to pick it up by tuning into those receptors in your mouth."

Compare apples with oranges

"Comparing wines from the same winemaker or from the same region can be tricky," says Andy Pope from Sydney wine tasting company The Tasting Glass.

Instead, compare two wines that are completely different, to really engage your senses.

"If you compare two very different wines – for example, a South Australian riesling and a NSW chardonnay – that will help you understand the differences in things like acidity between the two," Pope suggests.

Taste without prior knowledge

If you love reading the tasting notes, save it for after the tasting itself.

"Reading the tasting notes has so much power of suggestion," Nicholls says. "If you've read or heard a lot about the wine before tasting it, your judgment is clouded. For example, if you go into a wine tasting and the tasting notes say there are passionfruit flavours in this wine, you're going to taste it."

"Try it first and then find out those things afterwards."

Keep an open mind

"Tasting a wine without knowing what variety it is can be confronting for some people," Nicholls says.

That's because we all tell ourselves stories about what we do and don't like – and we don't like to be proven wrong.

"The big one for this type of preconception is chardonnay," Nicholls says.

"At every tasting, there will be people who say they hate chardonnay, and if you give them a blind tasting, you'll show people that they might actually like it.

"It's really good fun and it gets you thinking."

It certainly beats high school maths classes, that's for sure.

  • This story has been updated since first publishing.