Taste wine like a sommelier
Here at the ’fo we’re staunch about our no bowties, no bullshit approach to wine. But that don’t mean we can’t spot a fine wine from a mile away. If you’re ever dithering about what to put in your basket, one of the quickest ways to know if a wine is worth tasting is a Halliday rating.
A score towards 100 means that one of the fine folk at Halliday Wine Companion have liked what they tasted. And in the Australian wine world, that’s about as definitive as it gets.
The tasting dream team
Behind the Wine Companion rankings are seven tasters with some of the most refined palates in the business. This crew of vinophiles have the job of compiling the annual Halliday Wine Companion and judging the prestigious Halliday Wine Companion Awards. And that means tasting a lot of wine – we’re talking thousands of bottles a year.
Independent wine writer Erin Larkin is one of Halliday’s judges, and the WA Regional Taster. On the eve of The Halliday Wine Companion 2022 awards, Erin took a moment to share her top wine tasting tips with us. So, the next time you crack a wine at home, pretend you’re slinging it back at your favourite wine bar. Slow down, give it a swirl and try out some of Erin’s techniques to taste wine like a pro.
How to taste wine, in 5 steps
Don’t expect to become an expert wine judge overnight, that is quite literally the Halliday team’s day job. Last year, Erin estimates, she tasted more than 1400 wines (she’s done a podcast on the topic if you’re thirsty for more). “While judging, I look for balance, length of flavour and pleasure – it’s got to have all three to be the best,” Erin says. “When I’m ‘off-duty drinking’, I look for exactly the same thing; just in a different order.” Put into the context of its category, Erin is able to decide how she ranks the wine.
To break it down for you, these are the five key things Erin looks for when tasting wine.
The first thing Erin looks for when she tastes a wine is flavour, asking herself “What can I taste?” Try to pick out a few key flavours – and don’t be afraid to get creative (most wine writers do). There are all sorts of crazy compounds that can impact the aroma and flavour of wine, so try to go one better than ‘fruity’.
Erin is next looking for harmony in the glass. “How do all of the elements work together in the wine, do they work?” An unbalanced wine delivers an unbalanced tasting experience. “I also look closely at the tannins and acid in both red and white wines – the way these two elements intersect is really important and often determines what face I pull at the end.”
A wine critic can only tell you so much about a wine, whether or not you like it comes down to your palate. Approach the wine in your glass objectively and be honest – does it give you a sense of pleasure? “I ask ‘How good is it – am I going back for more?’” Erin says. If the answer is yes, then the winemaker has done something right.
More towards the technical end of wine tasting, Erin identifies length as the “ultimate key to quality”. When tasting for length, Erin is asking, “How long does the flavour linger after the wine has gone?” A wine’s length is how long the flavours remain on your palate after you swallow or spit it out. Generally speaking, the longer the finish, the finer the wine.
Although an individual wine can be judged on its own merits, it’s only possibly to understand its wider value based on context. “It’s good, but how good is it, in context with all the other [insert variety here]?” Erin asks. The only way to know for sure is to be comprehensive in your tasting – just in case you needed an excuse to splash out on a mixed dozen…
Treat wine tasting like a champ
Now you know how to taste a wine like a sommelier, it’s time to put it to the test. Taste widely and taste wisely – the more wines you try, the more well-rounded your palate. “Practice makes perfect – I taste a lot, so my palate is fit,” says Erin. “Like running, if you go everyday, you’ll go a little further each time.” Now that’s a fitness regime we can get behind.
Don’t judge a wine by its price tag
Some of the finest (read priciest) wines in the country might come across the desks of the Halliday crew. But Erin insists not all wine needs a high price tag to be good. But there’s a difference between ‘cheap’ wine and good-value wine, she stresses. “’Cheap’ means sorting by price and starting at the bottom. ‘Value’ is a wine that punches above its price point and gives great bang for buck. These are the wines we want to swarm around.”
Wines from lesser-known wine regions or less popular grape varietals can sit beautifully in this sweet spot. Remember, the best wine is the one you are holding in your hand, mofos.
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