I’ve also emphasized the fact that there are no short cuts. There is no hacking becoming a proficient taster just as there is no hacking being an opera singer or a downhill skier. All require a lengthy learning curve, coaching, and again lots of practice.
That’s the bad news—there are no short cuts. The good news is that this is wine we’re dealing with and not widgets. Wine, as in one of the greatest gifts from nature mankind has ever stumbled upon. That said, when you first start out on a wine exam track the tasting aspect can seem overwhelming—regardless of curriculum.
It brings to mind the old proverb about eating an elephant one bite at time. With tasting, this ancient quip applies in the form of incremental learning and practice. Keeping the elephant in mind, here are some tips about tasting and wine in general.
Memorize the grid: regardless of whether you’re using the MS or the WSET tasting grid, the very first thing you must do is memorize it. Break the grid down into groups of three terms and memorize their definitions. Be able to explain the terms and the grid to someone who’s not in the wine industry. Famed physicist Richard Feynman once said that if you can’t explain something to an eight-year-old, you really don’t know it. Nothing could be truer.
Learn common wine terms: find a good glossary of wine terms and begin to chip away at it daily, again in three-to-five-word increments. In the beginning focus on terms that have to do with tasting. Again, be able to explain the terms to someone who’s not in the industry. Otherwise, you don’t really know them and you certainly won’t remember what they mean.
Improving memory for basic aromatics and flavors: there are about 25-30 aromas and flavors commonly found in a majority of all wines. Things as basic as lemon, green apple, and vanilla. I call this list the Basic Set. Work on your memory for these elements for a few minutes every day—without wine. Tasting will become much easier if you do (see the last post for more info on the Basic Set).
Connect the dots: when you taste for structure, start to connect the fruit character of the wine and the structure to the kind of climate where the grapes were grown. For example, a wine with higher alcohol and less natural acidity that shows really ripe fruit is almost always from a warmer growing region. Likewise, a wine with restrained alcohol and higher natural acidity with tarter fruit is usually from a cooler growing region.
Write your own varietal descriptions: there are many list of grape variety descriptions available, but you need to create a personal list with your own markers for each grape and what makes them easy to identify—for you. Start with the easy grapes/descriptions and write one or two a day—or any time you taste an appropriate wine. Read them regularly—out loud if you can. It’s yet another way to use multiple-sense memory to identify a grape and wine when the time comes.
Get a Coravin: the one wine accessory you must own for tasting practice is a Coravin. If not familiar, a Coravin is a device with a surgical needle attached to a small tank of argon. The needle can be placed all the way through a cork allowing wine to be taken from the bottle. The volume of wine is then replaced by the argon which acts as a preservative. Most importantly, the cork remains intact and the remaining wine preserved. While the up-front cost of a Coravin is far from inexpensive, it will save untold thousands of dollars in the long run by allowing you to purchase best examples of classic wines and taste them multiple times.
Tasting practice in pairs: taste wines in pairs using the Coravin. Always compare a more challenging wine with a wine that’s easy to recognize. For example, a dry Chenin Blanc from the Loire vs. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Focus on impact compounds--the most important aromas and flavors--and the differences in structure. These two aspects are the most important in varietal recognition.
One bite at a time! Keep a journal of the work you’re doing each day and the wines you’re tasting/working with. Be patient with your progress. You’ll be surprised at how much progress you can achieve even in a short period of time with consistent work. Remind yourself often that tasting is unlike anything you’ve ever learned. That’s simply because practically everything else you’ve ever learned just involved visual memory. Learning how to taste requires the use of multiple senses in rapid sequence. It’s not exactly easy—but more than worth the effort and certainly the journey.