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The Odd Guide to Wine Tasting

Whether you're thinking about entering our competition or just looking to learn a bit more about the joys of tasting wine, we've put together a few handy tips...


What is your palate?

It’s all about the taste buds. Your mouth is filled with these little receptors; they govern how you prepare your morning coffee, what to have on your pizza and which chocolates to save in the box until last.

What is wine tasting?

Wine tasting has a reputation for being elitist and complicated, but it really isn’t; it’s easy, fun and anyone can do it. Think of it as drinking in slow motion, with additional thinking. It allows you to break the wine down so that you can remember it, compare it to others you’ve tried, assess its quality and work out if you want to further explore that style.
Just like fashion, sport, art, films - anything really - the more you get to know it, the more enjoyment and appreciation you will get in return. So what’s the first step?

Step 1 - Look

You often see professional wine tasters staring into a glass of wine as if searching for the answer in a crystal ball. This is because it’s possible to tell all sorts of things, like the age, grape variety or alcohol and sugar levels, just by looking. But, in reality, this is just a parlour game and you can come by the same information far quicker by looking at the label. This also allows you to crack on to Step 2 sooner, which brings you closer to actually drinking some wine. We’re going to be meanies though and deprive you the luxury of labels, as The Palate will be series of blind tastings. The main reason for looking at the wine is just to make sure it’s in good condition, i.e. not cloudy, lumpy or blue.
All good? Then let’s move on

Step 2 - Smell

Next we swirl the wine gently around the glass. This is done because it makes us look debonair and knowledgeable, and also because it draws air into the wine, releasing and intensifying the aromas, making it easier to smell. Although it’s rare, if a wine smells of dirty, wet socks, there might be a problem with the cork. So we take a quick sniff, just to check and prevent us putting tainted wine into our mouths.
All OK? Then take a bigger sniff, not too hard; the wine should remain in the glass. We then try to describe what we can smell using familiar terms, like fruits (e.g. lemon, strawberry), spices (e.g. cinnamon, pepper), plants (e.g. asparagus, cut grass), flowers (e.g. blossom, roses) and agriculture (meats, mushroom, earth). This allows us to remember it and discuss it with others. Jilly Goolden-style hyperbolic similes are fun, but not necessary. Have a quick think about whether you can smell lots of different aromas or just a few: this is called a wine’s “complexity”.
Right, enough smelling, you’re probably eager to know when you get to drink.

Step 3 - Taste

Now we get to the fun bit. Take a large sip, swirl the wine around your mouth, coat every surface, then swallow. From here you can judge the sweetness (on the tip of your tongue), acidity (watering down the sides of your tongue), tannin (drying sensation on the gums, similar to drinking black tea, that you get with red wines), body (the weight of the wine, think of milk: skimmed is light, semi-skimmed is medium and full-fat is full bodied) and alcohol (the feeling of heat in your mouth). These five make up what is called a wine’s “structure”.
Next, take another sip, tilt your head back slightly and, before you swallow, gently suck air over the wine in your mouth. Ignore the slightly unattractive gurgling noise; doing this draws aromas through your mouth and into your nose. Taste and smell are intrinsically linked; this is why food tastes dull when you have a cold. Don’t believe us? Pinch your nose and eat a mouthful of banana, then release your nose and retry; you’ll see. As you did when smelling, try to describe the flavours in familiar, everyday terms like fruits, spices, plants, flowers and agriculture. Finally, have a quick think about how complex the flavours are (are there lots or a few) and how long the flavours linger for.

Step 4 - Conclusion

Sorry if that title brings back bad memories of school science lessons, but this is the important bit. There are four things to consider...
Number 1:“ Structure: is it balanced? Too much sweetness and the wine can seem cloying, too much acidity and the wine tastes sour, too much body and the wine can feel heavy, too much tannin or alcohol and the wine feels harsh. In great wines these five things are in harmony.
Number 2:“ Complexity: generally, the more complicated a wine, i.e. the more aromas and flavours you can pick out, the higher the quality.
Number 3:“ Length of finish: another sign of quality is how long the flavour lingers after you’ve swallowed. If you can still taste it after 10 seconds, you know you’ve got a very good one.
Number 4:“ Opinion: do you like it? This is the big question; the answer will help you decide whether you want to try more wines in this style.

The price of the wine

Your conclusions help you to compare wines you’ve tried at different times. This comparison helps you to judge whether the wine you just bought is good value for money. But when considering the price, make sure you know the real price. Some retailers try to pull the wool over our eyes by elevating prices, so they can be slashed later to look like a good deal. We don’t do that at Oddbins: our wines are priced honestly. But we’re often asked if it’s worth spending more on wine and we’ll answer that question using the power of maths...

It’s no secret that a huge chunk of the price of wine is tax. £2 on each bottle is duty, regardless of price, and then on top there’s VAT at 20%. But the proportion of tax gets smaller as the price increases. The price of a £5 bottle of wine is 57% tax, while for a £10 bottle it is 37%. This leaves more money to invest in making the wine. In fact, quite a lot more...

After taking off all the tax and costs on a £5 wine, the proportion remaining for the winemaker is roughly 7p. Although not impossible, it’s extremely hard to make a great wine with 7p, hence the reason you won’t see many £5 wines in our range. For a £10 wine, because most of the costs are fixed, the winemaker’s share jumps to £2.73. So by spending £10 instead of £5, the money, and therefore the love, that can be invested in making the wine increases almost forty times. We’ll leave you to do the maths on that one...

Drinking less but drinking better offers greater value for money for you and puts less of your money into the taxman’s pocket. Music to the ears, no?

Music & Wine matching

No, we haven’t gone completely mad; music can prime your brain to react in certain ways, even to the wine in your glass or the wine you’re about to buy.

Heriot-Watt University, Texas Tech University, Clark Smith of wine consultancy Vinovation and late Californian winemaker Don Blackburn, to name a few, have all carried out scientific experiments to determine links between music and wine. The results include: customers spending more if classical music is playing in a shop and being more likely to buy German wine if the music playing is also German. Red wines apparently respond to the negative emotion of a minor key, tasters will more readily describe the character of wine as zingy and refreshing or powerful and heavy if the music playing matches those categories, Cabernet Sauvignon tastes better with dark, angry music, Pinot Noir likes sexy tunes and, whether you like the song or not, it can still have a positive impact on how good your wine tastes. Weird huh?

If you browse Oddbins.com you’ll see each wine has a music match. So we’ll be asking which songs enhance your drinking experience?


Food & Wine matching


Food and wine matching isn’t as hard as people think. The most important thing is that you like the wine and the food. But following a basic principle of matching like for like, you won’t go far wrong:

Match the weight. Heavy, rich foods need heavier wines, e.g. Australian Shiraz with beef goulash, while light meals would be better with lighter wine, e.g. green salad with Vinho Verde.

Match the intensity of flavour. You don’t want the wine to overpower the food or vice versa. Intense dishes like Thai food need intense wines like Gewurztraminer, delicate seafood would be better complemented by delicate Chablis.

Match acidity. Acidic foods need wines high in acidity; otherwise the wine can taste flat. Ingredients like tomatoes are high in acidity, this is why Italian wines have developed their own characteristic acidity, which leads us nicely on to…

Match a country’s wine and cuisine. Wine and food develop hand in hand, so French wine makes a good match for French food. Have you tried English fizz with fish and chips yet? There are notable exceptions such as German wines with Asian food.

Match sweetness. Sweet foods need wine that is as sweet or sweeter; otherwise the wine can taste sour.

Match flavours. Flavours in your wine can enhance similar flavours in the food. Herby notes of a Rhône red will draw out the rosemary in roast lamb for example.

There are always a few exceptions or oddities though:

Spicy food. Avoid oak and plump for something fruity.

Fat/protein. Meaty dishes need acidic wines to cut through the fat and protein softens tannins, bringing out the best in tannic wines like Chianti.

Oily food. Avoid big tannins and go for acidic wine to cut though oil.

Salty food. Avoid too much tannin by going for white or sweet wines, like Tokaji with foie gras.

Contrasting flavours can work well. Contrasting, but complementary flavours can make a great combination, like lemony wine with fish or savoury cheese with fruity Port.

Don’t forget the sauce. The sauce can be more important than what is in it. For example lemon chicken is delicate and simple, but coq au vin is rich and heavy.

If you need help please ask in any Oddbins shop or check out our online Food and Wine Matcher on Oddbins.com.