Swirling, sniffing, watching the weather pressure and even smelling your hand can help you identify and appreciate a drink’s finer details. Jo Rees squeezed some insider’s tips from a few top tasters
You taste with your nose
Any schoolchild will tell you that different parts of the tongue help us identify sweet, salt, sour, umami and bitter flavours, but new research suggests that tasting using the tongue is actually a lot more complex than that. It’s still a little contentious, but one thing that everyone agrees on is that the nose is more important than the mouth when it comes to identifying flavours.
It’s all in the swirl
When tasting any drink, the first and most important step is to smell it. And, in order to release the molecules of the drink, there’s nothing more effective than swirling it around the inside edge of the glass, putting your nose in and inhaling.
Wine expert April Marks of Regency Wines in Exeter says: ‘A gentle swirl of the glass to aerate the wine will work wonders to allow the aromas to dance up and into your nostrils.
‘When tasting, look for a clean-smelling wine and try to break down the characteristics by looking for aromas of fruit, flowers, spices, vegetables, perhaps oak or anything else you might recognise. How pronounced are the aromas? Lightly pronounced wines with few differing aromas are likely to be cheaper one-dimensional wines. However, if it’s light to moderate with lots of different smells every time you go back for another sniff, it could mean you’ve got an elegant wine in your hand.’
The process of tasting beers and ales is similar although the flavours being identified are obviously different. Lou Treseder of The Driftwood Spars dining pub and brewery at Trevaunance Cove, Cornwall, says: ‘You should be able to pick up smells of hops – these will be grassy, citrusy, fruity notes – while the malts can give coffee, chocolate and caramel notes. A pleasant aroma is essential: if a beer smells of sulphur or wet newspaper, I would suggest to the publican that their lines might need a clean. The aroma should entice you to want to try the beer.’
Pro tasters’ secret weapons
If you’re tasting numerous drinks of the same type, your olfactory system can get a bit overwhelmed. The team at Tarquin’s Cornish Gin suggest sniffing the back of your hand to reset your sense of smell, so that you can more clearly identify the aromas coming from the gin.
Similarly, some pro tasters (of many kinds of food and drink) use coffee beans to refresh their sense of smell when tasting repeatedly. They keep a small bowl of freshly roasted beans to hand and give them a sniff when they feel they’re not distinguishing flavours so clearly. Slices of green apple (for eating, instead of smelling) are another item commonly used for this purpose.
Lou says: ‘When trying lots of different beers I find it’s helpful to refresh the palate with dry crackers and water.’
The weather affects what you can taste
It’s commonly agreed that wine tastes better when the atmospheric pressure is higher. Air pressure affects the sinus cavities and, as what we taste is mostly what we smell, it makes sense that pressure may have an effect.
Consult the moon
April says: ‘Before tasting wine the first thing I do is check the biodynamic calendar in my 2019 edition of When Wine Tastes Best. This sounds a little crazy, I appreciate; however, I have been using the biodynamic calendar for over a decade and I am convinced of its accuracy. The theory is based on 55 years of research by Maria Thun who claims it’s all down to the moon’s influence on living organisms and how they respond to its rhythms. To put it simply, different days (and times) will fall into leaf, root, flower or fruit elements. Wine will be more expressive and taste at its best during fruit and flower times. Our country’s largest supermarkets are guided by this calendar so I’m clearly not alone in using it as a tool.’
Look for clarity
Beyond sniffing and tasting, using our eyes is also important. April considers the clarity of a wine when she’s tasting it as this reveals if it’s in good condition. Then she considers the colour.
Checking for clarity is also important when assessing beer. Lou says: ‘Unfined beers are becoming more popular as people want less additives in their drink, but finings help the yeast sediment drop out of the beer, making it clear. So if your beer is fined you want it to be crystal clear.
‘Temperature is important, too. Too cold and you could get a chill haze and you won’t taste the full flavour of the beer. The ideal temperature is between 8–13˚c, but a hearty winter beer won’t give you its fullness of flavour if served too cold. I believe a good beer will still taste delicious if it’s warm.’
The final element that tasters consider is balance. ‘A good beer should be well balanced between the sweetness of the malt and the bitterness of the hops,’ says Lou. ‘Let the beer linger in your mouth before you swallow. Unlike when tasting wine, you don’t spit beer as the dryness and bitterness can only be appreciated when you swallow. An unbalanced beer will cloy up your taste buds with either too much bitterness or sweetness.’
Similar harmonious interplay is important when assessing wine. April adds: ‘We look for a good balance between acid, tannin, alcohol, body and flavour intensity. Is the wine dry, off-dry or sweet? How long do the flavours last and do they change from when you first noticed them to when they finally disappear? To master wine takes a fair bit of practise – but then that’s the best part.’