Wine tasting is a fun and social activity, yet many are intimidated by tasting room conversations. These basic questions will guide you through a wine tasting dialogue and help you understand the significance behind these common questions related to wine.
Use your new knowledge at Quigley’s next Wine Wednesday, which is held the first Wednesday of the month.
Common questions for red wines
Was the wine aged in oak?
Why this matters: Oak imparts flavors (such as vanilla or smoke) into wine. It also helps mellow young or bold tannins and allows for a slow infusion of oxygen into the wine, which helps cut the wine’s astringent flavors.
Not all red wines are aged in oak, however: if the winemaker has chosen to create a non-oaked red wine, do not be afraid to ask why.
For how long was the wine aged in oak? Is that an exceptionally long or short amount of aging for this wine?
Why this matters: The length of time that wine is aged in oak will determine how much of the above-mentioned flavors are imparted into the wine (and how much the tannins mellow).
How long is “long” for aging a wine? Put this number into perspective by asking about the significance of the length of time a wine is aged in the barrel and/or bottle.
Was the oak American or French (or from elsewhere, such as Hungary)?*
Why this matters: American oak barrels impart more vanilla and sweet flavors and aromas while French oak tends to be more subtle. Winemakers often use American oak for more robust wines (such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel) and French oak for lighter wines (such as Pinot Noir).
*Most barrels are produced in the USA or France, so it is safe to assume the wines have been aged in either French or American oak barrels.
What aromas or flavors did the barrel aging bring to the wine?
Why this matters: A wine’s complex flavors and aromas come the grapes and the barrel. How did barrel aging affect this particular wine, and what flavors and aromas are you experiencing as a result of this aging?
Was the wine aged in large casks, small barrels, or a combination of the two? (And why?)
Why this matters: Wine can be aged in large casks, traditional barrels, or a combination of the two. If the winemaker has chosen a specific amount of time for the wine to spend in contact with oak, find out why! Remember that the choice of larger casks or barrels is due in part to surface area: since less of the wine comes into contact with larger barrels or casks, fewer flavors are imparted.
Common questions for white wines
(If the wine tastes crisp.) Was this wine fermented/aged in stainless steel?
Why this matters: Rather than using oak, which can impart bolder flavors into wine, winemakers often use stainless steel casks for fermentation and aging. This allows you to taste the wine in its pure form.
(If the wine tastes full-bodied.) Did this wine undergo malolactic fermentation?
Why this matters: Winemakers often choose to let more full-bodied wines, such as Chardonnay, undergo a second fermentation called “malolactic fermentation.” This creates a rounder, complex wine (and often leads to a very buttery flavor, especially in Chardonnay).
What year should I drink this by?
Why this matters: Some white wines can be aged, but most should be enjoyed young. If you purchase a bottle of white wine, make sure that you leave the tasting room with a “drink by” date to avoid the wine turning before you drink it.
Questions about wine or red blends
What are the grape varietals used in this blend?
Why this matters: Many wines are a blend of several different varietals. The wine’s composition is often printed on the label along with the percentage of each varietal, but it doesn’t hurt to ask about its makeup: it is a great way to begin conversation with the person pouring the wine.
What does each grape bring to the wine?
Why this matters: Each grape in the blend is specifically chosen to bring different something different to the wine (such as aromas, acidity, color, tannins, and backbone). Ask why each grape was chosen and what each varietal specifically contributes to the wine.
The final sip
While wine tasting, feel free to ask a few questions not related to the wine itself, such as:
- The bottle’s label. Is there a story to it? Winemakers or tasting room staff members are happy to share.
- The region. What is it known for? Is the winemaker staying within the region’s winemaking traditions, or trying something cutting edge?
- The winemaker. Perhaps the wine has been made by a renowned winemaker . . or perhaps it has been crafted by a family that has been making wine for generations. Each wine has a story to tell, and knowing this story will make your wine drinking experience all the more enjoyable.
Above all, have fun: wine tastings are a social event and a learning experience, and there is no shame in asking questions to better understand a winery and its wines. Cheers!