Cellar director and wine educator Christine Ricketts tells us how to taste and talk about wine like a pro.
Do you know your Pinot Gris from your Pinot Noir? Your tannins from your terroir? Or how to smell and swirl, and smell again?
We love wine, but truth be told, we'll usually be making wild guesses when it comes to the wine list, as well as how to describe our favourite flavours, styles, and varietals.
Wine is complex and subjective, artisanal and, sometimes, a bit intellectual too. But you don't have to have to be a master sommelier or cultured vigneron to know what you're doing as you taste, sip, and enjoy.
Here, Cellarmaster's cellar director and wine educator Christine Ricketts breaks down the basics and shares her crash course on wine know-how and a little bit of expert vino vocab.
No lipstick before tasting
To properly appreciate a wine, your palate should be as ‘clear’ as possible. So don’t drink coffee, smoke or brush your teeth at least two hours before a wine tasting. If you can, also avoid lip balm or lipstick as the oils in these can interfere with the taste of the wine.
Keep your nose ‘clean’ too
Avoid wearing perfume and hairspray when you taste wine, as the strong scents can interfere when you try to smell the wine. 80 per cent of what you taste in wine is what you smell (this is why when you have a blocked nose, you can barely taste any flavours), so this is indeed a very important rule to remember.
How to taste: Look, smell, swirl and smell again
Once you have the wine in your glass, look at it. Notice the colour, clarity and viscosity as these things tell you a number of things about the wine you are about to smell and taste. Smell it—don’t swirl it around immediately, as doing so opens all the aromas and can hide the different characters. After your first smell, swirl the wine in the glass and smell again.
Smell is important when it comes to wine, as you are preparing your brain for the wine you are about to taste. Our sense of smell has a profound effect on the way our brain processes flavour. When smelling a wine, try to associate the aromas with things you are reminded of, such as fruits, flowers, herbs and spices.
Make sure the wine covers all your taste buds
Taste the wine by swirling it around in your mouth for five to ten seconds. This will warm up the wine and cover your taste buds. If you can aerate the wine by sucking a small amount of air as you take it into your mouth, this will allow more flavour intensity for the full experience. After you’ve tasted the wine, take a moment to notice the finish. How long does the flavour last, what is the lasting taste? Does it appeal to you?
Rule number one for food pairing
There’s a whole science on pairing wine with food, but if you want to keep it simple, the general rule is that you match white with white and red with red. So white wines tend to go well with fish, chicken and pasta, while red wines are to be enjoyed with red meat. And if you want to step it up a bit further, lighter wines go with lightweight food (think Riesling and sushi) while full-bodied wines go with heavier food (so Shiraz with a roast).
Chill it just right
Different white wines have different ideal serving temperatures, but as a general rule, take whites OUT of the fridge about 35 - 45 minutes before drinking and put reds IN the fridge for 15 - 30 minutes before drinking (especially in summer).
The perfect temperature to drink red wine is around 14 degrees, which is why in Australia, red wine can taste better if kept in a fridge for a short time before drinking it – just 15 to 30 minutes is enough. When it comes to white wine, serving it too cold can dull the flavours, mask the aromas and increase its [perceived] acidity.
Turn the bottle, not the cork, when opening sparkling wine
The best way to de-cork a bottle of champagne is to slowly rotate the bottle around the cork. Twisting the cork can cause the cork to tear and break, and could ruin your champagne. By doing it this way, it usually prevents any spillage of champagne because there is no eruption. Just remember to keep a firm grip on the cork!
Don’t store your red wine in the kitchen
When a great wine is stored well, it can age into an even more interesting—and more valuable drop. Most people keep red wine in the kitchen but it’s actually the worst place in the house to store wine, because it’s one of the hottest and most well-lit rooms in the house, with a constantly fluctuating temperature.
Wine should be stored somewhere with a cool, even temperature and with no sunlight. The hallway, living room, spare bedroom or study can be good ideas, as long as they don’t have direct sunlight. If you order wine online, the wine often arrives in a box. If possible, keep the wine in the box—especially if it’s made of Styrofoam, as this helps to minimise the effects of temperature fluctuations.
Australian wine regions explained
- If you like Shiraz, Barossa or McLaren Vale are your go-to regions.
- Coonawarra is world-famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Eden Valley and Clare Valley in South Australia are the country’s best regions for Riesling.
- Margaret River is on the same latitude as New Zealand’s Marlborough, so you can find some fantastic examples of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon Sauvignon Blanc here.
- If you are visiting the Hunter Valley, Semillon is a white wine—and a great food wine—that is unique to the region.
- If you like Pinot Noir and sparkling wine, try our cool climate regions like Adelaide Hills, Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley.
1 of 5: Terroir
A French word for geographical characteristics—including soil, climate and environment—that are unique to a vineyard and region and are reflected in the flavour of a wine.
2 of 5: Tannins
This is the drying feeling found in mainly red wines. Tannins are procured from the grape skins and oak barrels, and provide structure to a wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine that is known for its firm tannins.
3 of 5: Vintage
The year a wine is bottled. A vintage wine is made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single specified year.
4 of 5: Bouquet
The sum of a wine’s scent, its perfume if you will. All of where it is grown, how it is made and age is summed up in bouquet! This is also sometimes referred to as ‘nose’.
5 of 5: Balance
A wine is balanced when all the different components work in harmony. The key components that should be in balance are alcohol, acidity, tannin, sweetness, and fruit.