On a typical Friday night, you might find yourself out at dinner with a group of friends. As soon as you sit down and start catching up, you’ll study the drink menu and inevitably decide to share a bottle of wine. You agree on the color of the wine, price, and preferred taste, then eagerly await the clinking of glasses to signal the end of the work week and the beginning of your weekend. Your server approaches and presents the bottle to the table while looking to see who might be the person with the most discerning palate. The chosen taster will put on a performance of swirling the glass and taking small sips, while making their best contemplative face. The results are always positive, indicated by an approving nod.
Everyone laughs and quickly empties the first bottle of the night. You look over at the bar to see a cross-section of humanity on display. Each person is in their own little world of experience. One couple holds bottles of the cheapest lager, which they drink in big gulps between handfuls of bar snacks. Another man is talking to the bartender about the different whiskeys that are available. Then there’s the group of hipsters who are arguing about the best new IPA in town.
If you identify as a person with an undeveloped palate, you might catch yourself in a reactive eye-roll and wonder if these other people, with their knowledge of “tasting notes” are enjoying their drinks more than you do…
What Are Tasting Notes?
When you observe “tasting notes”, you engage multiple senses in order to fully experience the unique and subtle flavors of a beverage.
Let’s explore some of these skills together…
Are Tasting Notes Legit or Just Pretentious?
Do these beer bros even know what they’re talking about? Does it really matter how whiskey drips along the inside of the glass? Does wine taste better if it is served in a specific vessel? Can we really enhance our experience by educating ourselves?
People who have refined their palate to pick up on subtle notes can be anyone between a novice and a professional. Recognizing tasting notes is a skill not only for the wealthy or elite, but for anyone with a mouth, tongue, and taste buds. Anyone who wants to optimize their wine, beer, or whiskey experience can learn some basic skills to potentially unlock a whole new level of appreciation.
The legend behind Charles “Two Buck Chuck” Shaw, has captivated the attention of the elite and the novice wine drinkers alike. Although it can’t be bought for $1.99 in every state, at a price point of less than $10 a bottle, Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wine brand is decidedly un-pretentious.
Rumors about the origin of this wine have made it one of the best-selling bottles to come out of California. The price tag has not prevented blind taste-testers from awarding the brand with ribbons and cult-like status.
Some bottles fare better than others, but the bottom line is that, even a cheap wine brand can offer something for everyone and can churn out a pretty good bottle. The revelation that value does not always equate to something that is “expensive”, has opened the doors for a whole new generation of people who may find themselves wanting to explore their palate.
What Is The Science Behind Tasting Notes?
Our journey into tasting a beverage begins by firing off information in our brain the minute we see our drink arrive. The sense of sight is one of the most dominant senses that we have, and our association with appearances is the first set of data that is engaged when it comes to food or drink.
The color of the beverage sitting in front of us prepares us for what it might taste like. How dark a beer is, how amber a whiskey is or how red a wine is will trigger our catalog of past experiences. Looking closer at the viscosity of the beverage by observing how the liquid clings to the glass can tell us how alcoholic or smooth the beverage might be.
The feel and temperature of our glass and the sound of a popping cork or the fizz of carbonation can bring back emotional memories. Our brain has begun the tasting process even before we have taken our first sip.
Once smell and taste are activated, the user experience becomes more subjective. We can analyze things that we can see more easily because they’re more observable and concrete. But, when learning to identify specific smells and tastes within our beverages, we can train our brain to pick up clues by learning key “notes”.
Apart from the psychological component of tasting, there is actual chemistry to it all. The presence of acids, alcohol compounds, tannins, sulfides, the barrels used to ferment, and even the soil where the ingredients were harvested can greatly affect taste and smell. Then there are the actual varieties of grapes, hops, or grains which have a very unique chemical blueprint. How these chemicals react to our tongues and how they smell can enhance or even ruin our entire experience.
When you learn how to isolate what is uniquely pleasurable to you by evaluating how something affects your brain and your chemistry, you can begin picking your favorite wines and pairing them properly with your favorite foods. Science is amazing, isn’t it?
How To Develop a Sense For Tasting Notes
Let’s break down some basic steps so that you can begin or expand your sense of tasting notes.
Wine is so much more complex than the color or region it is from. Sight and smell play their part in your perception, and the external factors that affect flavor can combine in nearly endless ways to produce a variety of specific and nuanced notes.
Observe the following while enjoying your next glass of vino to see what tasting notes you can detect.
Against a white background, tilt your glass to assess the color for indications about the flavor. For example, in red wine, a brown tint might mean that the bottle has gone bad. A bright ruby color towards the edge might be a young and fruity variety. A deeper red might be an older, more robust flavor.
Give your glass a good swirl to allow the aromas to activate. If you can smell the wine as it rests on the table, it may be an indication that the wine is a better quality and more intense, whereas, if you can only smell it from a short distance, the wine may be poor quality.
Hints of tropical fruit might indicate that it’s a wine from a warm climate, and a woody or toasty smell could mean that it was aged or stored in an oak barrel.
When tasting wine, it’s good to take in air with each small sip, then allow the wine to rest towards the front of your mouth for a few moments. After swallowing, make a note of any after-taste. What did you taste? Did you taste something fruity, woody, floral, or even spicy? Evaluate for sweetness, acidity, fullness of body and tannins.
Just like with wine, a whiskey tasting is best with small sips.
Whiskey can appear in many shades from amber to brown. The darker it appears will likely mean that it has a deeper, more concentrated flavor.
As you swirl your glass, smell around the perimeter of the whiskey. Observe any hints of caramel, wood, smoke, fruit or even alcohol.
Take a tiny sip, swallow, then take another small sip. This will allow you to get used to the alcohol. Allow the whiskey to glide over each part of your tongue for best results, and don’t forget to enjoy the lingering finish after you have swallowed.
Craft beer is having a major moment, so let’s join in the fun.
Observe how much head is on the beer. Is there carbonation? Take note of the color, and the clarity or haziness of the brew.
Warm up the top part of your beer by putting your hand over the top of the glass and gently swirling to release the aroma. Notice any hops, yeast, malt, fruit, pine, and even leather scents.
Take a small sip and allow the beer to wash over your entire mouth. Enjoy the initial hints of fruit, hops, sweetness, bitterness, and malts. After swallowing, you will be treated to another round of taste as the aromas linger in your mouth.
Now That I Understand Tasting Notes, Am I a Snob?
One key takeaway we’ve learned from examining tasting notes is that there’s so much more to be gained by savoring, enjoying, and appreciating the complexities in adult beverages. Taking your time to tune into how your senses are affected by the minute details in your glass is akin to “stopping to smell the roses”.
Pleasure can have a chain reaction in your brain to increase your overall sense of wellness and happiness. Honing your palate and learning to observe and understand tasting notes doesn’t make you a snob. It simply adds another layer of enjoyment to imbibing your favorite alcohol, and we’ll drink to that!