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Using Your Senses: How to Taste Wine Like a Professional

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FAITH LAPIDUS: I’m Faith Lapidus.

DOUG JOHNSON: And I’m Doug Johnson with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we continue our exploration into the world of wine. Last week, we discussed the history, kinds of grapes and how wine is produced. This week, we learn how to taste a glass of wine like a professional. We also discuss changes in the wine industry. And we talk with a wine expert who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Last week, we talked about different kinds of grapes and the importance of climate and geography on how a wine tastes. Now we learn how to look for and taste those qualities.

If you know how to study a glass of wine, it can tell you about its history. Studying a wine involves using several senses, not just taste.

A server pours wine at a restaurant in Los Angeles, California
A server pours wine at a restaurant in Los Angeles, California

DOUG JOHNSON: First, pour the wine into a glass and look at it. It might help to put a piece of white paper behind the glass so you can see the color clearly. Color can tell a lot about the kind of grapes, where the wine is from and its age. Look at the clarity, thickness and color of the wine.

A white wine might be almost colorless, or it could have a deep golden color. White wines go darker with age. White wine made from grapes grown in a cool climate is often paler, with a higher amount of acid. A white wine from grapes grown in a warmer climate is often yellower, with less acid, though there are exceptions to this rule.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The color of red wine can be purplish red to brick red. Red wines often become paler with age. Red wines grown in warmer climates often have deeper color than those grown in cooler climates.

A truck carries grapes from the Cae Winery in California's Napa Valley
A truck carries grapes from the Cae Winery in California's Napa Valley

Next, turn the glass so that the wine moves around inside. This brings air into the wine, so that it releases its smell. Smell the wine deeply. A wine’s smell is actually more telling than its taste. To use a wine term, what can you learn about the wine from its “nose”? Is the wine fruity? Does it smell like oak? Do you smell grass or maybe honey? Maybe the smell is like butter or a mineral. It may be complex or intense.

DOUG JOHNSON: Now it is time to taste the wine. Move it around in your mouth. You may recognize some tastes because you identified them while smelling the wine. You can also consider the wine’s sweetness and its sharpness, or acidity. You may note the taste of tannin. Tannins are chemicals that are found in the skin and seeds of grapes. They are also found in tea. Tannins taste bitter and seem to coat your mouth. To make a good wine requires a balance between sugar, acidity, tannin and alcohol.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Professional wine tasters have many special words to describe wines. Some adjectives might be surprising. For example, a wine that feels smooth might be described as “velvety” or “silky.” A wine that does not have enough acidity is “flabby” or “fat.” A wine with a strong tannin taste could be “chewy.” And white wines with a lively taste could be described as “crisp”, “zesty” or “steely.”

Many wine experts can identify the kind of wine without ever seeing the label on the bottle. This is because they know the qualities of the look, smell and taste of a wine.

DOUG JOHNSON: One famous wine-tasting helped change the history of the wine industry in the United States. The Paris Wine-Tasting of nineteen seventy-six is also known as the Judgment of Paris. A British wine expert organized a wine-tasting in France. He invited producers of California wines to take part in the competition against the most famous producers of French wines. At the time, France was known for producing the best wines in the world. California wine was relatively unknown outside the United States.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The top food and wine experts from France were the judges. They did a “blind” tasting, meaning they did not know what wines they were drinking. The winners for both the red and white wine categories were California wines from Napa Valley. Many wine experts were shocked. This event helped change opinions about wine produced in the United States.


DOUG JOHNSON: The wine industry has changed a great deal since the nineteen seventies. The United States is now the fourth largest producer of wine in the world. California produces about ninety percent of the wine in the United States, followed by the states of New York, Washington and Oregon.

Americans are also drinking more wine than ever before. Industry studies show that the amount of wine drunk in the United States has been steadily increasing for the past sixteen years. In fact, Americans now spend more money on wine than any other country in the world. Industry experts say the United States will soon pass France and Italy as the top consumer of wine by volume.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Even the recent economic recession has not stopped Americans from drinking wine. Reports say Americans are buying more wines in stores rather than ordering them in restaurants. Other experts say the recession has made Americans explore and discover wines that are less costly.

We talked with wine expert Steven Kolpan about his thoughts on the wine industry. Mr. Kolpan is a writer and a professor of wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America. We asked Mr. Kolpan what areas of the world are producing interesting wines these days.

STEVEN KOLPAN: “Canada is producing some excellent wines. Greece is now producing some really interesting wines. I think we have an association with Greek wines that’s not all that positive, but the new Greek wines are really great.”

DOUG JOHNSON: Steven Kolpan also discussed another emerging country in the wine industry. In two thousand eight, China was listed as the seventh top wine-producing country in the world.

STEVEN KOLPAN: “China is positioning itself to be a very strong player in both the import market in their own country but also their domestic market. And I think they would like to have a presence in the export market as well.”

He says it might not be long before China is producing top quality wines.


FAITH LAPIDUS: One major trend in the wine industry today is the growing effort by producers to make wine in a way that does not harm the environment. Many producers are making organic wines, or wines that are “sustainably” grown. Efforts to be more “green” include using water more responsibly, reducing chemicals used to kill insects and rethinking the wine bottle.

DOUG JOHNSON: Even one of the most traditional wine areas in the world is making some major changes in an effort to be more green. The Champagne area of France is famous for its sparkling wine. Producers there are working to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions spent transporting wine around the world. One way they have done this is to make wine bottles lighter so they require less energy to transport.

A glass of rose Champagne
A glass of rose Champagne

The newer Champagne bottle only weighs about sixty-five fewer grams than the traditional nine hundred gram bottle. But this small change could make a big difference in the future. The Champagne industry says carbon pollution could be cut by eight thousand metric tons a year once all producers use the lighter bottle.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Another concern linked to the environment is the effect of climate change on wine-producing areas. Steven Kolpan says the immediate effect of climate change in some areas has been helpful. In cooler climates, warmer weather has helped grapes ripen more fully. But he says that warmer wine producing areas around the world will suffer.

STEVEN KOLPAN: “We are going to see a huge shift in the wine market due to climate change. And, I think California is going to be deeply affected by it because the climate models for the immediate and long term future in California are not at all promising for wine.”

DOUG JOHNSON: To face climate change, producers might have to move their vineyards to cooler areas. Or, they might have to grow a kind of grape that can survive in higher temperatures.

In the future, rising temperatures may open up possibilities to countries that otherwise could never compete in the wine industry.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Steven Kolpan has been working with wine for more than thirty years. But he says he is still surprised by its qualities. He reminds us that a glass of wine is made up of water, alcohol and a small percentage of chemical substances. And yet he says:

STEVEN KOLPAN: “Think of it for a second. When you have a glass of wine in front of you and you smell it. And let’s say it’s a glass of red wine. And you smell cherries and blackberries. And you smell leather and you smell earth and you smell all these things, none of them are in there. That’s what’s so amazing about it. It’s this magical potion.”

DOUG JOHNSON: Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­I’m Doug Johnson.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus. You can comment on our programs and find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts at Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.