“Wine Tasting” is a term you can hear daily in Sonoma Valley. From the opulent to the rustic, appointment only to the casual drop-in, tasting options certainly abound. But strip away the spectacular vistas and the rest of the trappings and there is always a common thread—actually tasting what is in your glass. While ‘sampling the wares’ may seem the easy part of any wine outing, knowing a bit about the art (and science) of tasting can take your appreciation of wine to a whole new level.
Enter Corner 103, a sleekly fashioned tasting salon, located just across from Sonoma’s historic plaza. Founded last year by Lloyd Davis, Corner 103 was born from his observation that many Sonoma visitors he encountered often appeared intimidated by the seemingly foreign process of tasting wines. He set out to create a friendly educational environment in which he could deconstruct the subtleties of the tasting experience, while introducing visitors to the incredible diversity of wines and wine styles to be found in Sonoma.
Lloyd frames “thoughtful wine tasting” as having four distinct steps: Look, Smell, Sip, and Describe. While this will seem familiar territory for many, he is quick to share nuances that even veteran oenophiles might not have heard. Take for instance this clip of Lloyd touching upon the art of the swirl:
The Four Steps to “Thoughtful Wine Tasting”
Step 1 – Look: The Wine’s Appearance
You’re looking for color and clarity. Hold your wine glass up and notice how the wine reflects the light. Note its color and brilliance. Tilt it slightly and hold it against your white tasting mat. Is it deep or pale? Opaque or clear? Look for color change around the edge of the wine – this can indicate age. White wines tend to be light straw in youth and age to a deep gold. Different varietals will show different hues. Red wines are more purple when young. As they age, they will change from ruby to a deep garnet.
Step 2 – Smell: Enjoy the Aromas
The total impression of a wine – which we tend to call “flavor” – is actually a combination of aroma and palate impression. The aromas of wine – often called “the nose” – have much to do with our overall enjoyment of the wine, so take some time on this step. Gently swirl your glass in a circular motion three to four times, then bring it to your nose and inhale deeply. Swirling the wine coats the sides of the glass with the wine, releasing more of the aromatic components of the wine. Think about the aromas you are experiencing – try to describe them. Swirl and sniff again – and ask yourself if you notice anything new?
Step 3 – Sip: Palate Impressions
Building on the aromas you’ve already found in the wine, take a medium-sized sip of the wine. Hold it in your mouth for a bit, letting it cover all areas of your tongue. You will see serious wine tasters purse their lips and draw in a bit of air over the wine. This takes some practice and looks a little goofy but helps to release more of the flavors in the wine. Swish the wine gently in your mouth (as if you were chewing). Now swallow the wine. Note the impression it makes in the back of your mouth as you swallow – known as the “finish”. As you go through this process, your brain is taking some time to develop taste impressions. Some things to look for:
Sweet or Dry – Most table wines are “dry” – but a very fruity, youthful wine may seem “sweet”
Acidity – Often a “tart” impression. A wine without enough acidity will seem flabby.
Tannins – Tannins often give a bitter “puckery” sensation. The difference between acidity and tannin? Acidity will make your mouth water. Tannins leave your mouth dry. White wines get their backbone from their acidity – red wines from tannin structure.
Weight – Does the wine seem thin or full? Structured or flabby? Elegant or robust?
Finish – Is the finish long and lingering or short and abrupt? Smooth or harsh?
Step 4 – Describe: Record What You Taste
Take a moment to reflect on the wine and maybe jot a few notes as you go through the tasting. It helps to cement your impressions, especially as you become better at describing what you taste and smell. Don’t be afraid of any word that pops to mind – fat, grassy, smoky, herbal, buttery, leather – all these terms are commonly used to describe wine. Like anything else that you practice, going through this exercise repeatedly will make you “better” at it. You’ll start to notice – and be able to name – more flavors and aromas. You’ll learn the common characteristics of different varietals and be able to note more readily the differences when you taste wines side by side.
During Corner 103’s guided tastings, Lloyd delves even deeper into the nuances of wine tasting, while presenting a hand selected range of wines aimed at showcasing the incredible diversity that Sonoma County offers as a wine region.