I was recently asked to serve as a judge for the 2004 Cincinnati International Wine Festival (March 5-6). You don't need to be a wine writer to judge wines — anyone can sample and assess wine. If you've made learning about wine one of your New Year's resolutions, Uncorked is here to offer a few ideas on how to get started.
Judging wine requires tasting wine. The best way to begin judging wine and its characteristics, nuances and styles is to taste it. There are lots of ways to structure your tasting — by varietal (cabernets), by vintage (1997 chianti), by category (Australian reds, Italian dolcettos) or by what's in your wine rack. Use your imagination to make it as affordable or as decadent as your budget allows, or just begin incorporating it into your day-to-day wine experiences.
You are your own wine critic. At its simplest, the wine experience should be fun and should be about what you enjoy. It doesn't matter if your friends talks trash about your favorite zinfandel, it's all about whether you enjoy it. Wine is not about rules and regulations or right or wrong answers — it's about creating enjoyable experiences around wine that you love.
Focus on the basics — see, swirl, smell and swallow. The first step in judging wine is to look at it. Hold your glass over a white surface to get a good judge of the color. Is it light? Is it dark? Just giving it a quick visual check can tell you a lot about the wine before you ever drink it, including its age and varietal category.
Now it's time for the much maligned wine swirl. Swirling wine is done for one reason — to aerate it and to provide the taster with a better environment for smelling it. When you are smelling and tasting wine, consider that there are hundreds (even thousands) of words to use to describe the experience.
Finally, taste the wine, letting it wash over your tongue and mouth area. Use the regions of your tongue (sweet, salty, sour and bitter) to help you decipher what you are experiencing. Tasting a tight, teabag feel? Then it's the wine's tannins, found in young red wines indicating that the wine may still need aging. Wait for the aftertaste, to determine whether the wine has a long or short "finish" (aftertaste once you've swallowed). Recording your tasting in a journal is a great way to begin to create your own record of tasting insights.
There are scores of books available for folks who want to dive deeper into tasting and judging wine. Check out works from Jancis Robinson, Andrea Immer, Kevin Zraly to get started. Enjoy!