WSET 2: explaining the systematic approach to tasting

If you decided to pursue a career in wine through WSET, then you must be confident with its Systematic Approach to Tasting®. Here we explain how WSET 2 tasting approach works.

Evaluating and tasting wine is one of the most important skills to acquire when starting a wine career. The WSET 2 Systematic Approach to Tasting® show us how to put our sensations into words, helping us communicate to other people what the wine is like, even long time after we tasted it.

Please note: we organise WSET courses together with Wine Academy Italia in Salento, Puglia; below you’ll find our calendar of WSET Puglia courses:

  • WSET 2 Puglia: September 17-19 2018; Castello Monaci, San Pancrazio Salentino (BR)
  • WSET 3 Puglia: February 2019 (TBC); Tenute Rubino, Brindisi (BR)

Go to all our WSET courses »

WSET 2 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine®

ISO glass

ISO glass, WSET recommended tasting glass

First of all, prepare your tasting room, avoiding any odours like tobacco, cleaning products, food and perfume. There should be enough natural light, and white surfaces against which you can judge the appearance of the wine.

Also your palate should be free of coffee, tobacco, food, toothpaste or gum; any lingering flavours can be eliminated by chewing some bread.

There are many wine glasses that you can use; WSET recommends the ISO glass, with a rounded bowl and tulip shape, that is large enough to swirl the wine.

The Wine & Spirits Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine® describes the different aspects of wine in the order in which we encounter them: appearance, nose, palate and conclusions.

Appearance

The most relevant information we can get from judging the appearance of a wine is the presence of faults: if the wine is too old, had been badly stored or the cork seal has failed then it’s considered out-of-condition. In this case, wine will be dull in appearance, has some hints of brown, it’s hazy. Haziness is mainly related to a faulty wine, but unfiltered wine will also show some suspended particles. Normally wines are clear.

Regarding to colour, on the eye we’ll determine if the wine is ruby or purple, golden or lemon, pink or salmon. Colour is related to age. Orange, amber and brown colours indicate that the wine is old, but are not necessarily faults. A wine that shows a combination of those colours is called tawny. Purple in red wine and green in white wine indicate youth.

Intensity will also be evaluate: is it pale ruby or deep ruby? Medium intensity is also allowed as a descriptor. Common descriptors for wine appearance follow:

  • clear, deep ruby
  • hazy, medium-intensity garnet
  • clear, pale lemon
  • hazy, dark brown (faulty most of the times)

Nose

Swirl the glass to release as many aromas as possible and then smell the wine. Condition is the first parameter to evaluate: does it show any off-notes? The most common fault is cork taint (unpleasant damp cardboard or musty smell; at low levels wine doesn’t just show any aromas).

Out-of-condition wines smell dull and stale, with excessive oxidative aromas (toffee, caramel, sherry). Oxidative aromas can be also deliberately sought, like in Oloroso Sherry.

If condition is clean, then next step in wine tasting is to assess the intensity of the aromas: are they pronounced or hard to detect?

WSET 2 Lexicon

Describing the aromas is a little more subjective and depends greatly on your experience. There are many descriptors usually found in wine, and WSET 2 tasting approach includes a list of suggested aroma/flavour words, that is not exhaustive but a very good starting point.

Always take into consideration that the objective of describing a wine is to help someone that hasn’t taste that wine to understand it. Terms like “feminine” or “elegant” can be nice descriptors, but impossible to define, whereas describing aromas as “the cake that my mom used to bake” or “the backyard of my house” wouldn’t be of any help at all.

Palate

Assessing a wine on the palate includes using your sense of taste (sweetness, acidity and tannin) and smell (flavour characteristics). Take a small sip and draw in air through your lips, so vapours are carried up the back of your nose, where your sense of smell will detect the flavour character.

Sweetness indicates how much sugar a wine contains, although very ripe grapes can give sweet flavours without any sugar in the wine.

Almost all red wines and most whites are dry, that is, contains almost no sugar. Slightly sweet whites are described “off-dry”.

Acidity causes the mouth to water, and makes wines taste refreshing and vibrant. Levels of acidity in white wines are usually higher than in reds, although it depends on the grape variety and the winemaking techniques used.

Cool climates usually result in higher levels of acidity that hot climates. Acidity is crucial on sweet wines: if it’s too low, wines taste overwhelming or cloying.

Tannin is what makes strong black tea taste bitter and astringent; it’s perceived as a drying sensation, specially in your gums. Tannins are present in grape skins and its level depends on the amount of skin contact during winemaking.

Whites and rosé receive very little, if any, skin contact so they rarely have some detectable tannin. Thick-skinned grape varieties like Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon have higher tannin levels than thin-skinned grapes as Pinot noir or Grenache.

High levels of soft, ripe tannins can indicate a hot climate wine. Unripe grapes can give astringent tannins that cause a strong mouth-drying sensation, even at low levels. Soft ripe tannins contribute to viscosity and body of the wine.

Body is also described as a mouth-feel; is the sensation of richness, weight or viscosity, and it’s the combined result of the effect of alcohol, tannins, sugars and flavour compounds. There are wines that are high in alcohol (13% vol) but low in body, like Beaujolais, because it has little tannin and is lightly flavoured.

Flavour characteristics are detected when aroma components of the wine rise up from the mouth to the back of the nose; this is why we can’t taste flavours when we have a cold. The groups of flavour descriptors are the same as those for the nose.

The finish refers to how long the pleasant flavours linger in the mouth after we swallowed the wine. A long, complex finish is an indicator of quality.

Conclusions

Start thinking the most obvious thing: did you like the wine or not, and why?

The key question, however, is to understand if the wine is a good example of its type, whether we enjoy that type of wine or not. Assuming the wine is not faulty, we can use some objective criteria to distinguish between a poor, an acceptable or a very good wine.

Balance – if the wine is too sweet or too fruity, it can be sickly or cloying. An excess of tannin or acidity can make a wine taste hard or austere. In a good quality wine, sweetness and fruitiness are well-balanced with acidity and tannin.

Finish – good quality wines have balanced, pleasant and lingering flavours. Poor wines have flavours that disappear almost immediately, or even unpleasant.

Intensity – dilute flavours can indicate a poor wine, but extremely pronounced flavours can easily disrupt a wine’s balance.

Complexity – one or two simple flavours are found in lesser wines, that easily become boring. Best wines usually have many different flavours, at least those from the primary fruit and from oak ageing or other winemaking techniques.

Expressiveness – a poor wine taste like it it could be made by any grape variety or come from any region of the world. Great wines express characteristics of the soil, the climate, the grape variety, the traditional winemaking techniques and so on.

We’ve reviewed the WSET 2 Systematic Approach to Tasting®. Complexity of the tasting technique increases in WSET levels 3 and 4.

To download the complete WSET 2 SAT® Tasting sheet, please click on the button below:

Download WSET Tasting Sheet for Level 2 »

Source: Wines and Spirits – Looking behind the label. ®Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Fully revised edition, 2014.

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