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When you are tasting and describing a wine, bear the following points in mind:

Many words can be used to describe wine. You may find some of these funny or absurd but the most important thing is to use words that mean something to you and that will help you identify and remember the aromas and flavours.

Wine has a surprising ability to evoke memories and smells that you may not have thought of before you tasted the wine. Some will make sense to most people, some will be very personal. Even when you are able to assess a wine with a certain amount of objectivity, your impressions and preferences remain very subjective.

While you may learn to appreciate the qualities in all sorts of wines, you do not have to like them all.

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Primary tastes

There are 4 primary tastes traditionally identified with certain areas of the mouth: bitter (towards the back of the tongue), sour (towards the right of the tongue), salt (in the middle, towards the front of the tongue) and sweet (the middle tip of the tongue). More recently there has been a suggestion that there is a fifth primary taste known as umami. This is more of an overall quality of savouriness or deliciousness than a specific taste. It is the taste that the addition of monosodium glutamate adds to certain foods.

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What a wine looks like can give you vital clues to its quality, origin, age and the grape variety or varieties used. A wine should not generally be cloudy. You should also check that the wine does not have bubbles, unless it is supposed to, and look for any unusual colouring (e.g. brown or dark gold in a young, dry wine). Apart from a slight spritz on some fresh young wines, bubbles in a still wine are likely to indicate a problem (e.g. the wine refermenting if it has some residual sugar and has not been properly filtered).

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For many, the most important and distinguishing aspect of a wine is its bouquet. It is when you smell a wine that you are most likely to detect a fault, e.g. the mustiness of a corked wine.

If you are tasting a wine blind, the nose will give you the first real clues as to how and where the wine is made and what the grape variety or varieties are. Certain varieties from certain regions have very distinct aromas, for example the often pungent gooseberry and herbaceous aromas of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon often smells of blackcurrants.

Other wines will be much harder to identify, especially older ones. What was once a clear distinction between the very ripe fruit aromas of the New World and the more restrained character of European wines is now much less obvious as viticulture has improved and as winemakers have paid more attention to what wine consumers seem to want.

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It is at this stage that the components of the wine should be carefully assessed. These include structural components such as sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol as well as the fruit character and how long the flavour lasts in the mouth.

Most wines on the market today are designed to be drunk soon after purchase. However, some reds tend to taste smoother with age while some white wines often become fuller and softer.

Some wines, more typically and traditionally those made in the Old World, are made to be drunk with food, and such wines may be harder to appreciate when tasted on their own. On the other hand, some foods will make a perfectly respectable wine taste horrible. You may have found this if you have ever finished a glass of dry red after you have eaten a sweet pudding.

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It is at this stage that you should draw together your impressions from the appearance, nose and palate to assess the wine as a whole. One of the most important criteria for quality is the balance of a wine. Are the components you have identified in balance or does one stick out? For example, a wine where the alcohol dominates everything may taste 'hot'.

Quality is hard to pin down but in addition to balance, you can tell a lot about the quality of a wine by how long the flavour lasts in your mouth (what is known as the wine's length). In addition, better quality wines tend to have a greater complexity, i.e. a wider range of aromas and flavours, and more concentrated flavours. Nevertheless, this does not mean that a fresh and delicate wine cannot be good quality.

Quality and price are often but not always linked. It is just as possible to find a good quality inexpensive wine as it is to find a poor quality expensive wine. Though the latter is perhaps less likely.

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