Wine tasting is the foundation of being able to enjoy, and therefore recommend, wine. Guests will often ask for a recommendation based on their taste preferences, or a suitable pairing (in terms of taste) for their meal. And with wine being such a huge and complicated subject, understandably lots of hospitality staff find this part of the job terrifying.
However, even if you’re not training to be a dedicated sommelier, at the very least, you need to broadly understand how flavour works across different red wine styles. If asked, you need to be able to translate a guest request into an actual recommendation. And that starts with learning how to taste wine yourself.
To help, this article (which is a summary of parts of Small Batch Learning’s Tasting & Recommending Wine Level 2 course) sets out a straightforward method for tasting wine – in terms of flavour and what we call “feel”. It also explains the best way to use that knowledge to ask guests what wine they're looking for – with just three questions.
At the end of this article, panic over! You’ll be ready to talk about red wine with confidence and start recommending like a pro.
Let’s start with three taste qualities – acidity, sweetness, dryness – that are present in all red wine, but at different levels. Getting these levels right is what makes a good wine: sweetness appeals to our animal instinct equating sweet flavours in a food source as something good (sugar gives energy); acidity prevents sweetness from becoming too cloying, and triggers salivation (preparing us to eat and drink); and dryness balances the first two, as well as adding structure and depth. Different combinations of these three levels will decide a wine’s style.
The diagram shows how these qualities work together on your taste buds. When it comes to taste, sweetness, acidity and dryness should each balance the two qualities opposite on the triangle. So actually there's also a fourth quality, which isn't exactly a taste, but is simply the result of those first three working together in a pleasing way: balance.
If, after assessing each of the three levels, a wine’s overall flavour sits anywhere outside the circle, the wine is unbalanced. For example: too much sweetness, or even too much sweetness and acidity, with no dryness, places the wine too far away from at least one of the qualities. Specifically, red wine should display both acidity and dryness, and even a little bit of sweetness, all at the same time. As mentioned, the circle in the middle of the triangle is where we find balance – and is where all wines that are for sale in your venue will (hopefully!) sit.
You’ll notice the diagram also gives further descriptions at the points of the triangle associated with each of the three taste qualities. These descriptions could be both the tastes on your tongue (known in winespeak as the wine’s “palate”) but also aromas (sometimes called the “nose”). Taste and aroma work together to create the overall flavour profile for a wine.
In flavour terms for red wine, we’re going to focus on primary fruit flavours (not secondary flavours such as spice and earthy notes). We think this is the fastest route to getting confident about describing what you taste in wine – and therefore the fastest route to being able to recommend. Fruit flavours also have the benefit of syncing quite nicely with the other concepts of acidity and sweetness (which also make more sense when tasted in terms of fruit).
Let’s look at red wine’s associated flavours in more detail to explain:
So. Now it’s time to pick up a wine glass, and pour some red and start thinking about dryness, sweetness and acidity – especially in terms of fruit flavours explained above. Ideally do this with your colleagues, to hear and share opinions.
If you’re a manager, give your guest-facing team a chance to taste your house pour wines and wines by the glass – these at the very least. Sniffing the wine's aromas, taking a sip, and discussing what they’re tasting might not turn them into wine experts overnight, but will rapidly improve their ability to offer guests the expected level of service. And good service means good business.
It all starts with a short conversation with the guest – which only needs you to remember these three questions:
The first question is really very easy. Most guests know what colour they feel like drinking. And if they don’t, answering the next two questions is going to give you a decision anyway. But in this article we’re focusing on reds.
2. "Dry or not”?
Particularly for reds, dryness means the drying sensation from tannins (which enter the wine’s taste from the grape’s skins, pips and even stems). Some people use the word "astringent", but that's not going to help you in front of a guest! Better to imagine drinking a cup of tea (black, green, with milk, doesn't matter – but unsweetened is better), and your saliva stops flowing momentarily. This is a different sensation to, say, the sweetness and acidity of lemonade. If you were to imagine those two drinks side by side (especially really strong tea) you will understand what dryness means in red wine.
Now, a totally dry red wine would mean almost no sweetness and almost no acidity. It wouldn’t be very nice to drink (and would sit outside the circle on our diagram). So, when a guest says they “want something dry”, what do they really mean?
NOTE: Californian cabernet, Australian shiraz or Spanish rioja are all examples where it’s common (but not guaranteed) to find a bigger oak influence.
Now time to back up that flavour discussion (read: fruit discussion) with a quick check about body – or what we might call "feel". When tasting wines, think: does it feel thin, closer to water? Or does it feel viscous? Not syrupy exactly (you'll only get that in liqueurs, not even in fortified wines or dessert wines), but heavier than water, like milk?
Some guests will have a clear idea of the type of body they're looking for. So with red, your clues to giving them the right wine are:
WAIT! Most reds are usually medium- to full-bodied. But there are light-bodied grapes, including the gamay grape used for France's Beaujolais wine (although not all Beaujolais is light-bodied). Pinot noir can also be both light- and medium-bodied.
But there's more – why else is body important? Well, just like flavour, body can help you recommend the right wines – based on mood, occasion or even food – to guests who don't know what they want. Don’t worry, you’re not expected to master all this now (this article isn’t claiming to train you up as a sommelier), but here are some examples:
Ok, that was the race through the recommending theory. Coming up is a guide to flavour and body in four of the world’s more famous (and common) red grape varietals.
Part 3: Flavour and body in four famous red grapes
1. Cabernet sauvignon
2. Pinot noir:
3. Syrah / shiraz (same grape, two names)
Remember, to become confident in recommending wines to guests, try to master just a small amount of relevant information for just a few wines. A good place to start are the wines on your venue’s winelist. Ask your manager for a tasting, to actually get these wines into your mouth, then start discussing the wines with colleagues in terms of what you've read in this article. Actually tasting is the surest way to start meeting guest expectation, and losing any fear you still might have talking about wine.
If you can understand everything in this article, and be able to talk about (and recommend) the wines on your list in these terms, you will already be ahead of 90% of people in the industry. The next 5% may take five years of dedicated study, and the final 5% would take a lifetime – but, hey, what a fantastic life it would be!
For more lessons covering wine and spirits tasting know-how, giving you the service confidence you need to recommend wines to guests, sign up to a free learner account and free courses here at Small Batch Learning.