Sight, smell, taste — all are clues to wine quality

Over the last few weeks I've been tasting quite a few red wines, including monster reds from the Rhone, huge, higher-alcohol zinfandels and tannic Barolo from Piemonte. It's not easy to get through some of these reds without a little help from the wine-evaluating techniques I and other professional judges have used throughout the years.

Let me share with you some of the better known ways to make it through any large group of wine while keeping fresh and clear:

Sight — You can tell a lot by looking at a glass of wine. One of the telltale signs that something might be wrong is a decided browning throughout the glass. Older red wines, as well as some sauternes, may have an amber color, but a brown tinge can signal an oxidation problem. This is much like biting into a banana and leaving it on the counter for a few hours. Youthful wines should never have this appearance. Along with this browning we can also sense in the nose the smell of "old" fruit associated with the off-color.

When a wine professional detects oxidation in the glass, he rarely then tastes it, especially if he's evaluating other wines. Oxidation is hard to purge from either the nose or palate, and subsequent wines could be tainted.

Smell — Wine should smell like wine. I know this is an obvious statement, but there are prescribed nose and taste sensations that are associated with certain varietals. A well-made chardonnay should exhibit sensations commonly associated with the grape. A wine that is "masked" by oak, microbial problems or other hindrances will be apparent in its bouquet. I find the nose is the best indicator that the wine will either be sound or unsound on the palate.

I remember smelling off wines in the barrel at wineries, then finding that once they were bottled, they proved to be just as bad as they smelled — or worse when exposed to air.

I put great store in the nose. Once I suspect the wine might be off after using the smell sensor, I will not expose it to the more residual sensor, the palate, where off flavors are more difficult to detect. The nose is a wonderful tool for picking up nuance in wine, such as spice and hint of oak. There are times that oak, for example, is missed on the palate but rarely in the nose. Take time with bouquet evaluation; it is sometimes rushed in favor of putting the wine on the palate.

Taste — I try to divide the tasting of wine into three stages; front palate, mid palate and end palate, or finish. It intellectually separates the flavors of wine, providing a sort of template to work upon. Many people do evaluation of wine differently, but this has proven to do well for me.

Front palate is that first impression of palate sensation, such as fruit and spice and balance. Is the wine fruit-driven? Is it true to the varietal?

Mid palate is the physical feel of the wine. Here we find the weight and grip. Is it thin or weighty? Does it have substance, or is it watery? Much can be learned from mid palate as there are "feelings" associated with many wines such as zinfandel or port.

End palate is where it all comes together as a whole. Are the flavors integrated? Is one flavor dominant? Is the wine palate-cleansing? Are the acids in line? Is the wine thirst-quenching? The end palate is where we see how knitted the wine is and where the length or shortness of the flavors comes through. The end palate finish, or aftertaste, is where many wine professionals put their money. If a wine comes through here, we have a winner.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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