At last, we get to drink and experience all the flavors a wine has to offer! Remember, the tongue detects only four flavors—bitter, sweet, salt and sour—so it is through the nasal passages that the other complex flavors are communicated to the brain. As you drink, feel free to slurp a little to let the aromas rise into your nasal passages as you swish the liquid around your mouth. Given that various parts of the tongue receive different flavors, make sure the wine reaches them all.
The tip of your tongue will taste sweetness from any residual sugar as well as sweetness from other compounds in the wine, such as the alcohol or glycerol, which form naturally during fermentation. Some wines with little or no sugar may also appear sweet, simply because of fruity qualities and mouthwatering acidity.
Along the sides of the tongue we taste sour flavors, which come from the wine’s acidity level. While many people have a negative impression of “acid,” in wine, the right acidity level is critical to fresh flavor and helps open your palate to other flavor compounds. If the wine is flabby, it will impart less flavor and lack fresh qualities. However, too much acidity will make for tart, unpleasant wines.
Bitter flavors appear on the back portion of the tongue and can result from harsh, unripe tannins—compounds found in the skins, stems and seeds of grapes. Excessive tannins also can lock out other flavors that could balance the wine and could leave a bitter edge. However, in the right proportion and properly ripened, tannins add interesting qualities to a wine. In fact, tannins themselves have little flavor, but they create a drying sensation on the surfaces of the mouth—the same sensation you get from drinking black tea. As naturally occurring preservatives, tannins also help maintain wines for longer periods of time and enhance their ability to age.
On the palate, you will also experience the physical aspects of a wine, its body and texture. Some wines are designed to be light in body, which implies lower alcohol, more fruit with less oak and less age, and these can be white, rosé or red wines. Other wines will offer more heft, with a thicker viscosity, higher alcohol, higher tannin and higher sugar, such as in late-harvest or dried grape wines and other dessert wines. Texture relates to how the wine feels on the surfaces of the mouth. Is it more like silk and velvet, or does it express chalky qualities or rustic edges? These are all acceptable and interesting qualities to enjoy. And of course, sparkling wines offer their own set of textures—from foams smooth and frothy to prickly and effervescent.
Not surprising, at the end comes the finish, and in wine tasting that is how long the flavors linger. Some wines are designed for a quick burst of flavor and a short finish, while others are designed to linger and even offer additional flavors as they depart. These are simply stylistic differences, but for big, bold wines, a long and complex finish can score points among wine critics.