Returning to the Basics - Evaluating Wine Part one

Last week, I had the honor of presenting my concept of Food and Beverage pairing with the Columbus, OH ACF Chapter (BTW, thank you again for inviting me and letting me present).  It was an unbelievable night with Chef David Wolf from OSU creating incredible pairings to match the wines.  Halfway through the presentation, it dawned on me that people were having problems following my presentation.  Trust me; it was not on their end.  I assumed that they all knew how to evaluate a wine.  Therefore, today’s article is all about going back to basics.

I’m going to re-evaluate the Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2022 and walk you through each step on how I evaluate a wine and find what aromas, flavors, etc. are in the glass.  The picture below is my evaluation sheet for white wines.  While it may seem daunting, it’s really easy to use and I’ll explain the procedure behind it.

The Sheet

A quick note here about the evaluation sheet.  This is a combined sheet that I’ve honed over the years to show you what typically can be found in a wine.  This one is tailored for white wines.  I have another one for Rose and Red wines.  A sheet for sparkling wines will be released soon.

Please note that this is to help guide you through the process of questions that I ask myself.  All beverage evaluation is asking a series of questions to lead to conclusions.  I know the sheet looks complicated but it’s not.  It’s actually designed to be used with a highlighter to mark your findings quickly instead of writing them down.  When I first started in wine, I realized that my brain was faster than me writing things down.  Now when I use sheets like this, I’m asking questions and highlighting the appropriate box.  I still may write things down as the sheet can not contain everything.  However, it covers the majority of items.

For today’s article, I’m going to ignore the area for visual.  We will need a video to explain this (coming soon).

Aromatics (Healthy / Medium +)

We are going to start at the top under the area called aromatics.  When I see the term aromatics, I start to think of what wine smells like (duh).  However, the first thing I evaluate is if the wine smells healthy / good to drink or is it faulty.

This is not related to whether I like the aromas that the wine is showing but more about are there any off aromas.  Clean means the wine is healthy and free of aroma faults.  The majority of wine is healthy, but this is a check for me to see if I smell anything off.  In a previous article, I stated that we can detect aromas that are off (skunk for instance).  Our brains are wired (for safety reasons) to note if something smells off that we should not consume it.  This is a great point not to overlook.  There are numerous bottles, that for whatever reason, are faulted.  This is the chance to check to see if this is the case.  If it is, then I move to another bottle completely.  I always ask this question:

  • If your wine smells like a wet dog wrapped in cardboard, would you want to drink it?

The last part in this section refers to the intensity of the aromas in the glass.  Notice I have not said what the aromas are (coming next).  It’s just how strong are all the aromas in the glass.  You learn this with practice, but you can tell if something is pronounced instead of searching for aromas


Yes, now we get to the fun part as we try to figure out the exact aromas in the glass.  When you are looking at the sheet, you can see categories highlighted (from Citrus Fruit on the left to Nutty on the right).  These are categories to help you define what the aroma may be.  To determine what the aromas are, I use a few procedures together.

Bell Curve

The first thing that I do is put in my mind (or a sheet) a picture of a plain bell curve.  I know that it’s math and you want to never think about this curve again but trust me.  The curve is there to help me find the primary aromas (strongest ones), but it does something else.  When we smell anything, there are normally not just one but a few different aromas.  My job is to figure out how many different aromas I can detect.

Therefore, when I smell anything, I open my mind and ask:

  • How many different aromas (or points on the curve) are here in this glass? Another way of looking at it is asking how many times do I detect a change?

When you smell something with 2 aromas for example, you can detect a change between the two.  I’m allowing my brain to tell me how many changes (aka different aromas) are there.  When I held my presentation last week, I believe that I detected at least 9 aromas.  What that means is that my brain detected nine changes.  BTW, I still do not know what the specific aroma is; just that there are changes.

Ask Questions for Guidance

The next thing I look for are the primary aromas (the tallest part of the curve).  These are the strongest aromas that I can detect.  Remember, I still do not know what these are.  To determine what these are, I focus on one of the aromas, go back to the categories and start asking these questions:

  • Does the aroma smell like citrus fruit – Yes or no?
  • If the answer is yes, I then go down the list and look at each aroma under citrus and ask does it smell like this (for example, grapefruit). If yes, I will highlight it. I then get another aroma from the curve and start asking categories to specifics.
  • If the answer was no for citrus, I move to the right and ask does it smell like tree fruit (the next category)?

I continue this action all across the categories asking the questions does it smell like something from this category.  If yes, I go down the list.  If not, I will move right to the next category.

That’s the procedure. It’s multiple questions over and over and over again.  This may seem huge but it’s really not that bad.  Again, the procedure is:

  • Take a point on the curve.
  • Ask yourself if it came from the Citrus Fruit Category.
    • If yes, go down the list to find it.
  • If not, go to the next category and repeat.

Now, let’s be clear.  I’m just asking questions.  When I show wine analysis with anyone (who has never analyzed a wine) doing it this way, it takes 15 minutes for the aromas section.  Why?  They are asking the same questions but at a slower pace.  I use this system daily for everything I eat and drink to keep my brain asking questions.  Give me a glass of water and I will still smell the water to see if it’s healthy.  The procedure never changes but the more you do it, the faster you become at it.  This is why I can find the aromas in 20 seconds since I do this exercise 10-15 times daily.

Items not on the List

Just a quick note.  I mentioned earlier that the sheets have the typical aromas and flavors for white wines.  However, the sheet did not have points for the following:

As I continue to analyze and assess making these as easy as possible for someone to use, I need to add these items.  Minerality reminds me of dried shells from the beach.  Green beans smell like the long beans themselves and the plant’s leaves.  Cat pee freaks everyone out but New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is known for it.  No, a cat does not contribute its essence to the wine.  For me, it’s more of an ammonia odor. 

Final Thoughts

I hope that this system makes sense.  For the second part of the article next week, I will conclude with what I look for related to sweetness, acid, taste, etc.  Honestly, it’s really easy to learn how to evaluate wine.  Just keep asking questions.

Later today, I’m going to work on my garden while I smoke some beef ribs.  I going to sample some rose wine from Babylonstoren and enjoy the day.  However, I will be using the same procedures to smell everything to keep in practice and fully enjoy the wine.

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