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A man takes part in a wine-tasting trial as part of the Best Sommelier in the World 2023 contest at a hotel in Paris on February 10, 2023.CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images

During a visit to the Hugel family’s winery, Hugel & Fils, in 2001, I was lucky enough to taste with legendary French winemaker Jean “Johnny” Hugel, who placed two wine glasses in front of each guest and proceeded to pour different samples into each.

“You won’t learn about what makes these wines special by tasting them on their own,” Hugel explained as he presented a range of wines, including pinot gris, rieslings and gewurztraminers grown in different vineyards, harvested at different times and made in different years.

Hugel was technically retired at that time, having handed the business over to his nephews, Etienne, Jean Philippe and Marc, members of the 13th generation to run the winery operation in Riquewihr. But continued to be an incredible ambassador until his death in 2009. On this day, he offered a comprehensive overview of winemaking in the Alsace region of France, peppered with insights about the family’s history which started making wine in 1639.

Hugel also delivered a perfect illustration of how comparative wine tastings can improve one’s wine tasting skills while you learn about the nature of what’s in your glass. Here are seven tips for your next wine tasting:

Compare two samples of wine: “Tasting is comparing,” Hugel exclaimed multiple times during the visit. It’s a great way for beginners to wine to discover how they can interpret different aromas and flavours and learn more about the styles of wine they prefer.

Pour an ounce or two of each: You want to be able to swirl the wine without spilling.

Look at the colour: Check out the wines’ clarity and its colour. The colour is determined mainly by the grape variety. Red wines get their colour from the skins. Other winemaking decisions, such as barrel fermentation, blending or extended aging will impact the intensity of the wine’s colour.

Swirl: If you swirl the wine in the glass you get a more concentrated aroma. (The act of swirling increases the surface area of the wine and the increased air contact makes the alcohol evaporate more quickly. The evaporating alcohol carries the aromas into the air where you can smell them. A wine’s aromatics is a complex smell of fruit, acids and, in some cases, oak.)

Sniff: The smell tells you everything you need to know to judge whether you will like it or not. A wine in good condition should smell fresh and lively. It might suggest different things to you: fruits, flowers, vegetables and vanilla or other spices. (The only thing your nose doesn’t know in advance of tasting is the body of the wine and its texture (its feel in your mouth) and how long the flavours will linger on your palate.)

Sip: Keep in mind that tasting isn’t simply sipping and swallowing. You need to chew your wine — swish the wine around in your mouth. We taste in the mouth through tiny sensors on our tongue and gums. These sensors register acidity, sweetness, bitterness, saltiness and umami (savoury or meaty sensation from amino acids).

Summarize: Do you like either of the wines? Both? What stands out or makes the wines distinct or memorable? Do they taste the same as they smell? How would you describe each wine?

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