This describes the visual aspects of the wine. It goes without saying that you need a clean tasting glass and good light conditions for this.
- Clarity. Although part of the SAT, we will not spend time on this, as this aspect is also not graded on exams. Most wines are expected to be clear. Some premium wines may be unfiltered and/or unfined and might be hazy.
- Intensity. This relates to the amount of colour (pigment), not the colour itself. You can assess this by tilting your glass at a 45 degree angle and looking how far the colour extends from the rim of the glass.
- White wine: a broad watery rim denotes a pale wine, while if the colour extends to the rim this is deep. In between is medium.
- Red wine: if lightly pigmented from core to rim it is pale. In this case you can also clearly see the stem of the glass when looking through the wine from the top of the glass. If If the wine is intensely pigmented all the way to the rim it is deep. In this case you cannot see through the wine. In between is medium intensity.
- White wine: here it is best to look at the core of the wine. Most white wines are lemon colour, which is the starting reference. If there are greenish hues the colour is lemon-green (this option only exists at L3 not at L4). If the wine has a hint of orange/brown we call it gold. Amber and brown wines have significant browning but these wines are rare in our tastings.
- Red wine: here it is best to look more towards the rim of the glass, as the core might be too opaque to allow an assessment of colour (however, do bear in mind that garnet tinges on the rim, for example, are not enough to qualify a wine as garnet – you should designate the dominant colour of the wine). Most red wines are ruby, which is the starting reference. If it has blue/purple hues we call it purple. If the wine has a hint of orange/brown, but overall more red than brown, we call it garnet. If it has more brown than red we call it tawny. Brown is for fully evolved wines with no red colour remaining.
- Other observations. Here you could mention things as viscosity, pétillance, deposit, etc. but these are not graded and we will also not discuss them in our tastings unless something stands out.
Here we will describe the wine based on its smell. It helps to swirl the glass to release aromas.
- Condition. In an exam you will always have clean wines. During our sessions we will also check if everyone has bottle without faults.
- Intensity. If aromas are easily detectable from a distance without having to stick your nose in the glass they are pronounced. If even after sticking your nose in the glass aromas are faint, we call this light intensity. In between—so clearly noticeable but not leaping out of the glass—we call medium. At L3/L4 we can further refine the medium range using descriptors as medium+ and medium-. To have a good understanding where the cross-over point is, it is best to attend our tasting calibration sessions.
- Aroma characteristics. These are recognizable aromas that we detect in the wine, which we will describe referring to food, fruits, plants, spices, etc. Aromas are divided in three main groups.
We recommend sticking as much as possible to the aromas described in the Wine Lexicon on page 2 of the WSET SAT. It is important to describe actual aromas, not just clusters, so not tropical fruit but rather pineapple and/or mango. On an exam we recommend to write as many aromas as you can recognize, and at least five. For simple wines you can also use the descriptors simple or generic. During our online tasting calibrations we use a "word cloud" visualization to show which aromas are frequently identified by participants.
- Primary aromas: these are aroma's inherent to the grape and/or fermentation process. Among these are different clusters of fruit, as well as floral aromas, herbal aromas, etc.
- Secondary aromas: these are aromas as a result from winemaking such as lees ageing (e.g. bread), malolactic fermentation (e.g. butter) or oak ageing (e.g. vanilla).
- Tertiary aromas: these aromas result from (bottle) ageing. Examples are dried fruits, mushrooms, walnuts, leather, honey, etc.
- Development. This describes how far a wine is in its evolution or ageing process. If a wine only has primary/secondary aromas (e.g. young Bordeaux wines) we call it youthful. If it has some emerging tertiary aromas, but is still mainly driven by primary/secondary aromas (e.g. Riesling with a few years of bottle ageing) we call it developing. If the tertiary aromas are dominant (e.g. a 20-year old Rioja) we call it fully developed.
This is the most important part of the tasting, where we assess the key elements of the wine in the mouth. It is useful to assess one or two elements at a time with each sip: e.g. first sugar and acidity, then alcohol, body, etc. During our online tastings, we will vote on each of these aspects separately.
- Sweetness. This describes the amount or residual sugar on a wine. Most still wine do not have noticeable sweetness and thus qualify as dry. Technically this is often below 4 g/l. A hint of sweetness such as in some Alsace wines or Brut Champagnes is called off-dry. Wines with noticeable sweetness (more than 12 g/l) but not sweet enough to pair with desserts are called medium-dry (e.g. Vouvray demi-sec) or medium-sweet (e.g. Vouvray moelleux). Sweet is reserved for dessert wines (e.g. Sauternes, Tokaj) and luscious is for rare and very sticky wines such as Sherry PX or Rutherglen Muscat.
- Acidity. This is the combination of different types of acid in wine (mainly tartaric but also malic and lactic) and the mouth-watering or tingling sensation this creates on the tongue. Wines with low acidity taste broad and soft and do hardly trigger any saliva after spitting or swallowing. Wines with high acidity taste sharp and fresh and create a lot of saliva (e.g. Mosel Riesling). In between is medium, where you can use medium- and medium+ to denote degrees of medium. As with most 5 point scales with 3 levels of medium on the SAT, it is often useful to start with the 3 point scale (e.g. assessing whether the wine is low, medium or high in acidity) and then refine the medium range if needed. Note that sweetness or alcohol can sometimes mask acidity, but paying attention to the mouth-watering effect is often a reliable marker. You can calibrate this during our tasting sessions.
- Tannin. The SAT only considers tannins for red wines but if a white wine has some phenolics or bitterness, you can make a mental note of it or write it under "other observations" on an exam. This could point to winemaking techniques (skin contact, oak aging) or grape variety (thick skin) and could help you identify the wine, and it can also add to the body of a white wine. Tannins are bitter or astringent tasting components extracted from skins, stems, pits and oak vats. Tannin binds to your saliva and creates a drying sensation in the mouth. Wines from grapes with thicker skins and with oak ageing often have higher levels of tannin. The level of tannin (which is what we assess here) can be best assessed by bringing the wine in contact with different parts of your palate. If you feel a significant drying effect on your tongue, gums, cheeks and back palate, then the level of tannin is high. If you hardly notice any drying effect, the level is low. In between is again medium, which you can refine using medium- and medium+. Note that this only denotes the level of tannin. At Level 4 you should also describe the sensation or nature of the tannin: e.g.. ripe/unripe, coarse/soft, etc. Indeed, unripe medium tannin can sometimes taste more astringent than very ripe high tannin, so this also needs some practice and calibration.
- Alcohol. Alcohol (and glycerol) are created during fermentation and add to the weight and warmth of a wine by creating a viscous mouthfeel and a burning sensation, especially if the wine has high alcohol. Alcohol can sometimes be better assessed by swallowing a small quantity, as the burning sensation is more apparent in the back of the mouth and throat, especially when exhaling. For still wines, we call a wine low in alcohol if it is below 11% abv. In this case there is often a somewhat watery mouthfeel (except for sweet wines with low alcohol, where the concentration of flavour and sugar give body to the wine). Between 11% and 14% we call it medium. Above 14%, when the burning sensation if often more noticeable, we call it high.
- Body. This is the overall mouthfeel or weight that the wine confers on the palate. It is created by a combination of the above-mentioned elements, with alcohol and tannin (in red wines) often the most contributing factors, but also acidity and sugar can play a role. Other elements can also have an impact on body, such as lees ageing, bâtonnage, oak ageing, etc. A dry unoaked high acidity wine with low alcohol (e.g. a dry Mosel Riesling) has a light body. An oaked red wine with high alcohol and tannins and medium or less acidity is often full bodied (e.g. Barossa Shiraz). A wine with medium alcohol, medium tannins and medium to medium+ acidity (e.g. a Bordeaux AOC) would be medium body and again you can use medium- and medium+ to refine the medium range where applicable. Note that body is no a marker for quality. A a light bodied wine can be just as outstanding in quality, where delicacy reigns over power.
- Flavour intensity. This refers to how intensely flavours are perceived once the wine is in the mouth, or how "flavoursome" the wine is. In many cases the flavour intensity on the palate is in line with the aroma intensity in the nose and the same 5 point scale applies, from light to pronounced. However sometimes some aromas are stronger or lighter in the mouth. For example floral aromas are more apparent on the nose and a very floral wine could have pronounced intensity on the nose but only medium or medium+ intensity on the palate.
- Flavour characteristics. This is similar to the aromas in the nose and the same points apply as mentioned above. In general the nose aromas and palate flavours should be consistent. However due to warming of the wine in the mouth some flavours can be stronger or weaker when tasted. On an exam it is a good practice to add new flavours that you detect on the palate to the aromas you detected in the nose, and vice-versa.
- Finish. Here we describe the length of the positive flavour sensations after swallowing or spitting the wine. Any unpleasant aspects that linger (e.g. abrasive acidity or astringent tannin) should not be counted. If the flavours disappear after 2-3 seconds the finish is short. If the flavours persist for 10-15 seconds or more, the finish is long. Again use the medium-, medium and medium+ terms for levels in between.
- Other observations. As for the visual aspect, under this category you can point out other textural elements you noted on the palate such as bitterness, creaminess or pétillance. These could gain you an extra point on exams, in particular for sparkling wines where you can comment on the quality and texture of the bubbles and mousse.
Under the conclusion we assess the quality and ageing potential of the wine using the key elements of the SAT as supporting arguments. It is important that your conclusion is consistent with the rest of your SAT description.
- Quality. Here we should try to make an objective assessment of quality independent of our personal taste. In WSET you often hear the acronym BLIC, which stands for Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity; these are the four major pillars that define quality. Complexity refers to how many different (layers of) aromas and flavours you can find in a wine. For balance you should always trade off different structural elements such as sweetness, fruitiness, alcohol, acidity and tannin in relation to each other. If these keep each other in check and no element stands out in an unpleasant way, the wine is balanced. If a wine is balanced, complex, has a long finish and a high intensity, we call it outstanding. If it lacks one of those elements but still scores high on the three others (or maybe two elements fall slightly short), we call it very good. A good wine scores high on two aspects, for example it is balanced and has intense fruit flavours, but it is simple and has a rather short finish. Many commercial mid-priced wines fall in this category. If a wine only scores high on one element, we call it acceptable. At WSET Level 4 many points are to be gained for a detailed explanation of quality and any positive/negative arguments regarding "balance" and "complexity" should be well supported with the findings in your tasting note. This is beyond the scope of this introductory explanation but we explain this in more detail during our tasting sessions.
- Readiness for Drinking and Potential for Ageing. Here we will assess if the wine could benefit from further ageing. This depends on the style of the wine, its intensity and concentration of flavours, as well as structural elements that support further ageing. The main structural elements that provide ageing ability are acidity and tannin (the higher, the better) but also sweetness and alcohol can play a role. Most commercial wines are brought to market ready to drink and in this case we will put them in the in the drink now: not suitable for ageing or further ageing category. Although these wines could be aged for one or two years, they will not improve in complexity or integration of aromas, and they will just change (often for the worse). Fruit flavours will disappear and might be replaced by more tertiary flavours, but for fruit-driven wines this is not a positive evolution. If we think the wine will improve and gain complexity from ageing (development of more tertiary and savoury aromas), and/or better integration of oak or tannin, we will classify it as can drink now, but has potential for ageing. Note that in this case the wine not only needs structural ageing components but also enough concentration and intensity of flavours. At WSET Level 3 you can also use too young (still far away from its peak) or too old (over its peak) but such wines are rare on an exam or during our tastings.
Here you can find a WSET SAT example tasting note
from one of our online tasting calibration sessions.
As mentioned, calibration of these different factors can take some time. We recommend to taste together with experienced tasters, take classes at a WSET certified wine school, or sign up for one of our online tasting sessions
which are lead by two WSET Diploma certified wine educators. But most important: have fun and enjoy tasting wines!