An Overview of the ISA Wine Tasting Protocol

StefanoOne of the key building blocks of the sommelier certification course offered by the Italian Sommelier Association (ISA) is their standardized wine tasting protocol. This is a protocol that has been devised over the years by the association with a view to uniforming wine evaluations and reviews as much as possible among ISA-member sommeliers through the use of a common procedure and a common vocabulary.

A few years ago I went through all of the three levels of the ISA sommelier certification course at the Milan chapter of ISA and I thoroughly enjoyed the great learning experience that such a course offered, so I hope that many of you will find this quick overview of the ISA wine tasting protocol an interesting read. Besides, the main reason why I want to introduce these concepts is that I intend to utilize a simplified version of this evaluation process in wine reviews that I plan on publishing in future posts on this blog.

An ISA-protocol wine tasting is divided into three main phases, as follows:

  • Visual Analysis
  • Scent Analysis
  • Taste-Scent Analysis

Each phase is divided into multiple steps, each of which needs to be addressed by the taster using the ISA standardized vocabulary and the ISA wine tasting sheet. For our purposes, we will not focus on each of the 116 wine tasting terms in the ISA vocabulary or this post would grow out of proportion, but the following overview should anyhow give you a pretty good idea of what the process entails. If you have doubts as to the meanings of certain of the wine terms used below, you may want to refer to our Wine Glossary.

(A) Visual Analysis

  1. Clarity: this is an assessment whether the wine looks clear or instead presents debris or insoluble particles (as it may happen in old wines or unfiltered wines) – standard term for red wines is “clear”, standard for still white wines is “crystal clear” and standard for quality sparkling white wines is “brilliant”
  2. Color: self-explanatory, based on codified color terms for each type of wine (e.g., for white wines: greenish yellow; straw yellow; golden yellow; amber yellow). To properly assess color, one should hold the glass tilted forward (i.e., away from you) at a 45° angle against a white backdrop and assess color by looking in the middle of oval made by the surface of the wine in the glass. After assessing color, one should focus on the top part of the rim made by the wine in the glass (where the wine is shallower) to assess whether there are any perceptible color variations or “hints“: for instance, for a structured red wine with a few years of aging, the color analysis could be “ruby red with garnet hints” or vice versa a red wine that is still fairly young could be “ruby red with purple hints”
  3. Viscosity: this step entails swirling the wine in the glass and observing how fluidly or viscously it rotates and then observing the shape of the “arches” and the velocity of the “tears” that the wine leaves on the inside of the glass – two indicators of the wine’s alcohol by volume (ABV)glycerol content and structure or body (the faster the wine to stop swirling after you stop rotating the glass and the slower the tears to fall, the more ABV/structure the wine will have). Viscosity is only assessed in still wines
  4. Effervescence: as opposed to viscosity, this is a quality that is only assessed in sparkling wines. Here the taster should assess three characteristics of the perlage of the wine: the number of bubbles (the more, the better); the grain of the bubbles (the finer, the better); and the persistence of the bubble chains in the glass (the longer they last, the better)

(B) Scent Analysis

  1. Intensity: here the taster swirls the wine in the glass once again and then smells its bouquet. This first step of this phase assesses how clearly perceptible the wine aromas are in the nose of the taster
  2. Complexity: here the taster should assess how many different aromas he or she can pick up from the wine through successive inhalations: the more perceptible scents, the more complex the bouquet of the wine
  3. Description of the Aromas: here the taster indicates what kind of aromas he/she felt (or thinks that he/she felt!) in the nose, like aromas of flowers, fruit, herbs, spices, animal, soil, tobacco, minerals, etc.
  4. Quality: this is an overall evaluation of the quality of the bouquet of the wine, based on the three previous steps

(C) Taste-Scent Analysis

This phase of the ISA wine tasting protocol requires a premise: this is (finally!) the moment when the taster gets to actually taste the wine in his/her mouth.

Before getting to evaluating its quality, the taster classifies the wine in light of its essential characteristics, which are divided into two macro-categories called “softness” and “hardness“. The former category comprises sweetness, alcohol by volume and smoothness, while the latter encompasses acidity, tannins and tastiness (see more about these terms below). This analysis is important because, depending on its outcome, the taster will later decide whether the wine is balanced or not. But let’s now get to the various steps of this phase:

(i) Softness:

  1. Sweetness: here the taster classifies the wine based on its residual sugar level: dry, off-dry, medium-dry, sweet…
  2. Alcohol: here the wine is classified based on the perception in the mouth of its ABV: a wine for which a high ABV is clearly perceptible (but not disturbing) is called “warm” because of the feeling of apparent “heat” that alcohol conveys in the mouth
  3. Smoothness: this quality of the wine is that sense of “roundness” or “silkiness” in the mouth that is generally more common to red wines than whites, although there are exceptions. It is mainly given by the glycerol levels present in the wine, as a result of the alcoholic fermentation process or the action of Bortytis Cinerea in botrytized wines

(ii) Hardness:

  1. Acidity: here the wine gets classified based on the extent of perceptible acids present in the wine. A wine with crisp acidity is called “fresh”. Good acidity levels are generally desirable in white wines and particularly so in Brut sparkling wines. One of the key indicators of a wine with good acidity is increased salivation in the mouth
  2. Tannicity: this assessment is made only for red wines, because white wines have negligible amounts of tannins (because the white winemaking process lacks the maceration phase that in the red winemaking process permits the extraction of tannins). Depending on the grape variety/ies that are used to make a wine, this will be more or less tannic
  3. Sapidity: here the taster assesses the minerality of the wine, that is the extent to which mineral compounds are clearly discernible in the mouth, in the form of a vaguely salty taste

(iii) Structure:

– Body: this is an assessment of the structure or body of the wine, which is given by its dry extract and alcohol by volume: wines with a higher dry extract and ABV are called full-bodied

(iv) Assessment:

  1. Balance: this is a very important call that the taster is required to make in light of the aforesaid classifications. Generally, a wine is deemed balanced when its “softness” and “hardness” components balance each other out, but this is not a rule that is carved in stone and there are important exceptions. For instance, when tasting a white wine, it is commonly considered desirable that its “hardness” side have an edge over its “softness” side, while the opposite is often the case for structured red wines
  2. Intensity: as in the Scent Analysis phase, this is an assessment of how clearly perceptible the flavors of the wine are in the mouth of the taster
  3. Persistence or Finish: here the taster is called to classify the wine based on how long its flavors linger in his/her mouth after having swallowed a sip of wine. The finish is deemed long if the wine flavors are still perceptible after 7-10 seconds of swallowing
  4. Quality: here the taster assesses the quality of the wine flavors that he/she felt in the mouth: a quality judgment of “fine” implies that the flavors are (or include those) typical for the grape variety/ies of the wine and are pleasant in the mouth
  5. Evolutionary State or Life Cycle: here the taster classifies the wine based on its aging potential. A wine that is classified as “ready” means that it can be pleasantly drunk today but it would benefit from a few years of additional aging in order to achieve its full potential. By contrast, a wine is deemed “mature” when it is already deemed at its top and additional aging would make its quality degrade
  6. Harmony: this is the final, overall judgment about a wine, that is defined as a coherent synthesis of the three phases of the ISA wine tasting protocol resulting in a outstanding quality level. A wine that did well but not outstanding would be deemed “not quite harmonious”.

One final word regarding the recommended type of glass to perform a wine tasting exercise: it needs to be made of clear glass (ideally, a crystal glass), it needs to have a stem (that’s how one is supposed to hold the glass, by the stem), and it needs to have a bowl that is larger at the bottom (to allow wine to deposit when the color analysis is performed and to permit smooth swirls in the assessments of fluidity and bouquet) and smaller at the top (to concentrate aromas in the nose, thus facilitating bouquet assessment).

This is all: I hope you enjoyed this overview – stay tuned for a few wine reviews to come!


6 thoughts on “An Overview of the ISA Wine Tasting Protocol

  1. Tracy Lee Karner

    Wonderfully informative and clear.

    I’m wondering, what do Italians think of the notion that every variety of wine needs a specially designed, unique glass?

    My personal opinion is that it’s a marketing scheme to sell a lot of expensive glasses–a person would need, according to that theory, a dozen or more different styles of glass for each wine drinker. I’ve never believed it and haven’t felt that my wine drinking has suffered because I only have 3 different wine glasses in the house.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you very much for your kind words.
      As to your question, I totally agree with your approach. Besides, with over 350 indigenous grape varieties in Italy, I dare any glass maker to come up with that many different type glasses! 😉
      Jokes aside, I think that three to five different glass types are definitely enough to adequately deal with and enjoy most wines.
      Take care!

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  3. teach.

    It is absolutely impossible for any wine to have a ‘ruby’ core, and a ‘garnet rim’ based on the actual colour makeup. 1. Ruby is red with blue hues. 2.Garnet is red with brown hues. As you know, both have different connotations when it comes to implying something… anything, about a wine. They can simply not exist in the same liquid.

    This is a serious flaw in most European wine tasting notes, or terminology. Time to correct it.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you for voicing out your opinion.
      You certainly do not lack certainties! 😉
      Personally, I disagree with your opinion, mainly because I see ruby red as a “full”, base red color, I do not see blue hues in it. Even the dictionary definition of “ruby red”, for what it’s worth, seems to confirm this: “ruby-red – of a color at the end of the color spectrum (next to orange); resembling the color of blood or cherries or tomatoes or rubies”. Now, purple red on the other hand of course has a blue tinge, but we are talking about a different hue in the red wine color scale.
      So, in my world and in that of the sommelier association I am affiliated with there can very well be a wine that has a ruby red core and a garnet rim. This may be the case, for instance, of a wine that already has some aging and, while still retaining most of its original ruby color, is starting veering toward a garnet hue and this shows in the rim variation. On top of this, it is a phenomenon that can be confirmed through visual observation.
      So, I thank you for your comment but I will stick to my opinion and that of countless European sommeliers and winemakers: after all, Europeans have been in the wine business for a few centuries now and their wines are still appreciated even by scores of New World aficionados, despite our “flawed tasting notes” 😉

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