How to Taste Wine

by on February 11, 2012

Here’s a guest post from Jeremy about how to taste wines.  There’s also a brief video at the end illustrating the tasting technique. 

MP900438569Wine tasting can be many things for many people, and you shouldn’t let anyone bully you into thinking that you necessarily have to approach it in one way or another.  If you really want to learn about the wine you’re tasting, however, then you’ll probably want to incorporate some traditional techniques into your tasting, since these techniques are designed to allow a taster to better taste, evaluate, and hopefully describe any wine they taste. 

Below are the steps that I recommend you follow if you’re a fairly inexperienced wine taster.  You could eventually add any number of complicated nuances to what I’ve written below, but if you follow these steps and learn from them, you’ll actually be way ahead of many people who think they know a lot about wine.

Step 1: Take a Look at the Wine
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that they can (or that you should be able to) identify 732 different characteristics just from looking at a glass of wine.  Realistically, you can’t tell very much from just looking. However, if a wine has serious problems, then looking at the wine might be the first clue.  Particularly if a wine looks hazy or cloudy, then it may have problems.

To properly look at a wine, you need a well lit room, you want to hold the glass at about a 45-60 degree angle (obviously without spilling the wine), and you want to look down through the wine against a white or very light background.  Again, though, looking at the wine is the step that is going to tell you the least about the wine. Don’t worry right now about describing the intensity or specific color of the wine.  You can always pick that up later.

Step 2: Smell the Wine
This should be an incredibly enjoyable step, and one that you take your time on before actually putting the wine in your mouth.  Wines are often differentiated more by their "nose" (the aromas you smell from the wine) than by their "palate" (the tastes you experience from a wine). 

To smell a wine, start by gently swirling the wine in the glass.  Swirling wine causes it to come into contact with more air (oxygen) and more aromas are released this way.  Immediately after swirling, bring the glass up to your nose, and actually stick your nose into the glass just a bit.  (The video below illustrates these actions.)  There are a few things that you’re going to smell for, but I strongly suggest thinking about one at a time.  The point is just to classify/describe each characteristic of a wine, and not to judge or evaluate the wine.

  1. Intensity:  How strong is the smell?  It is very easy to get this confused with how distinctive the smell is.  Basically, you want to classify the wine according to one of the following 3 categories: (a) Pronounced: you can smell the wine long before your nose gets to the glass; (b) Medium: not pronounced, but you have no trouble smelling the wine when you put your nose in the glass; or (c) Light: you really have to sniff to smell the wine.
  2. Aromas:  What do you smell?  Don’t try to get too specific at first, but try to find as much as possible.  I suggest first using the following categories: (a) Fruit, (b) Spice, (c) Vegetable/Herbal, (d) Other.  Let me discuss each category quickly and some common examples you might smell.  The examples encompass probably less than 1% of the possible descriptions, but these are some of the most common.  The best wines will often combine many of these aromas, although other wines may not permit any particular aroma to be discerned.MP900444563
  • Fruit is a fairly easy category to comprehend and smell, as far as aromas go.  Common smells include citrus (lemon/lime), strawberry, cherry, blackcurrant, grapefruit, apple, or dried fruit like prune or raisin. 
  • Spice is a smaller category.  Spice aromas range from cinnamon to ginger to nutmeg to pepper to liquorice.
  • Vegetable/Herbal is a more tenuous category into which I’m lumping some pretty different aromas.  This is also the category that you’ll probably find least often when you’re smelling.  When you do find it, common aromas might include bell pepper, grass, olive, leafiness, or even mint, lavender, or eucalyptus.
  • Other is a huge category, but I’m putting it here to avoid going into too much detail about other possibilities.  If you try to smell for everything all at once, then you’ll likely miss many of the most basic aromas.  That said, there are some extremely common "other" aromas.  These include leather, honey, vanilla, earth, rubber, tobacco, chocolate, and even farmyard. 

The thing to remember is that you don’t need to smell every aroma, but if you find only one, then smell again, because most wines will have at least a couple.  I suggest smelling at least 4 times, asking yourself each time if you smell anything from each of the categories above, one by one.

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Step 3: Sip the Wine
After smelling, it’s time to sip.  Note that I didn’t say drink, as most wine tasters don’t actually every swallow the wine, since they want to remain alert in order to properly taste.  Feel free to disregard the no-swallow rule if you want, although it does become hard to remember anything (or even write very well) after a few wines.

Describing the ‘palate’ of a wine is perhaps the most difficult part.  When you sip a wine, take a relatively small amount into your mouth, breathe in a little air if you can, and then swirl the wine around in your mouth.  As with smelling, there are several characteristics you’ll want to look for, but again, it’s probably best to start by looking for one at a time.

One HUGE NOTE: If you eat or drink anything else before or while tasting a wine, it will dramatically affect and change the palate of the wine.  For instance, almost no wine will taste sweet at all if you’re eating cotton candy with it.  Just keep it in mind.

  1. Sweetness: The simplest way to describe sweetness is as (a) Sweet (lots of sugar), (b) Medium (some sugar) or (c) Dry (no sugar).  Most people generally know when they taste something sweet, but keep in mind that you may smell and taste fruit even in a dry wine.  As you drink more and more wine throughout your life, it becomes easier to discern how much sugar is in a wine.  I wouldn’t dwell too much on this.
  2. Acidity: Acidity is actually fairly easy to discern, although not many people understand what it means.  Acidity generally has one overriding trait.  If a wine is acidic, it will be "mouth-watering".  In other words, after you drink the wine, your mouth will water.  If it waters a lot, the acidity of the wine is high, if your mouth waters a little, the acidity is medium, and if your mouth doesn’t water at all, the wine has low acidity.
  3. Tannin: In the simplest terms, tannin is the opposite of acidity.  A wine may be both high in tannins and high in acidity, but whereas acidity will make your mouth water, tannin will dry out your mouth, particularly your gums.  A wine that is high in tannins will leave you licking your gums long after you drink it, and a wine low in tannins will not cause your gums to dry out at all.  A wine medium in tannins will be somewhere in between.  White wines have no tannins, ever.
  4. Body: Body is simply how thick or viscous a wine feels in your mouth.  It can range from light to medium to full bodied, and the way I like best to think about it is by comparing it to dairy products.  A light bodied wine would feel like skim milk in your mouth, a medium bodied wine would feel like 2% milk, and a full bodied wine would feel like cream.
  5. Flavors: Flavors are no different than aromas for the most part.  Pretty much all of the aromas that I listed above are capable of being tasted.  As an interesting aside, the reason you can taste pretty much every flavor you can smell is because you essentially taste those flavors by smelling them from the back of your nose while the wine is in your mouth.  As with smelling for aromas, don’t try to look for every flavor at once.  Try to pick out a flavor category, then narrow it down if you can.  Once you’ve done that, look for another flavor category.
  6. Length:  Length is how long you can taste the flavors of the wine.  This is not to be confused with how long the wine makes your mouth dry or how long it makes your mouth water.  Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what a short, medium, or long length is until you’ve tasted quite a few wines.  It’s all relative.

As you can see, there are a lot of things to think about while the wine is in your mouth.  When you’re starting out, I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to think about one characteristic at a time.  Otherwise, you’ll miss out on a lot.

Step 4: Quality/Appreciation
Really, you can stop with step 3, or else create your own step 4.  If you’re really serious about learning about wine, then the next step is to learn to make objective judgments about the quality of the wine.  However, this is particularly tough when you’re just starting out. 

Now Watch the Video
Watch the short video below where Jeremy explains how wine tasting works.

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