How to Taste Wine and Seem Like You Know What You’re Doing
If you’ve been around wine geeks that drop phrases like, “let it breathe,” or “slow legs,” you may already have some sense of this leisurely, sometimes holier-than-thou pursuit.
But once you get past all the jargon, wine tasting can give you a greater understanding of the different varieties available, and more importantly, will increase your pleasure as you sip them down.
Drinking wine is like listening to music—there are loud and soft notes, lots of information to absorb, and everyone has unique tastes, so “good” and “bad” is totally subjective. Once you decipher your tastes and preferences, you can use that knowledge to find other wines that you will enjoy. And like most things, the only way to get better at describing a wine is to practice. The goal is to develop a “wine vocabulary” of your own, and a history for your palette to build on so you can compare other wines down the line. Be prepared to use all almost all of your senses.
Step 1: Prep Your Setup
While you could surely find some wine glasses at a thrift store, it’s a good idea to spend a few bucks on some decent ones. At the bare minimum, a glass should be completely clear (no multicolored grape patterns or green frosting, got it?), so you can study a wine’s color, and big enough to allow you to swirl wine around without spilling it. A stem is a good idea, too, so you don’t warm up the wine by cupping the glass in your hand.
Wine color also helps to determine the ideal shape of the glass. Red wine glasses will typically be taller and have a wider mouth and bowl. The idea is that this shape better allows the flavors and smells to come out as you swirl the juice within the glass. For white wine, you actually want to reduce how much air gets into it, so those glasses tend to be narrower with smaller mouths.
If you are doing a wine tasting with several bottles, start with lighter wines and work your way to the fuller-bodied ones. Otherwise, your palette can get too fatigued early in the process. Many red wines, especially younger (newer) ones, will benefit from decanting, which involves opening them ahead of the tasting and pouring in a container. Decanting allows you to separate out the sediment lurking at the bottom, and also aerates the wine to release the aroma and flavor.
Keeping your palate clear before and during wine tasting is important, so don’t eat a big Caesar Salad or smoke a stogie before you begin. And have some water, mild fruit, bread or crackers available to help cleanse your palate between wines.
Step 2: Visualize It
To evaluate the appearance and color of a wine, you need to look at it against a white surface under good, natural light. This is why a clear glass is important. Some of the things to look for are the depth of color, hue, and clarity.
Step 3: Swirl It
The most often-skipped step in tasting a wine is the swirl. With the glass flat on a table, grab the bottom of the stem and swirl it vigorously—you want to increase the surface area of the wine and aerate it, which will release more of its aromas. Don’t swirl it for more than five or six seconds though; it’s not a cocktail. Get a sense of the wine’s viscosity, or “legs.” You can judge the legs by watching for the streaks of wine that crawl down the glass after you swirl it. Bigger wines, with more sugar and/or alcohol, will have more pronounced legs, but ultimately they don’t tell you much about its taste or quality.
Step 4: Nose It
Don’t be afraid to get your nose down in the glass and take a good hard whiff. The brain can distinguish about 10,000 different smells, so when you dip your beak into a glass of wine, you’ve got your work cut out. Our sense of taste is heavily influenced by our sense of smell, and no two people smell an odor the same way. Keep this in mind when the goober next to you starts commenting on the subtle teriyaki aromas and enticing whatever-berry notes.
Think about the first smells that come to mind, no matter how far out, and write them down. It’s OK to have a cheat sheet of wine descriptors, but don’t rely too heavily on it. Again, use your own instincts. The common aroma wheel includes descriptors such as: fruity, woody, pungent, floral, spicy, nutty, and chemical. It takes your nose 20 or 30 seconds to reset and recover, so if you go in for another whiff, it pays to wait.
Step 5: Taste It
After you’ve gotten some initial impressions of the wine, you’re ready to taste it. Finally! Take another brief smell, then a small sip, and swirl it around in your mouth until it coats almost every part your tongue. This will also warm up and aerate the wine, and help release its flavors. If you’re tasting a series of wines and really want to keep your senses at their best, you should spit out the wine after this step. No fun, right? OK, go ahead and swallow it.
Step 6: Profile It
There are three broad categories used to describe a wine’s taste: sweetness, acidity, and tannin. Sweetness and acidity are familiar tastes, and are related to the dryness of the wine. The acidity gives wine its lift, while the absence of it makes a wine taste flat or “flabby.” Tannin comes from the skins, seeds and stems, and creates a dryness in the mouth in the finish (the lingering flavors after you swallow). Too much tannin can also create a bitter taste.
After you taste a wine, be sure to take some time before moving onto the next bottle. Write down some initial impressions while they are fresh—“enjoy the dryness combined with an earthy, peppery flavor…” and such. If you are tasting strong wines, be sure to clear your palette with some water and crackers, bread or fruit.
Of course, the point of tasting is not to identify every last aroma and flavor. The goal is to figure out what you do and don’t like about a wine, and allow your wine knowledge and vocabulary to evolve.
Finally, Attend More Tastings
Start a wine tasting group with some friends or check in with local wine shops about upcoming wine tastings. Even better, tour one of the great wine-producing regions of the world like Sonoma, Mendoza, or Alsace to try regional specialities at the source. (Yes, wine = travel, a very important perk.) Although tasting is subjective, it’s always helpful to compare notes with other tasters to get new perspectives and broaden your understanding of wines.