How to Taste Wine

Being new to wine can be intimidating- you may want to know, what is the correct way to taste wine? First, there’s no shame in in being a novice wine drinker. Own it and ask others for their thoughts on each wine and you will learn much faster.

On a typical winery visit the vintner will pour a small sample of wine intended to help you determine if you like and (hopefully) want to purchase the wine. There is no obligation here, but there is a purpose.

In order to understand your personal preference of wine, you need to evaluate each wine you taste. This takes time, method and dedication to the cause. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. So, let’s begin.

Define Good Wine

Good wine can be as simple as wine that you personally like, however you’re probably not here to just give a simple thumbs up or down. Professionals evaluate wine in terms of balance of the main components of the wine, including:

  • Fruit– grape wine for purposes of this post, however people can detect flavors and scents of many other fruits and flowers in grape wine from compounds in the grapes called “esters” that are magnified during fermentation.
  • Alcohol– or glycerol, the level of alcohol can effect the mouthfeel and flavor of wine. Wines high in alcohol can have a “sweet” or “hot” sensation.
  • Tannins– compounds called polyphenols, found in the skins of the grapes (and grape stalks, although vintners try to keep these out) and the oak barrels create structure in the wine. Some people describe tannins as a “dryness” on their tongue, similar to the sensation when you eat the string of a banana.
  • Acidity– the tart sensation in your mouth from acids in the grapes which diminishes as the grapes ripen. Acidity is important for wine structure as well.

A great wine will find all these in perfect harmony, none of which outweigh the others. That’s not to say that your personal preference will agree, as many people prefer wines that fall outside of this “perfect profile”.

Evaluate Wine Visually

Inspecting wine visually can help you understand several things about it. Your glass should be clear with only about 1/4 full with wine. In good, neutral light, hold up the wine against a white background so you can see exactly what’s in the glass.

Look at the color, depth, clarity, and viscosity (the body or mouthfeel) to help determine the grape variety, wine age, alcohol content, and potential flaws in winemaking.

Color of Wine chart by Wine Folly
Color of Wine chart by Wine Folly

Grape varieties vary in color. If you’re serious about learning typical grape varietal characteristics, consider buying the Color of Wine poster by Wine Folly.

The wine “legs” or clear liquid that runs down the glass after swirling the wine around can indicate the alcohol content, but not really much else. Don’t focus much on this aspect of the wine, it does not indicate wine quality.

Smell The Wine

Now the fun starts! Release the wine aroma with a few swirls of the glass. If you’re new to swirling wine, try by swirling the glass on a smooth surface until you’ve mastered it.

Stick your nose right into that glass and take a sniff. If all you smell is wine, you’re not alone. There are over 200 aromatic compounds in wine. It will take some time for you to gain the ability to identify specific aromas.

The Wine Wheel

Wine Aroma Wheel by UC Davis
Wine Aroma Wheel by UC Davis

The Wine Aroma Wheel is a great tool to help identify what you’re smelling and tasting. Start on the inner, more general layer; “the wine smells fruity,” then tease-out aromas and tastes more specifically, with the help of the wine wheel.

Consider the aroma to be a preview of the wine to come. There are typical aromatic notes to grape varieties that help you ascertain what type of wine you’re tasting (when you cannot otherwise tell). If you smell something’s “off” (weird or unappetizing), it could indicate a flaw in the winemaking.

Taste The Wine

Finally, the time has come to taste the wine. Take a taste of the wine into your mouth and move it around, possibly drawing in a little air and chewing it. What do you taste? If “it tastes like wine” is your answer, try consulting the wine wheel until you can pick-up more specific flavors.

The wine will probably change as you taste it. Things to think about when you’re tasting:

  • Initial flavors- what flavors can you identify when you first taste the wine?
  • Body- describes the texture and mouthfeel of the wine
  • Finish- how long the wine lingers on your palate once it’s swallowed.

Feel free to nerd-out, getting super specific and identifying obscure flavors. “I’m getting a hint of Aegean Region Calimyrna fig and Totapuri mango…” but expect a lot of eye rolling if you do, after all, now you’re just showing off- but good for you!

Take Wine Notes

Keep track of the wines you’re tasting in a notebook or your preferred wine app. This way you can refresh your memory when it’s time to buy a bottle or two. Track the winery name, wine name, vintage, blend, and your personal notes on the wine.

Start A Wine Tasting Group

Drinking wine alone is never as much fun as it is with friends. Get a group of your friends together and host regular wine tastings. Focus on a specific region, wine variety, or vintage. There are a ton of ways to have fun tasting wine. Remember, you have to practice, practice, practice. So get started!

Start exploring the Washington State wine regions.

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