Wine is not just grapes; it’s a storyteller that shares tales about the region, the people, and the culture behind it. While it’s easy to drink wine, learning to taste wine brings about a greater appreciation for all the other elements that go into the glass. Whether you’re a beginner who’s first getting into wine or an aficionado, learning how to properly taste can help you distinguish a good wine from a great wine and enhance your overall drinking experience.
The first thing to remember is that tasting is about learning. There’s never a right or wrong to the aromas you detect or the different flavors you taste. Wine professionals are always tasting because they too need to educate themselves. With thousands of grapes growing in hundred of regions around the world, there’s no possible way anyone can know it all; never be intimidated.
There is a dizzying array of glass options available, all meant to enhance certain characteristics in different wines. However, one good quality all-purpose glass is really all you need for wine tasting, especially if you’re a beginner. One wine professional I know swears by his $60 Zalto glass, but personally, my favorite tasting glass was a souvenir from a wine event. Try to avoid plastic when possible; while they’re great for the pool, they can affect the way the wine smells and tastes.
In America, we have a tendency to serve whites a bit too cold, which masks the nuances, and reds a bit too warm, which enhances the alcohol. Ideal temps are around 40-50 degrees for sparkling wines and light, dry white wines; 50-60 degrees for fuller bodies white wines and light red wines; and 60-65 degrees for full-bodied red wines.
Any time wine is front of you, it’s a great time to taste. That being said, if you really want to focus, a well-lit room with minimal distractions, such as music, is the ideal tasting environment. Perfume and cologne can interfere as well, so it’s best to forgo scent altogether.
Hold the glass up to a white background and tilt it away from you. You’ll want to notice the the range of hues, which could be an early indicator of grape varieties. For whites, this could go from very pale yellow-green to deep gold, while reds can display ruby, garnet, or even amber. The color on the rim of the wine can also tell a story: older whites will have a bit more of a burnished gold, while older reds may have a tinge of brown.
Swirl the wine around a few times to give it some air and allow the aromas to open up. Stick your nose in the glass – don’t be afraid to really get in there – and take some deep whiffs. Move your nose around the glass in quadrants; you can pick up different aromas this way.
When I first started tasting wine, I created different categories of aromas, and thought about each one individually, as if running down a list:
From there you can start getting specific: What kind of fruit are you getting? Red berries? Pears? Is it a black pepper kind of spice or a sweet baking spice? As you start to identify scents, you can create new categories for yourself, such as vegetal notes. It’s a wine tasting technique I still use today as I find this methodic way of tasting helps me sort through and pinpoint different aromas.
The different scents can give you clues to how a wine is made and its age. Creamy, buttery, and popcorn notes, commonly found in white wines, indicates a wine has gone through malolactic fermentation, a process where malic acids are softened and converted into lactic acids. Coconut, vanilla, or oak notes present the possibility of barrel aging. Young wines will often have an exuberant fruit character, but older wines will develop what’s known as tertiary aromas; for white wines, that can be nutty tones while red wines may showcase leather, tobacco, and meaty notes.
With your first sip, hold the wine in your mouth, swirl it around, and suck in a little bit of air. Note how it feels on your palate and on your tastebuds. When assessing wine, there are several things to think about:
Dry vs Sweet – Often, fruity wines are misconstrued as being “sweet” wines, when in fact they’re dry. Sweet wines, such as dessert wines, will have some perceptible sugar on the tongue.
Acid – That mouthwatering effect is due to the acid in wine. The higher the level, the more you’ll salivate. Wines described as “zippy” and “fresh” are often high in acidity.
Body – A common analogy to describe body is skim milk to whole milk. The weightier the wine, the more body it’s considered to possess.
Tannins – The dry, astringent feeling red wines give you is often due to the tannins, which are chemical compounds found in grapes, but can come from oak barrels as well. Tannins give wine structure and as wine ages, tannins soften and become more integrated.
Length – When a wine lingers in mouth long after you’ve swallowed, it’s considered to have a long length and is often an indicator of a well-made wine.
Simple vs Complex – One-note, simple wines do have their place (think poolside sippers), but complex wines keep evolving and revealing nuances. This is the kind of wine that you keep going back for, whereas simple wines might be a one-and-you’re-done scenario.
Flavors – The aroma categories also apply here; by going through your list, you can identify different flavors that appear on your palate.
The most important question to ask when tasting wine is, do you like it? There’s no point in drinking something that doesn’t suit you. But as a beginner, it’s also important to think of this wine as a starting point; the characteristics you like can be connectors to other types of wines. Be curious and keep tasting; you’ll never know where the wine journey will take you.