Proper wine tasting might seem like a foreign ritual: swirl, sniff, swish, spit. You may even ask yourself, “Why can’t I just pour a glass and be done with it?” The truth is, learning how to taste wine is a fun adventure that will give you a deeper appreciation for wine and help you better understand and evaluate it. Don’t fret. The basics of wine tasting are simple. We’ll tell you how to taste wine below; just use three of your senses: sight, smell, and taste.
One of the first things you should do with a glass of wine is look at it. Color and opacity of wine can help you approximate the age, grape varieties, acidity, and sugar content of the wine.
Examine the color of the wine. What color is it? You want to look beyond just white, red, or blush. If it’s a red wine, is the color maroon, ruby, garnet, brick, or even brownish? If it’s a white wine, is it clear, pale, yellow, light green, or golden? As wines age, they tend to look more yellow and brown.
Next, you want to look at its opacity. Is the wine opaque or transparent? Red wines tend to become more translucent with age. Is it consistently colored or does it have a light rim with a dark core? It’s helpful to 1) swirl the glass in your hand and 2) hold the glass up to a white background such as a piece of paper, napkin, or tablecloth.
Finally, look at the wine legs. Wine legs are the droplets of wine that form on the inside of a wine glass. This can tell you whether the wine has a high or low alcohol and sugar content. Higher alcohol wines have a higher density of droplets on the side of the glass.
You don’t need to spend a great deal of time on this step – only a few seconds to a minute will do.
Don’t underestimate the power of your nose, as it is the main part in evaluating wine. In fact, 80% of wine tasting is olfactory, which relates to the sense of smell. Smell contributes to your perceived taste.
Try pinching your nose while drinking or eating. Do you notice that the flavor is dulled or not as strong? This is because your nose affects your ability to taste.
In order to really maximize the experience the wine needs to be oxygenated prior to smelling it. Decanting the bottle about 20-30 minutes before tasting is ideal. However, if that’s not possible, let it aerate in a glass for about 5-10 minutes. This can make a huge difference.
Next, swirl the wine in the glass several times to release particular aromas into the air. Take a quick whiff to gain a first impression. What scent or aroma do you smell? Fruits? Spices? Vanilla? Oak? Flowers? Then, stick your nose into the glass and take a deep inhale through your nose.
Wine aromas fall into 3 categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary aromas are from the type of grape and climate where it grows. For example, a fruity aroma is a primary aroma. Secondary aromas come from the fermentation process. An example of this would be a sour aroma. Tertiary aromas come from oxidation and aging in oak and in a bottle. A vanilla aroma is an example of this.
Finally, it’s time to taste it! Take a small sip and swirl it around in your mouth to coat your mouth and hit every taste bud possible. The best way to sense sweetness is on the front of your tongue immediately after you sip the wine.
The wine’s taste usually falls into three parts: attack, evolution, and finish. The attack, or initial impression, involves alcohol content, tannin levels, acidity, and sweetness (residual sugar). While these four components do not exactly give a specific flavor, they work together to give you an impression in intensity/complexity, softness/firmness, lightness/heaviness, crispiness/creaminess, and dryness/sweetness.
Next comes the evolution phase. This involves the wine’s actual taste on the palate. Try to discern the flavor. Do you taste berry or plum, pepper or cinnamon, oak or cedar? Do you taste apple or citrusy fruits or honey or herbs? In short, is it fruity, smoky, or earthy?
The finish is the final step in the process. How long does the flavor linger after you swallowed (or spit it out)? The amount of time the flavor lingers can give you a good idea about the quality of the wine. Typically, the best wines express themselves long after leaving the mouth. Do you want another sip or was the wine too bitter? What was the last flavor you tasted?
After you have taken time to taste the wine, think about the overall impression of the wine. You might even want to record your thoughts for future reference.
In no time, you will be a pro at wine tasting. It just takes a little practice! With experience, you will really be able to tune your sensory abilities, which will enable you to truly enjoy the details of wine.