How to Taste Wine in 3 Easy Steps
Anyone can drink wine, but tastin’ wine ain’t easy. In order to fully understand and appreciate a wine we must truly taste it, and that goes beyond merely sipping it. While smelling and tasting what’s in the glass is the most popularly discussed, one of the other key factors to contemplate is what the wine’s purpose is. Is it meant to be sipped on a sunny day by the pool or coursed out at a Michelin starred restaurant? Whatever that answer is, decisions were made throughout the growing season and winemaking process to best suit that desired style and quality.
A true wine tasting should include three approaches: observing it, interpreting it, and, last but not least, enjoying it! So let’s get down to how we do that.
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First we start by making sure we have the proper setup to taste said wine. Select the appropriate wine glass for the style of wine or use an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) wine tasting glass (learn more about wine glasses). Then be sure to taste in a well-lit space, have a clean palate - aka without having just brushed your teeth or eaten spicy food - and be free of perfumes and other odors.
Summary of Taste
The thing about smell and taste is that while they are very interconnected, they each serve a rather unique function. Smell is processed through olfactory receptors in the nose that allows us to identify aromas like fruit, flowers, herbs, and earthiness. Taste, on the other hand, involves gustatory receptors on the palate that help us to detect whether the contents in our mouth are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and/or umami. This is why it’s common to recognize more specific aromas in wine than flavors. But together these beloved senses form the pleasurable experience we call tasting wine.
Onto the glass, the first step in tasting requires objective observations of the wine’s appearance and notable features on the nose and palate. The second step is to supplement those findings with subjective interpretations based on what the winemaker’s intention was. Was it intended to be dry or slightly sweet, simple or highly complex, and consumed in its youth or tucked away for extensive aging? Other environmental factors should also be taken into account such as the wine’s vintage and storage as well as any interactions with food. Then we combine all of these findings to make our final conclusions on style and quality.
Alright Already, Let’s Get Tasting!
Step 1: Appearance
Start by examining if the wine is clear or hazy, still or sparkling, and any other observations. For example, if the wine is all legs this can provide some insight into the alcohol or sugar level. Then we look at both the color and the intensity of color. Whites tend to be lemon-green, lemon, gold, or amber while highly oxidized styles can be as dark as brown. Red wine color and intensity can be influenced by grape variety, production methods, and its stage in development. These colors include purple, ruby, garnet, and tawny as well as brown for oxidized styles. Rosé wines can also display significant diversity in color including tones like pink, salmon, and orange.
Once the color has been decided we look at the intensity, or depth, of the color that ranges from pale to opaque. This can be done by tilting the glass against a light background or placing it over text and seeing how difficult it is to read it. While wine color and intensity can be quite uniform within certain categories one does not necessarily guarantee the other. One example is Nebbiolo which is a highly tannic variety yet produces wines that can be pale ruby in color. Another would be Sauternes with its notably deep golden hue.
Step 2: Nose
Moving on to our olfactory sense, the first step is to check the general condition of the wine. Taking light puppy sniffs, see if you notice any off smells or faults including TCA (“corked wine”), volatile acidity, reduction, Brettanomyces, and more. If you do spot any, how does it affect you and your olfactory perception of the wine? It is important to note that people have different threshold levels and, with the exception of TCA, certain faults can be quite pleasing to some.
Next on the agenda is the intensity. Typically stated as low, medium, or pronounced with variables in between, smelling the wine from a few distances can help you decipher this. Do you have to stick your nose literally inside of the glass to reach the aromas? Can you smell hints of fruit and other notes once you get just a bit close to the wine? Or do you smell pronounced perfumes emanating from the glass? Keep in mind that the intensity doesn’t mean how many specific aromas we find but the level of how strongly we can sense them.
From there we perceive the aromas which are categorized into primary, secondary, and tertiary characteristics. Primary aromas come from the grape itself and highlight the wine’s fruity, floral, and herbal qualities. Secondary aromas come from the winemaking process and can include influences from oak, malolactic conversion, lees stirring, and more. Tertiary aromas are the result of further aging or deliberate oxidation and can be expressed as dried fruit, nuttiness, gamey notes, and much more.
The last thing we assess on the nose is the wine’s development. If it showcases only primary fruit qualities then it is a youthful wine. If it is still fruity but has tertiary hints then it would be developing. If the majority of aromas fall into the tertiary category then it might be fully developed. Then, of course, some wines might be simply past their time.
Step 3: Palate
And for the main event...the glorious and wonderful palate. This is where we spend the majority of our time when assessing a wine. A good place to start is sweetness. Ranging from bone dry to lusciously sweet, most wines will be dry but specific styles and production techniques can result in varying levels of sweetness. Next is acidity and the mouth-watering sensation it provides. The level of acidity can tell us a lot about the grape variety, the climate in which it grew, and harvesting practices. For reds we also take a moment to observe the level and structure of the tannins - from light and delicate to bold and chewy. It is also important to notice the alcohol level as that can also be indicative of grape variety and terroir. Most wines have 12-15% alcohol and anything lower and higher suggests specific styles like sweet and fortified wines. And then there’s the body with its mouthfeel that can be anywhere from light to full. One way to determine this is to compare it to types of milk (skim to half-and-half) or fruit juices (lemonade to mango juice).
Flavor is the next and arguably most enjoyable part of the tasting process. Similar to the nose, we observe the intensity of flavors and then ascertain what we taste across the primary, secondary, and tertiary categories. And, finally, the finish. At this point, ask yourself if after you sipped the wine did the flavors immediately disappear, stick around for a bit, or linger and evolve into new deliciousness? You get the idea.
Then we review all of our notes and consider the various aspects of the wine including intensity, complexity, freshness, overall balance, and finish. Any of these components being slightly off would suggest a wine that is just acceptable. Simple and balanced with medium intensity and complexity indicates a good wine. Pronounced intensity covering a complex profile of flavors and bright acidity too boot would be a very good wine. And if it’s a total showstopper on all levels with a finish that keeps on giving then you’ve found yourself an outstanding unicorn wine!
In Vino Finito
After you’ve fully evaluated the wine there are a few things to remember. Because people’s preferences widely differ, everyone will have an individual interpretation of a wine - and that’s okay. When tasting a wine it is crucial to avoid what the industry likes to call “mediumitis.” Whatever it is you smell or taste, have a stance and feel empowered to vocalize that. That said, it is also beneficial to realize that your feelings about a wine and the quality of it are not always on the same page and they don’t have to be. It is through practice and learning to understand wine that creates more opportunity to experience new styles and be surprised by what you might like. So get out there and give them a try!