Soak it all in... of course whilst drinking a glass of wine!
It all starts with the glass...
Wine glasses with a tulip shape are nice for two reasons:
When you swirl the wine, the aromas you set free are better contained
within the glass, and the tapered rim makes it harder to splash wine
all over yourself--an occupational hazard with wine tasting.
Incidentally, the "rule" that holding the bowl portion of the glass
warms the wine is...mostly nonsense. The wine won't be in the glass long
enough to experience temperature change.
Don't Pour It On
If you fill your glass about one-third or so of the way, you'll leave
plenty room for error in the swirling and tilting departments, and also
make space for aromas to build.
A Quick Look-See
Taking a moment to gaze adoringly at the color and depth of your wine
is a non-essential but still often worthwhile part of wine tasting.
When you look at the wine, sometimes it helps to hold a white sheet of
paper behind it to set off the color of the wine. Tilt the glass a
little to get a good sense of the wine stretched across a longer plane.
It is fun here to compare a few wines side by side. Some reds are
darker than others. You'll notice how inky an Australian Shiraz is
compared to an Oregon Pinot Noir. Observe the color of young wines with
older wines of the same grape varietal. New reds are often more purple,
older reds grow brownish or brick-colored. Some whites are a warm honey
color, particularly if they've spent time in oak barrels; others are
very light and bright, almost totally clear, or even greenish hued. You
might also look to see if the color of the wine is consistent all the
way across the surface, or does it lighten at the sides?
Here are a few appearance-related words you might keep in mind:
Bright, dull, clear, dense, hazy, luminous, flat, deep, opaque
The Nose Knows
Next, give the glass a good swirl. This will help release aromas. A
tulip-shaped glass will help capture the aromas and funnel them toward
your nose. Go ahead and put your nose right in there. And breathe
deeply. The first sniff is usually the most revealing.
Now it's really getting interesting. Smell is, of course, a critical
part of taste, and as you get a sense of a wine's aroma it stimulates
the palate. But take a moment to tease yourself a bit more before you
sip. What do you smell? A wine's aromas can tell you a lot.
This is also where wine tastings can begin to feel intimidating. Most
of us feel lucky if we can pick out a single overriding aroma. "Mmm,
this Chianti smells like cherries!"
It is in identifying underlying flavors that folks often begin to
sound like they're giving a poetry reading. But as with most things,
with practice you can teach your nose and palate to identify more aromas
Tip and Sip
Go ahead, take a sip. Ah, now that's the stuff! But before you
swallow the wine, let it linger a bit in the mouth. At this point, you
have many options, some more flamboyant than others. You can tighten the
mouth and breathe in over the wine to send the aromas into the back of
the nasal cavity--of course, this can also lead to breathing the wine
into the wind pipe. Or you can "chew" on the wine a bit to move it
around the tongue. However you do it, let the flavors wash over your
Do you find that the first flavor sensation remains constant? Or does
it change a bit? Did other flavors move to the forefront?Were the
flavors the same as the aromas you picked out?
Do you have a sense of the wine's acidity? Does it make your mouth water?
Is it pleasantly weighty? The alcohol will give it the "body"that is
felt in the mouth as viscosity or weight. (A highly alcoholic wine is
often described as "hot.")
Is there a drying sensation in the mouth? That indicates the presence
of tannin. (Note that we tend to perceive tannins and alcohol as
feelings, not flavors.)
Use Your Words
Now that you've tasted and have directed your attention to noticing
the flavors, language will be helpful. One thing you'll notice is that
no one ever says a wine smells or tastes like grapes. Instead, there are
many, many other fruits plus vegetables, herbs, spices and minerals
that we tend to detect in wine. This is because there are thousands of
flavor compounds milling around in that glass, compounds that share
flavors with other foods.
Part of the fun of identifying flavors in wine is allowing yourself
the freedom to assign words to it that might seem silly or out of place.
It takes courage to say, "I'm smelling rotting leaves in this Burgundy"
or "My syrah smells a little like a barnyard" because rotten leaves and
barnyard smells don't seem like the kind of aromas you should be
experiencing in nice wines. But go ahead and say it loud and proud. As
it happens, those are not uncommon aromas to find in those particular
wines; neither are they flaws. In the wacky world of wine, they're
considered attractive. Go with your instinct. Be daring with the
There are classic flavors and aromas to look for:
Pinot Noir and cherries or mushrooms
Beaujolais and strawberries
Merlot and plums
Shiraz and leather (even barnyard smells)
Nebbiolo and "roses and tar"
Sauvignon Blanc and grass (even cat pee!)
Riesling and petrol (again, in a good way), and so on.
What fruit flavors do you sense? How about vegetables? Herbs and spices? Do you pick up mineral flavors?
Going Beyond the Basics
Once you've tasted for a while, you might find yourself taking your
aesthetic evaluations to (potentially insufferable) new levels. You can
begin to evaluate such things as the wine's "balance." Do the wine's
acidity, alcohol, tannins (if they're there) and flavors come together
as a pleasurable whole without different parts sticking out
As your knowledge and experience expand, you might even get to the
point where you feel comfortable talking about the "typicality" of a
wine as it relates to its place of origin and style of production: "Yes,
this California Sauvignon Blanc is good, though I'm not detecting the
tropical fruit flavors that I'd expect in a warm-weather Sauvignon
Blanc. And the brisk acidity--it seems more typical of a wine from the
Loire." Just don't blame us if your friends suddenly stop inviting you
to their wine tastings.
Something fun to do after you've tasted wine is to pay special
attention to the aroma of foods as you're cooking with them. Go ahead
and put the mushroom to your nose, give the lemon a sniff, breathe in
the aromas of those freshly chopped herbs. The nose has a powerful
memory, and taking care to notice aromas in the ingredients you prepare
will help you pick out aromas in wines.
Also, if your white wines are poured too cold, you will have
difficulty picking out aromas until they warm a bit and the tightly
bundled odors reveal themselves.
Tasting with Food
Certainly wines can be enjoyed on their own, but it is often much
more pleasurable to taste them with food. After all, this is most likely
how you'll be drinking them--in the real world of daily dinners.
With that in mind, consider holding a wine-tasting party
with food as an equally important player. Make it a potluck. Have your
friends bring a bottle or two of wine and a food item. You can make it
appetizers or casseroles; maybe focus on Italian food with Italian
wines, or do a tour of Asian cuisines with world Rieslings, or regional
American food with American wines. The combinations are endless.
Before you begin, take a few small sips of each wine to get a sense
of the wine before you eat. Then pour a few more small sips from each
bottle and compare with the food. See what you find out--the results may
surprise you. A wine that tasted deep and delicious as a sipper by
itself may turn out to overwhelm one dish. It might be perfect with the
This sort of tasting is fun, and it's also useful. Next time you're
having, say, Eggplant Parmesan for dinner, you'll remember how
well--perhaps to your surprise--the California Cabernet Sauvignon paired
with it at your wine-tasting party.