Regardless of whether you consider yourself an expert, budding wine enthusiast, or beginner, one of the best ways to appreciate wine is to know how to properly taste it. That being said, wine tasting shouldn’t be intimidating or full of “rules,” but rather, it should be a fun and enjoyable experience! Our handy guide to tasting wine breaks it down to help you understand what’s in your glass, so you can fully appreciate the nuances that make wine so enjoyable to drink!
Wine is made from grapes, but not the types of grapes you serve on a cheese plate. Rather, wine is made with particular types of grapes known as Vitis Vinifera, otherwise called wine grapes, that are small, sweet, and have thicker skins. Chardonnay is a wine grape, as well as sauvignon blanc, merlot, and cabernet franc, and these grapes produce wine of the same names. Sometimes, though, a wine is known by its regional name versus the grape, which is why you’ll see “Burgundy” on the label, for example, which is a red wine made of pinot noir in the Burgundy region of France. The same goes for Champagne, which is the regional name of Champagne, France – producing sparkling wines composed of chardonnay, pinot noir, and/or pinot meunier.
While we don’t think it’s necessary to spend a fortune on the “right” glassware for each wine varietal, there is certainly truth in how the shape of a glass can make a difference in the wine’s overall enjoyment. Certain glasses are specifically designed to accentuate the defining characteristics of a wine, directing aromas and taste profiles to different areas of the nose and tongue.
If you’re a beginner, rather than tossing your existing glassware, we’d suggest finding a glass that highlights your favorite style of wine. If you drink a lot of pinot noir, try a larger Burgundy-style glass meant for lighter-bodied red wines, which will help bring out the wine’s aromatics. Crisp, light-bodied white wines more your style? Then go for a smaller bowled glass – it will help preserve the floral aromas and keep the wine chilled for a longer period.
However, there’s a time and a place for everything, so if you want to drink your rosé out of a red Solo cup at a picnic or pour Bordeaux into a coffee mug while camping, we won’t judge. When you really want to evaluate a wine though, pay attention to how the wine comes alive, or not, in the vessel you’re drinking it from.
Ever had a warm beer? Or perhaps a warm glass of lemonade? They just don’t taste their best unless properly chilled, do they? The same goes for wine. Overly chilling a wine can mask the delicate aromas or make it seem flavorless, while a wine that’s too warm can overemphasize the alcohol – which obviously limits how much you can enjoy the wine. Try serving sparkling wine between 38°F – 44 °F, white wines between 44°F – 52 °F, and red wines around 53°F – 68 °F. Lighter styles should be served on the cooler side, while wines with oak aging or more tannic structures should be on the warmer side within each range.
Now for the fun part: tasting! Essentially, wine tasting can be broken down into four easy steps: look, swirl, smell, and sip. Each step helps you fully take in all of the nuances of a wine by focusing your attention on each individual component – clarity, aromas, taste, and flavor profiles – so you can determine if the wine is balanced or off, delicious or mediocre. Just like learning to play piano or ride a bike, practice makes perfect with wine tasting, so grab a glass and follow these simple steps to taste wine like a pro!
Before you taste, tip the glass at an angle to get a good look the color of the wine. Check out the opacity, determining whether it appears clear or cloudy. A lot of clues are buried in the appearance of a wine, like varietal and age, but unless you’re blind tasting then you don’t need to spend too much time on this step. Just know that lighter white wines will be pale in color and full-bodied whites will take on more rich, golden tones. As for reds, lighter hued wines you can easily see through tend to be more light-bodied while deeper, dark hued wines indicate a fuller body.
A little known fact about tasting wine is that your nose is the key to your palate. It’s true that a large amount of your satisfaction in a wine comes from smelling it before you take a sip. The smell of a wine can be delicate or strong, pleasant or unappealing, but before you dive in, be sure to swirl the wine a bit to bring out the aromas. This aerates the wine by adding oxygen to it, letting it “breathe” so it opens up and reveals the goods. So swirl away, then stick your nose into the glass and take a big whiff. What do you smell? Fruit, earth, dried herbs, sulfur? Certain grapes and certain places will have unique smells, while production techniques can impart additional aromas, as well. These can be broken down into categories:
Primary Aromas: These are grape-derived aromas and include dominant fruity, herbal, and floral notes.
Secondary Aromas: These aromas are background aromas that come from the winemaking practices, like fermentation techniques. Think buttered brioche, cheese rind, nutty characteristics, or yeast-like aromas.
Tertiary Aromas: These come from aging, whether from oak or in the bottle, and include notes of vanilla, coconut, baking spices, roasted nuts, tobacco, cigar box, and leather.
Look for aromas that smell like wine (fruit, earth…) instead of something funky, the latter of which could mean the wine isn’t in good condition. A few indicators that the wine is off include the smell of must or wet cardboard, barnyard/wet horse, rancid butter, matchsticks, and mothballs. Some of these flaws could be the result of a problem with winemaking, while others are caused by improper handling and storage.
After you’ve sniffed the wine a bit, it’s time to take a sip. There’s no standard practice when it comes to tasting, but professionals usually roll the wine around in the mouth and suck in some air at the same time to let the wine hit all areas of the tongue. However you want to do it, start to take note of the way the wine hits your tastebuds.
Sweet: Is the wine sweet from residual sugar left after fermentation or is it perceived as sweet from the fruit flavors?
Acidic: Does it taste acidic? Acidity makes your mouth water, like a tart lemon or cranberry, which tends to make the wine seem refreshing and zesty. Too much acidity can taste harsh, like your teeth are being stripped of enamel, while not enough acidity will make the wine seem flabby in the mouth.
Bitter: Does the wine dry out your mouth like oversteeped tea? That’s the result of tannins, which can be derived from the grape skins, seeds, and stems or from extended aging in oak. Tannins can be a good thing, depending on the wine, providing structure and shelf life.
Body: Body is the general feel of the wine in the mouth. Body fills your mouth with weight or viscosity – think skim milk versus whole milk for light-bodied compared to full-bodied wine. Generally speaking, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the tannin, and the more rich the wine is, the fuller the body.
Length: How long do the flavors and/or textures of the wine linger on your palate? Does it have a lengthy finish or does it fall short immediately after you swallow?
Now that you’ve looked, swirled, sniffed, and sipped a few times, it’s time to evaluate the overall impression of the wine. This is when you’ll be able to differentiate good wine from great wine. Does it seem balanced, with each nuance gracefully integrating together, or does one thing overpower everything else?
Whether or not the wine fits into the textbook “balanced” category, the most important question to ask yourself when tasting: is the wine enjoyable? In the end, that’s really all that matters.