How To Taste Wine

Wine tasting is the sensory investigation, examination and evaluation of wine.

There is much mystery and confusion in the market place about how to taste wine and what is it that you should be tasting and what else should you be looking for.

Wine connoisseurs in general take this activity much too seriously. In reading their books, journals and magazines and then showing the articles to the farmers that operate the vineyard that the grapes came from brings laughter from the vineyard owner many times. Not to slight the connoisseur but to share with others that wine tasting should be fun and not too full of technicalities.

First let’s understand that grapes are grown by farmers in a vineyard which is different from a winery. The winery is the manufacturing place of the wine by taking the grapes, crushing them, fermenting them, storing them, then bottling the wine. Many wineries buy their grapes based on a contract with the farmer who grows the grapes.

In the restaurant setting the sommelier is considered the in house wine expert and can often times steer you in the right direction to a bottle of wine that you will like if you know how to tell them what it is in wine that you like. Do you like the fruity taste, the dry taste, the earthy taste, the buttery taste, the bowl of cherries flavor. From your various tastings at wineries make a note of what you like using your five senses of smell, vision, taste, feel, and how the glass should sound when you flick or ping the side of the glass.

Wines from the old world, or European wines, tend to have a pronounced earthy or mineral quality to them.  Wines from the new world, or California wines, tend to have little, if any, earthiness to them and also tend to be fruit-forward.

Using smell there are many kinds of aroma that come from a glass of wine. Sometimes it smells like butterscotch, sometimes it smells like wet hay. Vision, what we see is important. Know what you want to see, pale white, yellow, pink, deep dark red associated with the wine you consider as tasting good. Know what it looks like and order other wines that look just like that one. Over time you will build a list of favorite wines and therefore in the future you will be drinking wines that suit you well. Taste is the rather important sense that we should listen to once we have seen the wine, felt the wine and smelled the wine. You make get a sense that it tastes like tannin, and thus need to acquire a taste for that wine or avoid that wine. (“Tannin” refers to the astringent, bitter flavor from grape skins which may quiet down with age.)

If you like the bowl of berries flavor then find out which varieties or blend of grapes make up the flavor that you like. The making of the wine is a chemical process that involves fermenting the grapes. The end product is what you will taste and usually it has been stored in a barrel or in a stainless steel tank from one to three years before it is bottled. By gaining an understanding of how wine is made you will begin to make a longer list of wines that you like and wines that you want to sample.

The official way to taste wine, which involves vision, smell and well trained taste buds is as follows:

First the cork, you want to see the bottle before the cork is removed to see that wine has not seeped out in storage and it is obvious because there are red stains on the white label of the bottle. You can smell the cork if you like, but this ritual is not necessary. Look at the cork to see that it is intact and all there and none of it is still down inside the bottle. With older wines the cork sometimes goes dry and becomes brittle and breaks apart upon opening the bottle.

Now to the other steps.

  1. Sight:   Smell or Sniff:
  2. Swirl Sip and taste

Sight…what am I suppose to see? If you know the wine make sure it is the right color. You are looking for the color and clarity of the wine. Look for rim of the glass verses the center of the glass for color and hue variation as you tilt the glass. Is it red, ruby, purple, brown or watery? Is it white, watery, orange, yellow pale or pear color? Observe the color of the wine around the edges of the glass as you tilt the glass and hold it up to the natural light. Then observe when holding against a white background such as a napkin or table cloth.

Otherwise look into the glass north to south, then east to west looking for clarity and a consistent mixture and see that nothing has separated. Tilt the wine glass and observe the range of colors on the side of the glass and the bottom of the glass. Inspect the glass to see that nothing settled to the bottom of the glass and also look for cork or other floating objects in the glass of wine.

A quick inspection of a glass of wine can reveal a good deal of information concerning a wine’s age, cellaring conditions, methods of processing, and even a strong hint as to its identity.

Swirl…What kind of athletic move is needed? In wine tasting rooms this is difficult for some customers. It is done with a purpose. The purpose is to aerate the wine. That is like the lake that is aerated, the lake then has more clear water. The purpose of the aeration is to introduce air or oxygen to the wine in the glass. So it’s not called sloshing and spilling the wine, it is a practiced art of using your wrist to make the wine swirl around in a circle inside the glass. As oxygen enters the flavor of the wine is enhanced. So you want to sip the wine with enhanced flavor especially with the wine waiter or Sommelier hovering over and waiting breathlessly as you swirl the wine before smelling and tasting the wine.

Smell and Sniff…Do I take some in thru the nostrils? As the swirl continues to shift the wine around in a circle,  hold the glass steady and sniff the wine, just inhale, it’s ok. You are sniffing and smelling the wine to make sure it has a suitable aroma. Close your eyes and focus on just the fragrance. Does it smell like blueberries, cinnamon, oats, chocolate, tobacco, rose pedals? Go to work and see what it is that you can sense or positively identify from the smell of the wine. If it smells like goat urine, something might be wrong! Be sure the wine is not spoiled, stored or aged improperly. For good wine common aromas include different fruits, spices, herbs, chocolate and flowers. You are using smell to sense aroma, flavors, fragrances and characteristics. Further you are looking for appearance, the “in glass”  aroma of the wine,  “in mouth” sensations  and “finish” or aftertaste.

You are smelling and sniffing to see there are no “off” aromas:

Musty..smells like an old moldy house

Acidity, smells like turpentine or nail polish remover

Anything that smells unnatural or a smell that will interfere with the natural fruit flavor.

Fermentation imperfection, which will smell stale or rotten.

Swirl to increase the wine RPM’s and take a second sniff, then smell. Enjoy and identify the aroma and segregate out the many different smells that may be coming to you from the wine.

Sip and Taste…3 small sips. Okay it’s finally time to sip the wine, savor and taste the wine. This is the most important part. Taking 3 small sips spaced apart will give you and your taste sensors a chance to investigate the wine. Do not spit the wine on the floor, an old Roman practice no longer followed in the United States. If the initial sip causes you to cough a little bit, its normal, continue. Drinking wine is a pleasure, enjoy each and every moment of the experience.

To the taste is it sweet, sour, too much tannin?  Does it have an oak flavor, buttery flavor, fresh berry flavor, earthy flavor? You will encounter a wide range of fruit, citrus, flower peddle, herb, mineral, soil, barrel, barrel char and other flavors. Continue to use your taste sensors to see if the wine is balanced, harmonious, complex, evolved, and complete. You may taste 2-3 different fruits, a mixture of sweet, tart and sour, and some earthy characteristics. Sip and taste, swirl in mouth and suck on it a little bit, then swallow.

You are tasting the wine to see if you can now taste the flavors that you picked up during the smelling portion of the exercise. Note smell and taste work in tandem. Physicians tell us that smell accounts for as much as 85% of the sense of taste.

See if you can sort out the tastes. The front taste, the middle taste and the after taste. See if you can speak out loud as your identify flavor with your taste sensors. Segregate the blueberry flavor, from the shale flavor and try to pick out the cinnamon. Many times during a wine tasting dinner the wine maker at the event will prepare food that brings out the flavors that are buried there in the wine. They will direct you to take a small bite of chocolate then sip the wine. See what new flavor comes to your mind.  Then take a small bite of graham cracker then sip the wine and then compare which flavor comes forward to your taste sensors because of the food.

The temperature of the wine in your glass is important and with the help of the waiter the wine can become more cold or letting it sit a while it can become room temperature. Ice cubes are not welcomed as it dilutes the taste of the wine, but if you insist, then go ahead. White wines should be served at 59 degrees and red wines should be at 65 degrees, work with the restaurant to get your desired temperature because it will affect the taste of the wine. You don’t want it too cold or the colder temperature will destroy or mute the flavors. At home your refrigerator is likely 46 degrees…too cold…a wine refrigerator at home set to 58 degrees is highly desired to deliver the best flavor with the white wine stored slightly cooler…thus whites near the cold air intake and the reds stored away from the intake. The secret is storing the wine at a constant temperature. Do not store red wine out of refrigeration if the outside air temperature is above 72 degrees.

You are tasting to see that by way of delivering the wine to the restaurant that the wine was not spoiled or overheated and is now on its way to becoming vinegar. The wine industry has not adopted the industry practice of shipping wine from their dock to the end user in refrigerated trucks, same for the wine distributor who likely operated the business that delivered the wine to your restaurant.

Linger here for a while smelling and sniffing and make sure the wait staff is good and nervous. You have the absolute right to send the wine back. Is it ok if you do that? Well the restaurant is not overjoyed but likely it will become tomorrow’s wine by the glass special in the bar. Preserve your right and exercise good honest judgment and know when the wine is good and when the wine is really bad. Sometimes the wine is good, but your taste buds remember the wine of two nights ago and sense that something is different and may give you a jolt or false sense that something is wrong with the wine. This step requires quick critical thinking so if there is a CEO in your party, let them have the first sip and let them make the call. Also it is permissible for 3 or 4 in the party to have an initial small sip of wine in the restaurant to be sure that the committee agrees that the “wine is good.”

The words that are music to the ears of the Sommelier “the wine is good.” The business side of this is if the Sommelier made the call and directed you to a bottle of wine, if it turns out to be a great tasting wine, yes increase the tip or give the cash directly to the Sommelier. If the wine is not so good then you may adjust the tip accordingly. Of  course your can do all of these steps at home, though the grocer is not likely to take back the bottle of wine.

Aromas that you might find in white wine:

Chardonnay: pear, apple, peach, apricot, vanilla, lemon, melon, pineapple, honey, butterscotch

Sauvignon Blanc: grass, herbs, grapefruit, pear, gooseberry, lime, lemon, olive

Gewurztraminer and Riesling: grapefruit, apricot, lime, mint, melon, peach, lilac, jasmine, cinnamon, cloves

Viognier: flowers, lemon, honeysuckle and nectarine

Aromas that you might find in red wine:

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot: blackberry, raspberry, cherry, plum, black currant, chocolate, coffee, tea, tobacco, mint, smoke

Pinot Noir: raspberry, strawberry, cranberry, other fruit,  rose

Zinfandel and Syrah: black currant, strawberry, blackberry, pomegranate, plum, lavender, black peppercorn, vanilla

Sangiovese: raspberry, cherry, plum, anise, olive, other fruit

My experience is that these steps need practice, just like the tennis serve, golf swing or swimming laps. Practice at home. Memorize 1. Sight, 2. Swirl, 3. Sniff then smell, 4. Taste. With practice comes perfection. As you master these steps and become familiar with the purpose of each your family and friends will become impressed with your new wine education.

Getting a home aerator to be able to pour the wine thru as you are filling the glass is a good investment. A good wine bottle opener on a stand that is commercial grade for home use is helpful. Decanting the wine at home or in the restaurant helps the flavor of most wine. Bringing your bottle of wine to the restaurant is always a good idea. The restaurant will charge a corkage fee somewhere around 10 to 20 dollars per bottle. This way you and your friends are getting a proven sure thing and you are not reliant on the restaurants long wine list. Most restaurants loose count after two bottles.

These procedures are in accordance with the wine industry accepted steps that you should execute them in the proper order. The person helping you in the winery will add to and deepen the need for each step if you ask questions during the winery tour or to your visit to a winery tasting room. The more information that you can gather over time will heighten and deepen your wine experience.

Feel free to drink whichever wine you want with whatever food you want, but remember a perfect pairing is a highly enjoyable experience. The old tradition of white with fish and red with meat has expired.

Headaches, well then look out for sulfites and the parts per million of sulfites that the wine contains. The general rule is to avoid any wine that gives you a headache. If it is not the stabilizing chemicals it may be something else in the batch that you are allergic to and is giving you the headache…don’t just categorically condemn all wine. Work around what your body is allergic to and drink those wines that give you joy and pleasure and a pleasurable relaxing experience. Drinking wine with friends is one of the finer pleasures in life

The main goals of any wine tasting are to learn more about the wine and where it came from, learn more about your own palate, compare notes with fellow wine lovers….explore, discover, close your eyes and let your imagination and your taste sensors go to work.

Movies that support wine tasting:

Bottle Shock….Napa, California

Sideways….Santa Ynez, California