As a wine enthusiast, review and blogger I’m often asked how to taste wine. What people really want to know is what are they “supposed” to taste and how to tell a good wine from bad.
When thinking about how to taste wine, the first thing to know is that taste in wine is truly personal. What one person likes, another may not. And, most importantly, that’s OK. Being a “wine snob” is no longer in fashion.
So, your determination of how to taste wine may end up being different from someone else’s.
How I Taste Wine
What I can say is that when I do a wine review I’m generally looking at certain characteristics of the wine that I’m tasting. I start with the cork. When I pull it out of the bottle, I like to see that it is in good shape with no cracks or crumbles. I also want to see that the wine hasn’t soaked too far up the cork. If it’s made its way to the top, that means that the wine had an air path to the outside, which could have caused the wine to spoil.
In talking about how to taste wine, the next thing that I do is look at the color of the wine. For example, with a red wine, can you see light through it? If not, that means it’s probably deep in color and probably richer in taste. If you can see some light through it, it’s probably a lighter wine with a more delicate taste. Neither is bad nor good, it’s just a characteristic. However, if it looks brown, it’s probably been exposed to air and has spoiled. And if it’s a white wine and it looks significantly discolored, it’s also probably spoiled.
Next up for how to taste wine is what does it smell like? You may smell earthiness, or berries, or maybe even chocolate or vanilla. I personally watch for a musty wet dog smell. When I smell that I find I generally don’t like the wine. Something else to look for is the smell of alcohol. That will come through as a slight sting in your nose. The more alcohol, the more sting usually. Often times, that doesn’t come through when you actually taste the wine, though. Other smells you might pick up are cedar, jam, butterscotch, oak, pine and many many more. Try swirling the wine around by holding the base of the glass and make small circles with the glass on the table. That will help to release the aroma of the wine. Don’t be afraid to stick your nose deep into the glass to get the full effect. Take both short and long sniffs.
After getting familiar with the aroma, or “nose”, of the wine move to the taste. Take a good long sip and let it linger in your mouth. Don’t treat it like mouthwash though. Just let the wine roll around on your tongue and the inside of your cheeks. Swallow slowly and exhale. What do you taste? Often times, what you taste will be a reflection of what you smelled. But sometimes you get a surprise and it’s completely different. Are there lots of tastes (complex) or just one? When you exhale, was there a little burn from the alcohol? Think about how that compared with the amount of alcohol in the aroma. Some common tastes people notice are berries, oak, citrus, grape, fruit, coffee, chocolate, tobacco, burned wood, licorice, tea, and cloves. There are many others.
Notice how the wine felt in your mouth. How would you describe the texture, or “mouthfeel”? Is it smooth like satin or even more so like silk? Maybe it’s soft like cotton. Or a little rough like a cat’s tongue or like wool.
After you swallow, there’s still what’s called the “finish”. Does the taste linger in your mouth for awhile? If so, that’s called a long finish. Nothing? That’s a short finish. What do you notice? Around this point, some people talk about the wine’s tannins. Those are caused by the skins and bits of stems and sediment from the grapes when they were in the crushing phase of the wine making process. I find that if you notice a pleasant puckering in your mouth or a slightly bitter flavor, than the tannins are good or “well behaved”. Lots of bitterness… bad tannins.
So there you have it. How to taste wine. If you’re interested in pairing wine with food, check out my article on Food and Wine.