Have you ever thought “This wine tastes like… wine?!” when you take a sip? If so, don’t worry! You’re not alone. Wine is very complex. Unless you know what you are looking for, it can be difficult to pull out the aromas and flavors. The good news is that learning to taste wine and developing your palate is actually fun because your task is to drink lots of different types of wines. You’ll figure out what you like and try some new things along the way.
The essential steps of tasting wine are simple enough: look at the wine in the glass, smell it, take a sip and taste it, and then think about everything and come to your conclusion. Now, let’s examine these steps in more detail.
Look at the Wine
First, pour a sample of wine. The recommended tasting sample is 5cl, but a normal-sized pour is fine. Hold the wine at a 45° angle and look at the color and opacity. Is the wine pale or opaque? Light red or dark red? This is important in blind tastings, but it’s a useful habit to have.
How to Smell Wine
Next, smell the wine. Begin by determining how pronounced the intensity of the aromas is.
Do you smell the wine from a mile away? Are the aromas very delicate and difficult to discern?
Next, try to pull out specific aromas, starting with the general category. There are three types of aromas in wine. Primary aromas come from the grapes, secondary aromas come from the winemaking process, and tertiary aromas come from aging the wine. You can find a full list of aromas here.
Primary aromas are typically floral, fruit, vegetable, or herbal aromas. Secondary aromas come from oak fermentation and/or maturation, yeast contact, or malolactic fermentation. These can include vanilla, toast, and baking spices from oak; yeasty and bready notes from yeast contact; and buttery and creamy aromas from malolactic fermentation. Finally, tertiary aromas can come from maturing the wine before bottling or in the bottle. Fresh primary aromas turn to dried or cooked aromas (think fresh blackberry vs cooked blackberry), and some wines develop leather, tobacco, mushroom, earthy, nutty, toffee, or caramel aromas.
When smelling the wine, start with the general category and then try to hone in on what you’re smelling. If you smell citrus, are you smelling lemon, lime, or grapefruit? If you smell fruit, is it a red fruit like a raspberry or strawberry? Or is it a dark fruit, like a blueberry or blackberry? Fresh or cooked? These can help you determine the wine’s age. Why should you care about how old a wine is? You may find that you prefer fresh fruit aromas found in young wines, or you may love rich, leather wines with cooked fruit. If you prefer wines with tertiary aromas, you’ll need to buy older vintages or age them yourself.
How to Taste Wine
Now, you get to finally taste the wine. Take a sip and hold the wine in your mouth. Swish it around your mouth, then spit or swallow it. First, consider the wine’s structural components, including the level of acidity, alcohol, sweetness, and tannin, the body, and the length of the finish. If your mouth waters a lot after tasting the wine, it has a higher level of acidity. Tannins make your mouth feel dry. If the wine feels full in your mouth, it has some body. Does your mouth or throat burn or feel hot? Then it has a higher level of alcohol. How long after swallowing do you taste the pleasant sensations from the wine? Do they immediately disappear or do they linger? This gives you an idea about the wine’s finish.
These are really only components that are important to know if you are blind tasting or evaluating wine. But, casual wine drinkers who are aware of the structural components of wine can use that information to find other types of wines that appeal to them. They’re extremely helpful when asking for help purchasing a wine. It’s much easier for a sommelier to understand that you don’t like a type of wine because you prefer wines with low levels of tannin than to say “I don’t like Rioja.”
Of course, you want to see if you find the same flavors on the palate as on the nose. You could find new ones, too!
Finally, think about everything you have just discovered in the wine. Did you enjoy it, or was there a component that didn’t appeal to you, like heavy oak or high acidity? This will help you in your wine journey.
Two Ways to Improve Your Tasting
If you’re having trouble determining what you’re actually smelling, you’re not alone. For many people, it’s a learned skill and you can develop your sense of smell and your palate with practice. I recommend buying the 54 Wine Aroma Master Kit from Le Nez du Vin, which is really helpful to understand different aromas, especially some unfamiliar ones, like bilberry and hay. It’s a great way to practice, and also a fun dinner party game.
The best way to find different aromas is to taste the same grape variety from different producers and parts of the world. For example, the first time I was able to discern the pastry and brioche notes in Champagne was when I tasted Prosecco, Cava, American sparkling wine, and Champagne together. It was obvious that the Champagne had something the others didn’t, and from that, I was able to understand what these aromas actually smelled like in wine.
You can do the same thing with pretty much any wine. Some classics to try are Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, France and Marlborough, New Zealand; Chardonnay from Sonoma, California and Burgundy, France; and Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, California and Bordeaux, France. It’s really interesting to try them together, and it’s the easiest — and most fun! — way to learn.
Don’t forget to try wines that are of different ages. If you have older wines at home, compare them to a younger vintage. Or, you can buy wines that are of different ages. Rioja is a great example of this because there are several age-based classifications for sale. A Crianza Rioja that ages 24 months is completely different from a Gran Reserva Rioja that ages for at least 60 months. You’ll be able to see how fresh fruit changes to cooked fruit and how leather develops.
Want to Learn More?
How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine by Jancis Robinson is one of the classic books on the subject. It’s easy to read and follow along at home. Robinson is one of the world’s most respected wine critics and writers, so you are in great hands with her.
Take a class! Many wine shops and restaurants offer classes. I also highly recommend taking the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Level 2 Award in Wine if you’re really interested in wine. The course is eight weeks long and is a wonderful overview of the wine world.
Order a wine flight the next time you go to a wine bar and try different types of wine next to each other.