Knowledge - How to taste wine

Building blocks

There's only one way to learn more about wine

The more we drink wine and the more we consciously notice what we are tasting, the more we will be able to discern wines that we like and wines that we don't like.

The following notes provide an explanation of the three key steps in tasting wine and of some of the seemingly daft things which wine tasters do. Anyone can remember these three steps and once mastered, you will have quite literally all you need to have to make learning more about wine easy.


Step 1. Look...

A healthy wine will look healthy. Regardless of whether it is red or white, a good wine will look clear and bright. Young red wines usually look darker than older red wines because the fruit is still very new, whereas young white wines often look thinner than old white wines.

So before you start to drink, look at your wine and note several things, the colour, is it bright, is it clear? One other thing to look at, when you swirl it in the glass, does it leave traces on the glass? This is an indication of the amount of alcohol. The more traces, the more alcohol. You can tell much about a wine simply by studying its appearance.

The wine should be poured into a clear glass and held in front of a white background (a tablecloth or piece of paper will serve nicely) so that you can examine the colour. The colour of wine varies tremendously, even within the same type of wine. For example, white wines are not actually white; they range from green to yellow to brown. More colour in a white wine usually indicates more flavour and age, although a brown wine may have gone bad. Where as time improves many red wines, it ruins many white wines. Red wines are not just red; they range from a pale red to a deep brown red, usually becoming lighter in colour as they age.

Step 2. Smell...

Put your nose in the glass and inhale!

A healthy wine will smell healthy too. If you open your fridge and something has gone off, you can usually tell straight away. It is the same with wine. Although care must be taken not to become confused between strong smells and “off” smells, particularly when smelling white wines, as some white wines, particularly sweet wines, are made with grapes that have begun to rot on the vine.

Research indicates that 70 to 75% of what we taste is actually due to our sense of smell. Specialized "aroma" nerves in the nose are necessary to identify tastes more
subtle than sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Smell and taste go hand-in-hand when wine tasting . . . without your sense of smell you would be unable to detect the delicate flavours of chocolate, herbs or smoke in your wine.

When smelling wine you should take your time to try to recognise the fragrances and smells which you are noticing. The secret is to try to match these smells to ones that you already know. So-called experts have built reputations on describing wines in an outrageous way, but if a smell reminds them of a “prop forward’s
jockstrap”, then why shouldn’t they say so?

Seriously, take time to try to recognise the smells and use your own words to describe them.

Step 3. Taste....

Take some wine in your mouth and savour it.

Swirl it around, our taste buds are on all parts of our tongue and the inside of our cheeks. Stop and ask what it reminds you of. There are so many expressions used to describe wine that seem completely incomprehensible. So for someone starting to learn about wine, always use your own expressions.

In time, as you taste more and more, you will want to try to distinguish between this wine and that wine. One will have a “sharper” taste, one will leave your mouth “drier”, another will be very “smooth”, yet another will remind you of “chewing matchsticks or toothpicks”, others will taste “like blackcurrants” or “like chocolate”… use whatever expressions you are reminded of.

Never, ever, ever, be afraid to use your own words when describing wine.

I cannot emphasise this enough! You are the one who is tasting it! Initially what you are tasting and reminded of is important, not what someone else thinks. As you do this more and more, you will compare one taste with another and you will refine your thoughts, but when starting make a note of what the wine tastes like to YOU!

Let me give a small example. Once when I was tasting Barolo, a premium Italian wine, the group I was with was unable to fully capture the taste and describe it properly. Then I suggested that it reminded me of “Black Jacks”, the sweeties I had enjoyed as a boy. Everybody who had ever eaten “Black Jacks” recognised what I
meant and agreed that this was the taste. Now whenever I taste Barolo, I know what a good one should taste like… least for me.

These then are the "Building Blocks", do this for every wine, note what you are seeing, smelling, tasting - compare and contrast - pick your favourites and use your "notes" to tell you why... then you are on the road to learning about wine.


Next, learn more about "How to understand labels" or return to Knowledge Menu.

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