One of the most common things I hear when I talk to people about wine is that they want to drink it but they don’t know how. You know what I say? You drink wine the same way you drink anything else- put it in a glass and take a sip. That really is true to an extent, but what these people are really saying is that they don’t know how to do a wine tasting to deepen their understanding and appreciation of wine. The good news is that anyone can learn to do a “proper” wine tasting and it really will help you appreciate wine better and learn more about why you like certain wines, as well as guide you in choosing new ones.
The first thing to consider is your glassware. Don’t feel like you have to go out and get special wine glasses. If you don’t have any wine glasses at all, I do recommend you pick up a couple, but if you want you could technically drink out of a red Solo cup if that’s what works for you. An important thing to note is that if you want to do wine tasting regularly, you should try to use the same glass each time. This is because different glass styles impact the aromas and flavors differently. You’ll taste more consistently if you use the same glass.
If you want to get a wine tasting glass, you could get an “official” wine tasting glass that’s made to the standards laid out by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Yes, that’s a real thing. The ISO set out the shape and dimensions for a wine tasting glass. They include:
- Opening is narrower than the body
- Made from clear, colorless glass
- Must have a stem
- Cup is shaped like an elongated egg
Again, don’t feel like you have to get special wine glasses; it’s just recommended if this is going to become a serious hobby.
Picking out wine
This should actually be the easiest part, but a lot of people get stuck here. They walk into the wine aisle at the store and stare at the dozens of different options and freeze. How much should they spend? What kind should they get? Is one brand better than another brand
Do you ever do this? STOP! You really don’t need to tie yourself up in knots over this. The worst thing that can happen is you won’t like the wine you picked. THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD! Yes, it’s a bummer and it really stinks to waste money on gross wine, but that will happen at some point in your wine tasting journey.
If you need some guidance on varietals and are newer to wine, I recommend starting with light or medium bodied wines and working your way to fuller bodied. It can be a little off-putting to launch straight into a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon if you’re not used to it.
- Unoaked chardonnay
- Pinot Grigio
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Pinot Noir
Don’t be afraid to start with sweet wines either. Sweet wine gets a lot of flak from wine hobbyists, but if you like it, drink it with pride! A lot of people get their start with sweet wines and then try others as their palate develops.
The good news is, even if you don’t like the wine you get, you can still taste and evaluate it. Just make sure to keep notes about what you did and didn’t like so you know for the next time you’re at the store.
Now that you’ve got your glasses and your wine, it’s time to get to the good part- the tasting.
There are three basic steps in wine tasting
- Look at the wine
- Swirl the wine
- Sniff the wine
- Taste the wine
Let’s delve into these a little.
When you look at the wine, you’re looking for color. Is it red or white? What shade of red or white is it? This isn’t super important if you know what you’re drinking, but it’s really helpful for blind wine tastings, when the color will help you determine both the grape and the age of the wine. Even if you don’t need to evaluate the wine for a blind tasting, the color of the wine will tell you some interesting things:
- Age- Older wines tend to be darker than the younger ones of the same varietal.
- Taste- Lighter colored wines are often more crisp, refreshing, or even a little tart, while darker wines tend to be bolder.
To evaluate the wine by sight, you want to have a white background with good lighting. The white background prevents other colors from distorting the color of the wine. If you hold the wine up to a white background and tilt the glass, you’ll see a range of color, from the spot where the wine touches the glass to the bottom, where it’s darkest. This will give you a more accurate view of the color.
You can also check out the wine’s legs (also called sheets) by tilting the glass and then moving it upright. The wine you see running down the glass tells you its viscosity (how thick it is). Higher alcohol wines tend to be more viscous, so the legs will run down the side of the glass more slowly than lower alcohol wines.
Swirling wine is an important step to repeat throughout your wine tasting. Swirling the wine introduces air into your glass and helps open up the flavors and aromas. This happens because air helps the alcohol evaporate. If you don’t swirl the wine, your nose and taste buds will pick up alcohol before noting the other flavors. Don’t believe me? Give it a try. Smell the wine without swirling and then after you do. Do you notice more aromas after swirling?
So, on TV and in pictures of people sniffing their wine, it looks graceful and civilized, but to really get a good sense of the aromas, you need to put your nose IN the glass. It looks a little ridiculous, but that’s going to give you the best vantage point to smell. You don’t have to smush your face into the glass, but you definitely want your nose to have plenty of access to the wine.
Now, when you take a sniff, you’re going to smell a few things. The first, or primary, aroma is from the grape itself and is normally fruity, herbal, and/or floral. Don’t stress about pinning down exactly what it is; just identify if it’s fruity, herbal, or floral. You’ll be able get into specifics once you’ve had some practice.
Next, you’ll notice the secondary aroma, which is caused by the winemaking process or anything the winemaker added to the wine. Bread, vanilla, and buttery notes are common.
Finally, the tertiary aromas are the result of aging in the bottle, so they won’t be present in all wines. These are the most savory aromas, like mushroom, earth, and leather.
Don’t panic if you can’t identify every single aroma- this will come with time. Start just by identifying the basic primary aroma and then worry about the rest later if you want to.
And finally after all that, it’s time to taste the wine. Take a sip- not a gulp- and let it sit in your mouth for a minute, swishing it around some if you want (not attractive but it does help you taste more flavors).
In addition to specific flavors, like certain fruits or spices, you’ll also notice different sensations when you take a sip of wine. These are indicative of other elements like tannin levels and acidity. If your mouth waters a lot when you take a sip, the wine is higher acidity. If your tongue feels all dried out, the wine has high levels of tannin. Alcohol is the slight burning sensation in the back of your throat.
Body is the way the wine feels in your mouth. It is a combination of all the components of the wine- tannin, acid, alcohol, sweetness- and how they interact with each other. Sweet, high alcohol, and high tannin wines typically have more body, while high acid wines have less. The way these different components interact determines how the wine feels in your mouth.
Make sure to take notes of the wines you taste. This will help you remember how you felt about different wines and will help you develop a sense for what you do and don’t like. If you want to really refine your palate, it will also help you track where you are on that journey. It’s fun to try a wine for a second time after 6 months or a year and see what additional flavors and aromas you notice.
This is just an overview of the wine tasting steps to get you started. If you’re happy with this, taste away! You’ll definitely get a much deeper understanding of the wine than if you just gulped it down. If you’d like to go deeper into wine’s characteristics, you’re in luck. We’ll have a new article up each Monday in August to delve deeper into wine tasting, so stay tuned!