Swirl your glass? Sniff it? Sip it? Which comes first? Drinking wine is generally straightforward, but tasting it involves a bit of patience, attention to detail, and practice. Here are the basics of wine tasting and what to look for when trying a wine for the first time.
Observe the color
Tip your wine glass over a light colored surface (like a white dinner napkin or white dinner plate) and take a look at the color of the liquid. For white wines, a lighter color can indicate a younger age, a cooler climate, or a specific grape variety. A darker colored white wine may indicate an older vintage, something coming from a warmer climate, aged in barrel, or, a characteristically darker grape varietal. For red wines, a lighter color may indicate a lighter-bodied wine (Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and Beaujolais can appear very light red), whereas a very dark red may be more rich, extracted, and in many cases, tannic (Super Tuscan or a big Napa Valley Cabernet). An older red may also lose its red and turn more brown, but that does not necessarily mean the wine is unfit for drinking! In many cases, quite the opposite – I’ve never met an aged Burgundy that I didn’t appreciate.
Smell the wine
Get your nose right in there (insert nose into glass!) and take a preliminary sniff before swirling the wine. Note the aromas, then go ahead and gently swirl your wine, letting some oxygen in to release more aromas. Try to describe what you’re smelling: citrus, berries, mushrooms, spices, florals, earth, leather, plants? Smell and taste often work hand in hand to create a full flavor profile, so these subtle – and not so subtle – smells are important to your tasting experience. Smelling the wine can also help you determine whether or not the wine is corked, oxidized, or otherwise flawed – if it smells like wet cardboard, nail polish, or vinegar, it might be bad. A wine that has been bottled with a heavy dose of SO2 will smell like burnt matches; this will blow off if you give it a bit of vigorous swirling.
Taste the wine
Take a small sip and swish is around in your mouth, letting the wine coat all of your taste buds. Pay attention to the “mouth feel” – does it feel heavy or light? At this point, you can spit the wine (in a tasting room, they should have a spit bucket), and then notice what you’re tasting. You can try and be as specific as possible – if you’re tasting stone fruit, what kind? Peaches or apricots? If you’re tasting berries, is it lighter like a strawberry, or dark like a ripe blackberry or black cherry? Take another sip and aspirate the wine. You’ve probably seen many experts do this, drawing the wine into their mouths and making strange gurgling sounds. This helps to draw air through the retronasal cavity, increasing the aromatic perception of the wine. You can either spit or drink at this point, noticing how your mouth feels after the wine is gone. Is your mouth dry? That might be due to high tannins. How long did the finish last? Was the wine pretty smooth and subtle, or did it feel a little rough around the edges? It might need some age.
Ruminate on your experience
The more you continue to taste wine, you’ll find yourself picking up on more subtle details. There are a standard set of wine descriptors (aroma & flavor characteristics) commonly used by those in the wine industry in tasting notes, but don’t limit yourself to those words. After you’ve identified flavors, you want to note whether or not the wine is balanced, complex, and complete.
A balanced, harmonious wine should have its sweet (residual sugar), sour (acidity), salty (rarely found), and bitter components (experienced as astringency) in good proportion. If a wine is too much of one thing, it is not a well-balanced wine, and it could indicate that the wine may not age well or it may already be over the hill. Complexity is important, as it allows the wines to change as you’re drinking them – different characteristics may appear as the wine sits in the glass. Wines that are complete will be balance and complex, with a pleasant, lingering finish. You will start to notice these things as you continue to taste wines and train your palate. Look at every glass of wine as an opportunity to train your tasting brain, and soon you will find yourself noticing “hints of lilac” and “notes of juniper” just like a pro.