Multiple glasses of red wine clinking

According to Ancient Greek mythology, Dionysus, the god of wine, could identify the origin of any wine from a single sip. Even the best modern wine tasters can’t live up to that reputation, although they can often reliably identify the origin of wines from regions they focus on. But, for us ordinary mortals, wine tasting serves a different purpose: deepening our appreciation and understanding of wine. 

Learning how to taste wine properly is not just about figuring out a wine’s quality. It's also about honing your senses to appreciate each bottle's subtle nuances and narratives. This article explores expert wine-tasting tips, what to look for in a glass of wine, and why you should record your observations. 

Preparing for Wine Tasting

Where and how you taste wine can significantly influence your perceptions and enjoyment. These few simple preparations before wine tastings will help you focus and allow the wine to reveal its full potential: 

  • Neutral Setting: Choose a well-lit, distraction-free space with no strong odors. A white tablecloth can be a neutral backdrop for evaluating a wine’s color.
  • Temperature: Whites should be chilled to 50–55°F (10–13°C), while reds fare better at 60–65°F (15–18°C). Use a wine thermometer for accuracy.
  • Decanting: Decanting is advisable for older wines or those high in sediment. Pour the wine into a decanter to separate it from the sediment and aerate it.
  • Let It Breathe: Open the bottle and let the wine sit for 15–30 minutes. This is particularly beneficial for red wines high in tannins.
  • Glassware: Use a wine glass with a broad base and narrowing top to concentrate aromas and direct the wine optimally on your palate. Tulip-shaped glasses are generally recommended.

How to Taste Wine Like an Expert

Tasting wine is an immersive experience that engages multiple senses. To fully appreciate a glass of wine, consider employing the following steps experts use in their evaluations.

Look

A thorough visual examination is the first step in wine tasting. It can provide clues about the wine you’re about to experience. Hold the wine glass against a white background and note what you see. 

Color

Color can offer information about a wine’s grape variety, age, and even the climate where the grape was grown. For example, a Pinot Noir will often be lighter and more translucent compared to the inky, opaque hue of a young Cabernet Sauvignon

Chardonnay may present as pale yellow with greenish tints, while an oaked version could appear more golden. Older red wines often fade to a brick color towards the outer edge of the glass, whereas whites can turn from straw to gold to amber.

Clarity

This feature can range from crystal clear to hazy. A lack of clarity might indicate a fault like microbial contamination, but some unfiltered or natural wines are intentionally hazy. White wines like Albariño or Sauvignon Blanc are usually brilliantly clear to match their crisp, clean profiles.

Viscosity

Also known as “legs” or “tears,” viscosity can indicate a wine’s body and alcohol or sugar content. Swirl the glass and observe how the wine clings to the sides. A wine with thick, slow-moving legs may have higher alcohol content or residual sugar. This is often seen in a richer white wine like Viognier and fortified wines like Port.

Effervescence

If you’re tasting a sparkling wine like Champagne or Prosecco, the size and persistence of the bubbles can give clues about quality and aging method. Smaller, more refined bubbles are generally associated with traditional-method sparkling wines and are often considered a sign of higher quality.

Smell

Smelling the wine is a crucial step in the tasting process and can often be as rewarding as the actual tasting. To smell the wine properly, swirl the glass for a few seconds to aerate it and release its aromatic molecules. Then, insert your nose into the glass and take a deep sniff. You may want to try a few short, quick sniffs followed by a longer, deeper inhale to capture the wine’s complete aromatic profile.

Fruit Aromas

The primary aromas in wine come from the grape variety and are often fruity. A Riesling might display aromas of green apple or citrus fruits, whereas a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc often features pronounced grapefruit and gooseberry notes. 

For reds, a ripe California Zinfandel might exhibit jammy blackberry aromas, while a cooler-climate Pinot Noir could present more restrained red cherry or strawberry notes.

Secondary Aromas

These arise from the winemaking process, such as fermentation, and may include yeast-derived scents like bread or cheese rind. For instance, a Chardonnay that has undergone malolactic fermentation may have a buttery aroma, while the scent of vanilla in a red Bordeaux could indicate aging in new oak barrels.

Tertiary Aromas

Tertiary aromas are the complex scents that a wine develops as it ages. They can include earthy notes like forest floor, truffle, or spicy, woody notes. A mature Barolo might offer tertiary aromas of tar and roses, while an aged Napa Valley Cabernet could show nuances of tobacco and leather.

Herbaceous and Floral Notes

Some wines, especially those made from grape varieties that retain high acidity or are harvested early, exhibit green or floral notes. For example, a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc might show bell pepper or freshly mown grass aromas. Floral notes are common in aromatic white varieties like Gewürztraminer, which can exhibit rose petals or lychee scents.

Spice and Mineral Notes

Certain aromas don’t fit neatly into the fruit, secondary, or tertiary categories and can include spices like cinnamon, clove, or black pepper. Minerality often describes aromas that mimic natural elements like wet stone or chalk. Chablis, known for its limestone soil, often features a distinct flinty or chalky aroma.

Taste

Tasting is the focal point of the wine evaluation process. To taste correctly, take a small sip and let it cover your palate. Swish it around your mouth to ensure that it reaches all your taste buds. You can even draw some air into your mouth to aerate the wine further for a more thorough evaluation. 

Sweetness

Wines with high residual sugar will register as sweet. Moscato and some Rieslings are sweet wines, whereas a dry Chardonnay will show little to no sweetness.

Acidity

Acidity adds brightness and freshness to the wine. High-acidity wines often taste “crisp,” and they can have a mouthwatering quality. Sauvignon Blanc is a classic high-acidity wine, while most oaked Chardonnays have lower acidity.

Tannins

Tannins create a bitter taste and a drying sensation in your mouth and can add complexity and balance to the wine. They are most often found in red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo. The tannins can soften with age, transforming a “grippy” young red into something more velvety.

Body

The body of a wine is a composite of its alcohol level, acidity, tannins, and residual sugar. Light-bodied wines like Pinot Noir or Gamay feel similar to water in the mouth, while full-bodied wines like Zinfandel or Syrah are more akin to the consistency of milk.

Flavor Intensity and Complexity

A wine’s complexity is judged by the number and interplay of flavors sensed while tasting. Simple wines may offer one or two primary flavors, while complex wines deliver multiple overlapping layers. A Bordeaux blend, for example, might offer a complex interplay of fruit, floral, earthy, and spicy flavors.

Finish

The finish is the aftertaste and how long its flavors linger after swallowing. A wine with a short finish may disappear almost immediately, while a wine with a long finish will leave a lasting impression. Aged wines often have a more extended, complex finish than younger wines.

Consider

After you’ve tasted the wine, spend a moment thinking about your impressions. This step isn’t just about the technical aspects like acidity or tannins, it’s also about the emotional response the wine evokes. 

Here are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Balance: Does any one component — sweetness, acidity, tannins, and so on — overpower the others, or do they all work in harmony? A quality wine will taste balanced and have no element that sticks out disproportionately.
  • Complexity: Does the wine evolve and reveal different aspects as you spend more time with it? A complex wine will offer an evolving spectrum of aromas, flavors, and sensations.
  • Enjoyment: Beyond the technical aspects, do you enjoy the wine? The ultimate goal of wine tasting is personal enjoyment and discovery.

Write Tasting Notes

Capturing your thoughts and impressions during the tasting process is invaluable. Tasting notes serve as a personal log of your wine journey. Putting your sensory experiences into words reinforces memory, aids learning, and provides a reference point for future tastings.

Conclusion

Learning how to taste wine and identify the qualities we’ve highlighted here won’t turn you into the next Dionysus, but it will give you the ability to assess wines and make better wine-buying decisions. Plus, wine tasting is great fun, and it’ll help you experience the full range of sensations and experiences offered by a quality wine.