Wine Tasting Tips Article -
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Wine Tasting Tips

Keep a few simple things in mind when you taste wine, and you'll get that much more enjoyment.

Stemware Awareness

Wine glasses with a tulip shape are nice for two reasons:

  1. When you swirl the wine, the aromas you set free are better contained within the glass, and
  2. The tapered rim makes it harder to splash wine all over yourself--an occupational hazard with wine tasting.

Incidentally, the "rule" that holding the bowl portion of the glass warms the wine is...mostly nonsense. The wine won't be in the glass long enough to experience temperature change.

    Don't Pour It On

    If you fill your glass about one-third or so of the way, you'll leave plenty room for error in the swirling and tilting departments, and also make space for aromas to build.

    A Quick Look-See

    Taking a moment to gaze adoringly at the color and depth of your wine is a non-essential but still often worthwhile part of wine tasting. When you look at the wine, sometimes it helps to hold a white sheet of paper behind it to set off the color of the wine. Tilt the glass a little to get a good sense of the wine stretched across a longer plane.

    It is fun here to compare a few wines side by side. Some reds are darker than others. You'll notice how inky an Australian Shiraz is compared to an Oregon Pinot Noir. Observe the color of young wines with older wines of the same grape varietal. New reds are often more purple, older reds grow brownish or brick-colored. Some whites are a warm honey color, particularly if they've spent time in oak barrels; others are very light and bright, almost totally clear, or even greenish hued. You might also look to see if the color of the wine is consistent all the way across the surface, or does it lighten at the sides?

    Here are a few appearance-related words you might keep in mind:

    Bright, dull, clear, dense, hazy, luminous, flat, deep, opaque

      The Nose Knows

      Next, give the glass a good swirl. This will help release aromas. A tulip-shaped glass will help capture the aromas and funnel them toward your nose. Go ahead and put your nose right in there. And breathe deeply. The first sniff is usually the most revealing.

      Now it's really getting interesting. Smell is, of course, a critical part of taste, and as you get a sense of a wine's aroma it stimulates the palate. But take a moment to tease yourself a bit more before you sip. What do you smell? A wine's aromas can tell you a lot.

      This is also where wine tastings can begin to feel intimidating. Most of us feel lucky if we can pick out a single overriding aroma. "Mmm, this Chianti smells like cherries!"

      It is in identifying underlying flavors that folks often begin to sound like they're giving a poetry reading. But as with most things, with practice you can teach your nose and palate to identify more aromas and flavors.

      Tip and Sip

      Go ahead, take a sip. Ah, now that's the stuff!  But before you swallow the wine, let it linger a bit in the mouth. At this point, you have many options, some more flamboyant than others. You can tighten the mouth and breathe in over the wine to send the aromas into the back of the nasal cavity--of course, this can also lead to breathing the wine into the wind pipe. Or you can "chew" on the wine a bit to move it around the tongue. However you do it, let the flavors wash over your palate.

      Do you find that the first flavor sensation remains constant? Or does it change a bit?  Did other flavors move to the forefront?Were the flavors the same as the aromas you picked out?

      Do you have a sense of the wine's acidity? Does it make your mouth water?

      Is it pleasantly weighty? The alcohol will give it the "body"that is felt in the mouth as viscosity or weight.  (A highly alcoholic wine is often described as "hot.") 

      Is there a drying sensation in the mouth? That indicates the presence of tannin. (Note that we tend to perceive tannins and alcohol as feelings, not flavors.)

      Use Your Words

      Now that you've tasted and have directed your attention to noticing the flavors, language will be helpful. One thing you'll notice is that no one ever says a wine smells or tastes like grapes. Instead, there are many, many other fruits plus vegetables, herbs, spices and minerals that we tend to detect in wine. This is because there are thousands of flavor compounds milling around in that glass, compounds that share flavors with other foods.

      Part of the fun of identifying flavors in wine is allowing yourself the freedom to assign words to it that might seem silly or out of place. It takes courage to say, "I'm smelling rotting leaves in this Burgundy" or "My syrah smells a little like a barnyard" because rotten leaves and barnyard smells don't seem like the kind of aromas you should be experiencing in nice wines. But go ahead and say it loud and proud. As it happens, those are not uncommon aromas to find in those particular wines; neither are they flaws. In the wacky world of wine, they're considered attractive. Go with your instinct. Be daring with the language.

      There are classic flavors and aromas to look for:

      • Pinot Noir and cherries or mushrooms
      • Beaujolais and strawberries
      • Merlot and plums
      • Shiraz and leather (even barnyard smells)
      • Nebbiolo and "roses and tar"
      • Sauvignon Blanc and grass (even cat pee!)
      • Riesling and petrol (again, in a good way), and so on.

      What fruit flavors do you sense? How about vegetables?  Herbs and spices? Do you pick up mineral flavors?

        Going Beyond the Basics

        Once you've tasted for a while, you might find yourself taking your aesthetic evaluations to (potentially insufferable) new levels. You can begin to evaluate such things as the wine's "balance." Do the wine's acidity, alcohol, tannins (if they're there) and flavors come together as a pleasurable whole without different parts sticking out unattractively?

        As your knowledge and experience expand, you might even get to the point where you feel comfortable talking about the "typicality" of a wine as it relates to its place of origin and style of production: "Yes, this California Sauvignon Blanc is good, though I'm not detecting the tropical fruit flavors that I'd expect in a warm-weather Sauvignon Blanc. And the brisk acidity--it seems more typical of a wine from the Loire." Just don't blame us if your friends suddenly stop inviting you to their wine tastings.

          Tasting Tips

          Something fun to do after you've tasted wine is to pay special attention to the aroma of foods as you're cooking with them. Go ahead and put the mushroom to your nose, give the lemon a sniff, breathe in the aromas of those freshly chopped herbs. The nose has a powerful memory, and taking care to notice aromas in the ingredients you prepare will help you pick out aromas in wines.

          Also, if your white wines are poured too cold, you will have difficulty picking out aromas until they warm a bit and the tightly bundled odors reveal themselves.

            Tasting with Food

            Certainly wines can be enjoyed on their own, but it is often much more pleasurable to taste them with food. After all, this is most likely how you'll be drinking them--in the real world of daily dinners.

            With that in mind, consider holding a wine-tasting party with food as an equally important player. Make it a potluck. Have your friends bring a bottle or two of wine and a food item. You can make it appetizers or casseroles; maybe focus on Italian food with Italian wines, or do a tour of Asian cuisines with world Rieslings, or regional American food with American wines. The combinations are endless.

            Before you begin, take a few small sips of each wine to get a sense of the wine before you eat. Then pour a few more small sips from each bottle and compare with the food. See what you find out--the results may surprise you. A wine that tasted deep and delicious as a sipper by itself may turn out to overwhelm one dish. It might be perfect with the next.

            This sort of tasting is fun, and it's also useful. Next time you're having, say, Eggplant Parmesan for dinner, you'll remember how well--perhaps to your surprise--the California Cabernet Sauvignon paired with it at your wine-tasting party.

            Sep. 4, 2009 2:08 pm
            appreciate the cheat sheet! love a good pinot noir... yum.
            Nov. 11, 2009 6:51 pm
            I know so little about wine, but enjoy fruit wines the best.
            Nov. 11, 2009 8:59 pm
            I totally don't feel as bad now about some of my wine tasting comments. We were in the Finger Lakes a few years ago on my first wine tasting bus trip tour. One of the wine smelled like the service department I used to work in - oil, gassy, smoggy. And we were in Leavenworth WA a few weeks ago and one of the white wines we tried smelled like cat pee to me! But both of the wines tasted great, just a weird aroma!!! Incidently, Leavenworth is a great secret of WA and is a great place to go wine tasting. There are so many different wine cellars in the little town and you can walk from one to another. There are also cellars that offer tasting with different foods, like cheese, chocolate, and cured meats. It's amazing how much these foods change with the wine and change the taste of the wine.
            Sep. 14, 2010 11:11 am
            I am home-wine maker especially with fruit,not that much professional but I go along quite good. I have tried wines made from pomegrenade, lemon,figs,strawberries,melon,brown carrob etc. etc. They all turned out very good according to my friends and some wine enthusiasts. These notes are helpful that's why I have saved them in MY RECIPE BOX for further reference. Thank you alot!!!!!
            Martin B. 
            Feb. 17, 2011 1:01 am
            Good tips on wine aromas, thanks! I also found a very good website, which describes grape varietals and wine aromas like you did. If you want to learn about wine aromas, check this out
            Dec. 29, 2011 2:05 pm
            i found that aging wild grape wine for two years helps a lot
            Mar. 18, 2012 3:00 pm
            I miss a good German Reisling...Great wine.
            Apr. 26, 2012 4:59 pm
            This is such a helpful article to read before going wine tasting!
            May 22, 2014 3:44 pm
            We're going on a wine tour in a few weeks. It's part of our vacation plans! I can't wait to try all the different wines.
            Oct. 6, 2014 2:07 pm
            I'm going to go wine tasting with my sister next week. It's her birthday and she loves wine! It's going to be a lot of fun for us!
            May 14, 2015 9:54 am
            I like your tips for actually tasting the wine. Especially as a beginner, I never really know what to look for, I generally just pay attention to whether I like it or not, but I know that is only my opinion. It would be nice to be able to recognize a quality wine, regardless of my personal tastes.
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