The Complete Wine Tasting Guide

The Complete Wine Tasting Guide

The Complete Wine Tasting Guide

The Basics

We think learning about wine begins when you find yourself with a glass of wine in your hand and, instead of slugging it, you decide to savor it.

Armed with the following simple owner's manual for your senses, you can develop your skills in identifying what's going on in the glass, and decide for yourself what works and what doesn't. Although this will take time, there's good news - you'll have to sample numerous wines. (puts a whole new spin on "homework" doesn't it?)

Your tools for this adventure are your opinionated self, a glass of wine (or multiple wines!) and sight, smell, taste and touch. Doing this with friends is highly recommended. It cuts down on the cost of buying a lot of bottles, you'll hear other ideas and learning with friends is more fun than tasting by yourself.


Your First Tool: Sight

Can you see anything floating in your glass? "No" is the preferred answer here. Cloudy, hazy wines, wines with particles or wines with a film on the surface are not a good thing, and usually relate to faulty wine making techniques. A couple of exceptions are the granular red sediments in some older Cabernet Sauvignons, and small colorless crystals (of potassium bitartrate) that sometimes sink to the bottom of glasses of young white and pink wines. No worries with these little guys.

If you're holding a glass of sparkling wine there will (hopefully!) be bubbles. Are they small? Are they providing your glass with a little light show of long-lasting streams of bubbles? Tiny bubbles are a sign of quality in sparkling wine because if they are smaller and more abundant, the feel of the mousse in the mouth will be smoother. (The mousse is the foam of bubbles that form at the top of the glass.) Bubbles form wherever there are small imperfections in the surface of the glass or wherever there are extremely small amounts of suspended matter in the wine that can act as nuclei for the bubbles to form around.

Now swirl the wine in the glass, and watch the wine divide into "legs" as it runs back down the sides of the wine glass. The higher the alcohol content in the wine, the thinner the streams will be. (Hint: for this to work the glass must be clean, clear, soap-free and dry to begin)

Hold your glass up to the light, or against a white tablecloth (careful there!), and look at its color.

--White Wine colors will range from colorless to golden
--Colorless usually means the wine was made with immature grapes or that the color has been bleached out with chemicals. If it's chemicals there will be a smell like matches.
--Light yellow-green means a young wine from a cool place
--Light yellow will be what you'll typically encounter in most dry white wines
--Medium yellow to light gold / medium gold colors are found in sweeter table wines. Golden hues indicate the wine's spent some time in the bottle, aging
--Brown, except in cream sherries, is a sign that the wine has aged too long. Bad mojo.
--Some wines are sold as "white" but are made from a red-skinned grape. These wines will have a pink tinge.
Within any of these color ranges a darker color means oak barrel aging and/or riper fruit. Picking fruit riper results in a sweeter wine, or, in dry wines, a higher alcohol content.

--Red Wine colors will range from pink through reds to red-brown
--Pink is found in rosé wines and white wines made from red grapes.
--Dark purple means a very young wine
--Light red means a lighter-bodied wine (like Pinot Noir)
--Medium red will be what you'll typically encounter in most red wines. With time in the bottle, they'll begin to get a tawny tinge. (Tip your glass and look at the edge of the wine to see the tinge)
--Dark red is found in late-harvest red wines and Port
--Mahogany (red-brown) means the wine has matured in the bottle for a long time.
Within any of these color ranges a purple tinge means a young wine and a brick or tawny tinge means the wine has had some bottle aging. When brown takes over, watch out - you've got a wine that's over the hill.

Your Second Tool: Smell

This one's easy. When a wine is "off" it smells bad. What's bad? Moldy, swampy, musty, horsy, wet dog, sauerkraut, chemical, nail-polish remover, garlic and onion. These smells are O.K. in the right environment, but not in wine.

Aroma (grape smells)
Learning specific grape smell characteristics takes sticking your nose into many glasses of many wines. What fun - congratulations!
--Varietal aromas are the smells associated with particular grape varieties. This is the smell of the fruit itself, or the smell that comes from a particular grape after fermentation. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon's varietal aromas can range from herbal and vegetative aromas like cedar, mint, eucalyptus, green pepper or green bean; to fruit aromas of currents, cassis, blackberries or black cherries.
--Distinctive is an aroma that smells only faintly of its varietal, but it's elusive...perhaps no single type of grape is present in a large enough quantity to be recognizable, or perhaps the weather in a specific year prevented the grapes from developing their varietal characteristics.

Bouquet (wine making smells)
These smells are the ones that are added to wines from the wine making process itself.
--Fermentation bouquet are the background smells associated with any alcoholic fermentation. A clue to a young wine is its yeasty smell.
--Oak bouquet are the smells that come from aging wines in oak barrels. Find a piece of unfinished oak and get it wet. Sniff it. That's an example of oak bouquet.
--Champagne bouquet are the smells that come from using a particular method to make sparkling wines or champagnes. This method (named the "methode champenoise") includes a long period of bottle aging in which there is a small amount of yeast in the bottle. The yeast makes the resulting sparkling wine smell faintly of freshly baked bread.
--Sherry gets its "nutty" bouquet from purposely exposing the wine to air. Exposing wine to air slowly evaporates the water and results in stronger "oxidized" flavors. This is valued in sherry, but avoided in table wines.
--Vermouth's odd and wonderful bouquet comes from herbs

Your Third Tool: Taste

First of all, flavor is actually smell. Ever had a cold? Can't taste a thing, right? Try this: hold your nose and put cinnamon on your tongue. Then open your nose...Ah ha, suddenly the "taste" of cinnamon is released! So although we'll be talking about "flavor", we'll actually be talking about an extension of your sense of smell.

With "flavor", we again meet the terms varietal and distinctive. (See Aromas, above) Made right, a wine should taste like the grapes it was made from - that's the "varietal" flavor. Again, if it's not quite recognizable, the flavor is referred to as "distinctive".

Note any obvious flavors that you can taste, and guesstimate the wine's age by these guides:
--Young = grapey, tart, un-mellow flavors
--Mature = mellowed out flavors - wines that have gotten some time in the bottle
--Over-Aged = disagreeable smells and tastes - over-the-hill wines. They will also have that telltale brownish color (See Color, above).
--Off = nasty.
Remember, even it you don't like the taste, try to describe it. What does it remind you of? Is it sweet? Tart? Does it dry your mouth out?

Acidity = tart. (See Balance, below) Types of acidity are:
--Flat = not enough acid. Blah. Flabby. Like a Margarita with no lemon juice.
--Tart = just enough acid, pleasant. A perfect Friday night Margarita.
--Green = needs some sweetness. Like a Margarita made with straight lemon juice.

--Dry wines have very low (0.1 to 0.2 percent) residual sugar which results in no impression of sweetness. Varietal fruit flavors are sometimes mistaken for sweetness, but any actual sweetness is derived from a higher (1 percent or more) percentage of natural grape sugars that have remained after the fermentation process.
-- Light, medium and high sugar wines will taste (you guessed it) increasingly sweet
--Cloying wines are very, very sweet. Think cough syrup.

Acids and sugars should be in balance in good wines. In an unbalanced wine, there is too much on one side or the other.

If you taste a bit of bitterness in a very young wine (just released), it's O.K., forgive it, it's young. At any other time, it's regarded as an off flavor.

Your Fourth Tool: Touch

This is the sensation of harshness, dryness and mouth-puckering in your mouth. If it's more like "cotton-mouth" (smokers will be able to relate), the wine has more astringency. If the wine swirling around in your mouth leaves a feeling of softness (mellow, balanced, fruity, pleasant), the wine has lower astringency. Young wines are frequently very rough. Ideally, with age we all mellow.

Body = texture. Think about the extremes of having water in your mouth and milk in your mouth. Wines with higher alcohol, oak aging or sugar have more body.
--Thin wines are watery wines
--Most dry, low-sugar white wines light-bodied
--Most red wines and medium-sugar white wines are medium-bodied
--Full-bodied wines are rich, complex and lingering
--When you start getting into dessert wines you'll experience heavy-body

Sparkling wines go through a second fermentation in which special yeasts are added to the wine. When the wine sugars and yeast cells ferment, carbon dioxide is released which gives the wine its effervescence. These bubbles tickle your tongue and the sides of your mouth. This giddy feeling can make you want to quit your job and move to Paris for a year. Do it - It's a great place.

The sensation of alcohol in the mouth is warm. However, with increasing amounts of alcohol content the sensation changes from warm to hot to muy caliente. You don't want the sensation of wine to be like a shot of tequila - warm is good, burning is bad.

Advanced Wine Tasting

It's time for a quick review of how to evaluate wine. We're using the word "evaluate" to mean a bit more than "taste" in the same way that tasting is something more than drinking. Tasting implies that you're actually focused on the wine you're drinking rather than on a conversation you're having while you drink. Evaluating wine is something more serious, and involves a more methodical, critical and impartial approach.

There's a time for drinking, a time for tasting, and a time for evaluation, and if you mix them up, people will consider you a bore. If you have a serious interest in wine, though, you may find that tasting it critically will teach you a lot about wine, and also about your own perceptions.

The Room

When evaluating wine, you should be conscious of both the color and the temperature of the room. Well-lit rooms with white walls and white tables or tablecloths will give you the most faithful impression of the wine's color, while a room with brown or orange walls will make the wine seem more brown. You should also note the temperature of the room and it's effect on the temperature of the wine, which can have a big impact on flavor. The best temperature for evaluating most wines is between 50 and 65 degrees, depending on the type of wine. We prefer to taste most whites at about 50 degrees and reds at 60 or 65 degrees. Tasting white wines at these temperatures rather than refrigerator temperature brings out their strengths and weaknesses, though some intended to be served cold may seem a bit watery. Big alcoholic reds may taste "hot" or overly alcoholic if they get too warm. You can't always control all of the circumstances of a wine tasting, you should be aware of some of them.


Good glassware makes a huge difference in both the quality and intensity of the aromas of wine in the glass, and is the most important tool a serious wine lover uses. Many believe that different shaped glasses are more flattering to different types of wine, but all good wine glasses have some things in common. They are all to some degree tulip shaped, with a wide, round bottom that exposes a good deal of surface area, and a more closed top that helps hold the aromas in the glass so that they can be enjoyed. The glass should be filled no more than a third full. Good glassware is a great investment if you love wine.

In evaluating wine you will use just about all your senses except hearing. If your wine is making any kind of noise other than a bubbly fizz, you probably shouldn't put it in your mouth.

Look at the Wine

Humans have a wonderful sense of sight. Aroma and flavor may ultimately be of more consequence in evaluating wine, but the way a glass of wine looks can tell you a few things about it. A varietal like cabernet is much darker in appearance than pinot noir. Brown tints in the wine or around the rim are indications of oak aging or bottle aging or both. Is the wine clear? Is it murky with sediment? Are those little bits of cork floating on top, or is someone trying to slip you a Mickey?

Smell the Wine

Your sense of smell is also extremely acute, and is the most important in evaluating wine. It's much more powerful than your sense of taste, and is a bit part of what most people consider taste. I learned at a very early age that I didn't find the flavor of asparagus nearly as offensive if I breathed through my mouth instead of my nose. Swirling the wine around the glass allows the aromatics of the wine to evaporate and oxygenates the wine, filling the glass with the aromas of the wine. Put your nose deep into the glass and inhale. What do you smell? What images does your mind conjure up? Wait ten seconds and then smell it again — waiting a few seconds allows your sense of smell to re-charge and you will find that smelling the wine a few times will help you pin down the aromas you are smelling. Do you smell the fruit, the oak the wine was aged in? It's a fairly subjective process, and some people are more sensitive to some aromas than others. Still, experienced tasters are likely to agree on a few characteristics of any given wine.

Most serious faults of wine are detectable in the nose. If the wine smells moldy it may be infected with trichloroanisole (TCA), a common chemical contaminant of wine. If the wine smells like vinegar or acetone, it probably has too much acetic acid. Faults like these can be subtle or obvious, and they become much easier to pick up once a veteran taster has pointed them out.

Taste the Wine

Taste is an interesting sense. It's hopelessly intertwined with the senses of smell and touch. Your tongue can tell you how bitter, salty, sweet, or sour something is, and can also give you a good idea how alcoholic (burning) or rich (glycerin) the wine is. To pick up all of these qualities, make sure the wine flows to every part of your mouth. When tasting wine, you look for consistencies and inconsistencies with the aromas of the wine. Some wines have qualities that aren't so evident from the aromas; while others have interesting noses but fall completely flat once you put them in your mouth. Acid and tannin levels and their balance in relation to the fruit flavors are impossible to assess without tasting the wine. After you swallow a bit, exhaling through the mouth and nose sends the aroma of the wine back into the nasal passages (retronasal smelling) and mixes the bouquet of the wine with the aftertaste in the mouth.

Critiquing the Wine

If you follow most of the directions above, you've probably gathered enough of an impression of the wine that you should be able to describe what you like and don't like about it. Some qualities that are generally regarded as good are complexity and balance. A wine that is "complex" shows a range of rather different aromas and flavors. A wine with balance shows an even influence of fruit, oak, acid, tannins, and doesn't seem to be missing any particular component. Some value intensity and concentration of flavor while others prefer more elegant wines. Some place a high value on varietal and regional type and believe that a good wine should be typical of the region it comes from, while others cherish wines that have a distinctive style.

In the end, the most important thing is your overall impression of whether you love, like or dislike the wine. Evaluating the wine critically should not only help you pick apart wines and describe their faults, but should also increase your appreciation of wines that are truly great. You can assign it a number or give it a few stars if you like, but in time you may find that you have an opinion about a particular wine that can't be so easily quantified. And that's when it starts getting fun.

Your Last Tool: Your Opinion

You've looked at it, smelled it, tasted it and felt its texture in your mouth - now what do you think about it? Do all the elements add up to something that you like? Is the wine, like a CD that you've just finished listening to, a great example of what this band can do?

Here are some ways of deciding.

--Whether a wine is typical for its region, producer, vintage year or grape is something you will begin to know after tasting many different bottles of a particular type of wine. Don't do this all in one night - your critical faculties tend to degrade after the first bottle.

-- Wines run the gamut from ordinary to great. The quality, or excellence, of a wine is adjusted according to its nature. You already know that the grapes in a jug wine were not the very finest that could be found and the winemaker wasn't sleeping beside the barrels to guard every step of the process. The resulting product might be very enjoyable but you won't apply the same standards to it that you would to a hand-crafted wine.

--Some wines are very complex, meaning that there will be many different aromas and flavors. Each time you inhale or sip, new and wonderful information will clamor for your attention. Lucky you. Close your eyes and revel.

--A great wine will move you into an altered state where its art will give you an emotional response - it will excite you and arouse your curiosity. Like following the work of a particular musician, this will take attention, but the reward will be wine-euphoria. And that's a good thing, The Tipsy Grape.

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