Wine 101: How to Taste like a Pro
You may know how to drink wine like a pro, but can you taste like one?
Tasting wine is arguably the best thing about being in the wine industry. But it does have a markedly different focus than drinking wine. Tasting wine is analytical, while drinking should be for enjoyment.
In order to have a uniquely curated selection of wines, we must have perspective. To gain this, it's imperative that we taste a lot of wines, sometimes every single day. We try to understand what makes a wine worth drinking, then go a step further and compare each wine to other wines we have experienced. This sounds impossible, but there are fairly simple steps, that, if followed every time, make tasting much easier.
For us a wine worth drinking should possess at least 3 of those points, while an outstanding wine should contain all 6:
- Lengthy Finish
Tasting is actually quite simple and can be broken to to the 3 S's: Sight, Smell and Sip. (There can be a 4th, but we will get to that later.)
The first step is to have a clean, clear wine glass with 2 ounces of wine in it and some good lighting. A clean white background, like a piece of paper, can help. Start by tilting the glass away from you at an angle.
1) What color is it? Ruby or Gold? Lemon or Garnet? Tawny or Brick Red?
- Among other things, the color of a wine will indicate what color grapes it was made out of: red or white.
- It can also indicate how the wine was made. Golden hued wines may have had some oak treatment and tawny wines may have been oxidized.
This is where a pure white background comes into play, helping you accurately distinguish the hue.
2) How intense is that color? Pale, average or deep?
- A deeply colored red wine, may be made from ripe and heavily extracted black grapes.
- A pale garnet or deep gold wine can indicate the wine has been aged for a long time.
3) Are there any other visual cues about the wine in your glass?
- Bubbles tells you that CO2 could be present. Is it Champagne or another sparkling wine?
- Hazy wine could mean it was not fined or filtered, or that it is too old and has fallen apart and might not taste good.
4) What about those legs?
- Legs let you know the wine probably contains a high amount of glycerin (indicating high alcohol) or sugar, both of which are just traits and not a signal of quality.
Just looking at a wine can tell you so many things about it, from its age to its quality to the cépage. You can also detect flaws, or just decide if it is appetizing enough to warrant the next step:
This is the most useful step and one often looked over by many tasters. You can smell more than you can taste, and in fact you can't taste anything without a sense of smell.
Get your nose in that glass and take several short sniffs.
1) How intense is the smell?
- Is it faint and hard to pinpoint?
- Are the aromas popping out of the glass?
2) What do you smell?
This along with the flavor characteristics is where most people start to get cold feet and just don't have the confidence to define. But don't worry, this is the part that takes practice and anyone can learn.
I always suggest new tasters to start by writing down just two things you detect when they stick their nose in that glass. The more you write things like this down, the easier it becomes to recognize aromas and recall with the next wine.
Examples of aromas include: licorice, baking spices, strawberry, green apple, cotton candy, mushrooms, black pepper
It can help to look up at aroma wheel, a nifty chart with categories and characteristics commonly found in wine.
Having examples in front of you can often help you define what you are smelling.
BONUS SMELLS: Our sense of smell is tightly connected to our sense memory. This is why you get tasters defining smells like "Grandma's Basement" or "Summer Camp". There are actual molecules in wine that may have been present in those places as well, triggering an experience from long ago. I like to write these notes down as they are a way for me to remember a wine better. So, don't be afraid to write down "My ex's Sweater" or "November mornings at bus stop" next time you smell it in a wine.
This is the fun part, at least it is when the wine is good. It can also be intimidating, but it becomes easier if you break it down. What should you be tasting for?
1) FLAVORS: Are they primary? Secondary? Or tertiary?
- Primary flavors are those from the grape itself. They are usually simple, like fruit, flowers and minerals. Young wines are mostly primary. Simple primary wines are usually not high quality but can be very tasty. Concentrated primary wines are often high quality and built to age.
- Secondary flavors are those imparted by wine making choices. Vanilla, toast and smoke indicate the wine was aged in oak. Butter and cream mean the wine was allowed to go through malolactic fermentation, a naturally occurring chemical reaction. Cheese, yogurt and beer often mean the wine was in contact with its lees (dead yeast cells) for an extended period of time.
- Tertiary notes are those that develop in a wine as it ages. They can include leather, dried fruit, and mushroom. This can happen at the winery or in the bottle. Only about 10% of wines produced are designed for long-term aging, and have the potential to develop good tertiary flavors.
This is another good time to pull out that flavor wheel and write down at least two things that jump out on your tongue.
2) SWEETNESS: Is the wine dry, off dry or sweet?
- Dryness is defined as a lack of sugar in wine, not to be confused with the sensation of tannins which literally dry out your tongue.
Some people love dry wine, some people love sweet wine, and the rest of us love both. Neither residual sugar, nor lack thereof, is an indication of quality, but can be a factor in overall balance and integration.
3) ACIDITY: Does the wine feel flabby on your tongue? Or is it very tart? Does your mouth water and make you want another sip?
Gauging acidity and sweetness levels is incredibly important when starting to judge whether a wine is in balance.
- A wine can be very sweet, but with enough acid, it still tastes refreshing enough you want another sip.
- Too much acid in a dry wine can be very unpleasant.
4) ALCOHOL: Do you not notice it? Is there a burn going down your throat?
- It's not a good sign to be able to taste the alcohol in a wine.
- A burning sensation means the wine doesn't just have high alcohol but that the level is out of balance with the rest of its components.
5) TANNIN: What is the texture of the wine like? Are the tannins fine or coarse, harsh or soft? How do they taste: sweet or bitter?
Assessing tannin can be difficult even for the most experienced of tasters. Have no fear, take your time and don't sweat it.
- If the wine tastes very bitter, it could have a lot of tannin or they could just be very unripe.
- If the wine is very drying and astringent, the tannins are high.
- A silky textured wine can still have high tannin but just be ripe and fine.
Tannin along with acid should be in balance, but high levels of both in young wines are usually an indication of a quality wine that can age.
Wines made with white grapes are usually very low in tannin, unless they are fermented on their skins. The lack of tannin is one reason why most white wines don't age as long as reds.
6) BODY: How full or light does the wine feel?
Think of body in terms of types of milk.
- Skim milk is thin and feels very light on the palate.
- Cream is thick and full and mouth coating.
- Body isn't necessarily an indication of quality, but it should be in balance with the rest of its components.
Just like the the smell, this can be a real indication of quality. You still want to have all the other parts in balance and integrated to make an outstanding wine, but having intensity bumps a wine up the quality ladder.
8) FINISH: How long does the flavor of the wine last in your mouth after you swallow?
As with intensity a long finish is a defining characteristic of an outstanding bottle of wine. Although if the taste that lingers is unpleasant, it doesn't count.
BONUS: SPITSpitting is embarrassing but necessary! It goes against what most of us were taught to spit into a bucket in front of colleagues, but drunkenness makes your wine tasting experience very limited.
Now what do you do with all that?
Practice! Find as many opportunities as you can to try a broad range of wines. The more you taste the better you will be at defining what you taste and assessing those factors in terms of quality.
Taste with friends! In a group setting, you can bounce flavor descriptors off each other and combine your minds and pallets to come to supported conclusions about the wines. There will be disagreements about what you are tasting, but the subjectivity of wine tasting is part of what makes it a fun and social experience. Wine is a moving target!
Use resources! Print a flavor wheel! Read books about wine, tasting, flavors, and more! And perhaps most importantly, stop by a wine store and ask the staff to help you pick out wines that are great to taste against each other, or that will help you hone a specific tasting skill. The team at Flatiron are at your disposal for questions like this. We'd love to chat with you.
Go to Tastings! There is nothing quite like the opportunity to taste several fantastic wines together. We have many opportunities for you to put these steps to the test at upcoming tastings at both of our New York and San Francisco stores. Depending on the event, you may be able to flex your tasting muscles in an industry-style tasting, or ask your questions to the wine-makers themselves. No matter where you are in your wine journey, these are not events to miss!