For many, tasting wine is usually the most impressive part of the role of sommeliers. It almost seems like magic how we find all of the intricate details of the the weather, the soil, the oak, the specific aromas. Blind tasting takes some training and it’s impressive when done well. Yet the key thing to remember is that wine tasting is 100% teachable for just about anyone. While sommeliers have the advantage of exposure to many wines, learning some basic skills can transform wine from just an alcoholic beverage to something that invokes curiosity and connection. Whether you are brand new or accustomed to tasting with intent, here’s how to taste wine and sharpen your palate….
How to taste Wine
First, learn the language behind assessing a wine. Every wine has a story. Learning the lingo is how we tell it. Generally, we are looking at the color and appearance of the wine, the smell of the aromas and the way the wine feels on the palate. We’ve listed a breakdown of each of these categories to help you learn how to taste wine. These are the aspects of wine to look for in order to improve your understanding of it. As a note, it’s best to be consistent and taste in this order.
Assess the Appearance
What am I looking for? The appearance of the wine includes the hue (color/shade of the wine) and the intensity of the color (on the spectrum from clear to opaque). Additionally, appearance covers the brightness (does it shine or is it dull), plus any presence of bubbles or sediment and the viscosity (“legs”).
The color is a way to begin the conversation with the wine. Yet it’s certainly not the whole story nor the best way to measure a wine’s quality. Try to separate any preconceived ideas about the appearance in regards to quality. Pretty wines are nice to drink but the ugly ones can be really fun!
The hue might indicate the grape variety, but a light or dark wine is not necessarily indicative of the weight on the palate. For example, Nebbiolo is pale in color but full of tannin and acidity on the palate. A cloudy wine may mean the wine was simply unfiltered, as often seen in Oregon Pinot Noir. The viscosity or the “legs,” as well as whether the wine stains the glass suggest a full body/more alcohol.
What am I looking for? Here we talk about the structure, the texture and the flavor, especially as it compares to the nose. Notice the texture from the beginning, middle and to the end of the wine. The finish of the wine- a huge hallmark of quality- is how long the flavors intermingle on the palate.
Texture is always a sensual subject. Take time to feel the wine in your mouth before you drink it. Words like silk, velvet, chalk and grit are often used to describe the texture. Notice the difference between the beginning, middle and end. Is it one note, or does it evolve on the palate? Is it round, juicy or angular on the mid palate?
Describing a Wine’s Structure
We also talk about the structure to describe the wine, which includes acidity, tannin, sweetness, alcohol and finish. Acidity is how it makes your mouth salivate. Some don’t like this, as it can seem tart or sour, but acidity is the backbone of the wine. It cleans your palate between bites of food and gives the wine both freshness and longevity.
Tannin, also found in dark chocolate or black tea, is the drying sensation that certain red wines have. Most white wines don’t have this, as it comes from the skin of the grape.
Alcohol gives the wine more body and a heavier, more plush texture. It is found as the burning sensation at the back of your throat.
Sweetness refers to the level of actual sugar on the palate, not to be confused with a dry wine that has a high presence of fruit.
When these components come together, the wine has balance. The structure of a great wine has complimentary parts. Think of an off-dry Riesling with searing acidity. The acid brightens the sweetness and the sweetness softens the acid. This is a great indication of quality, as is the length of the finish. When the texture has a story and the finish is long, we arrive at complexity. This is ultimately what separates good from great wine.
When learning how to taste wine, begin to improve your understanding of the structure by taking note of the effects that different foods play on your palate. Notice the acidity from a piece of citrus, the tannin from a tea bag that’s been over-steeped, the sweetness from a a piece of fruit candy vs. the ripeness of a raspberry. When you better understand these components, you can better describe your preferences.
Putting all technical aspects aside, the most important question to ask yourself is “Do I like this wine? Why or why not?” A glass of wine, like a person, is a culmination of specific environment, history and influence from the person who made it. Hopefully it was made with intention and care. Practice slowing down and listening to the story of the wine- color, aromatics, texture. When you learn to engage with the wine, is becomes endlessly interesting. It makes drinking wine more intellectual, meditative and enjoyable. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But when you listen, you may learn something new.” -AT