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How to Taste Wine

Wine, especially that for which you have paid a premium, is worth more than a quick glug. So perhaps this section should be entitled Wine Appreciation, because there is a lot more to judging the quality of a wine than merely tasting it. Predominantly it involves smell, using that organ which protrudes from the front of the face just above the mouth. Despite this simple fact, however, many regard those that know enough to swirl and sniff their wine as pretentious wine 'snobs'. But this is not the case. This is how to get the best out of a bottle, and I do it with every wine I drink, be it a cheap glugger or a Bordeaux first growth. My guide to how to taste wine explains how it's done.

How to Taste Wine: Inspecting the Wine

EyeIt is worth taking a good look at the wine, as its appearance can yield a lot of information. It's best to view the wine against a white background, in order to avoid mistaking the colour. This doesn't have to be anything technical - a white plate or tablecloth will do. Another good point to make is that the receptacles should be made of plain, clear glass - trying to gauge the intensity of a red wine through blue glass is notoriously difficult!

Colour: The colour of a red wine will give a clue as to the age of the wine. Many red wines start life as a deep purple colour, sometimes almost opaque. With time, however, the wines lose this youthful intensity, and begin to take on a paler, tawny, brick red hue. Initially this appears at the rim of the wine, but as the years go by the whole wine will take on this colour, fading to a brick red or brown. The colour of a red wine may give a clue not only to the age of the wine, however, but also to the grapes which have been used. This is because different grapes produce wines of differing intensities of colour. Pinot Noir tends to be pale, for instance, whereas many other red grapes, particularly in their youth, would be expected to be an inky purple-black.

Similar information may be gathered from inspecting a white wine, although the pattern of colour change as a white wine ages is different. A good example is Sauternes, the famous dessert wine of Bordeaux. This wine starts off a lemon gold colour, but unlike a red wine, which becomes paler as it ages, this wine deepens, turning a rich, golden amber. This colour change is gradual, occurring over many decades. As with red wines, the colour of a white wine will also give some clue as to the grapes used, and also from where the wine originates. Cool climate wines tend to be less richly coloured, hence Burgundian Chardonnay will be paler than an Australian example. Certain grapes have an almost characteristic hue, such as the green tinge of Riesling.

Cabernet Sauvignon
A youthful, deeply coloured Cabernet.
The Winedoctor

Pinot Noir
A much paler, fading Pinot Noir.
The Winedoctor

Cool climate
A pale, cool climate Chardonnay.
The Winedoctor

Warm climate
A richer, warm climate Chardonnay.
The Winedoctor

Legs: This little used tasting term refers to the oily droplets of wine that run down the inside of the glass after the wine has been swirled. It was used more frequently in times past as many believed that slowly forming, oily legs, reflecting either high alcohol content or the presence of sugars, were an indication of quality. Less exciting, weak wines would quickly form more watery legs. This is true to some extent, but today many tend to assess these qualities on the palate rather than with the eye.

Bead: With reference to sparkling wines, the bead describes the size of the bubbles generated by the wine. Champagne is said to generate a finer bead (smaller bubbles) than other sparkling wines, and I tend to go along with this. It can be useful when trying to identify wines blind. Some say that the quality of the bead can even be determined by holding the glass close to the ear, and listening to the fizz. This one I find hard to believe!

How to Taste Wine: Smelling the Wine

NoseSwirl the glass to throw the wine up onto the side of the glass, thus increasing the surface area of wine in contact with the air. It is at the interface between wine and air that aromas are released, and thus increasing the surface area helps to make the aromas more apparent. The agitation of the wine, of course, also helps. To swirl effectively, don't fill the glass too full - in fact less than half full is recommended. Be gentle, in order to bring the wine up onto the side of the glass without spilling it altogether. If you find you are spilling wine, and haven't overfilled the glass, place the base of the glass on the table and using a few good circular motions on the table top to get the aromas going.

Once done, stick your nose in the glass a take a good sniff, and think about what aromas are coming up from the glass as you do so. Young wines will have primary aromas, relating to the grape variety. Such smells are often fruit related, and hence wines are described as smelling of blackcurrants, raspberries, and so on, or maybe simply as 'fruity'.

As wines age more secondary aromas develop, which may be more earthy or animalistic. I believe that the bouquet of a wine is the most enjoyable part of the experience, more so than actually tasting it. The aromas generated by a glass of fine wine can be many, intertwined in a most intimate and complex manner. The aromas of a wine take on many different forms, and very rarely does a wine smell of grapes - but that is because the grapes most of us are familiar with are table or dessert grapes, which are quite unsuitable for making wine.

How to Taste Wine: At Last - Tasting the Wine!

MouthThere is a lot more to describe when tasting the wine than simple flavour. Flavours are often as expected following the detection of certain aromas. On the 'palate' (the term used to describe the characteristics of the wine detected in the mouth), however, other elements  come into play. Detecting the absolute presence and relative quantities of these substances tells you about quality, ageing potential, how well the wine will drink with food, and so on. This empowers you to select good wines, and discard bad ones, as you analyse the wine and understand what it is you don't like about them.

When you taste wine, it is important to realise that little of the flavour that can be sensed actually involves the tongue. Much more vital are the nasal chemoreceptors that are involved in smell. Aromas from the wine in the mouth pervade the upper airways, and it is sensations from the nasal receptors that we use to 'taste' the wine. (This is why it is difficult to taste foods when you have a head-cold). So breathe in and out through the nose as you taste, and if you feel like it, slurp some air in through the mouth over the wine. It will help to release the aromas, and probably raise a few laughs!

Pay attention to the way the wine changes as you hold it in the mouth. First impressions on taking the wine into the mouth may be referred to as the forepalate, followed by the mid and endpalate, leading up to the finish.

The finish describes the sensations derived from swallowing the wine. It will often be different to how the wine came across on the palate, so take note. The flavours may linger for a while on the palate after the wine has been swallowed, and this is referred to as the length. The more length a wine has, the more time you have to enjoy it, and it's probably true to say that such wines are generally of better quality. Last of all, don't forget to spit. Not necessary most of the time, of course, but at large trade tastings it is the only way to stay upright. And long term, of course, it protects the liver. If you do go to a large public tasting and are nervous about spitting, don't be. Get yourself over the receptacle, don't be afraid to lower your head towards it some way, and simply release the wine from your mouth, almost letting gravity do the job. As you get more confident you may be a little more directional in your technique, but don't confuse confidence with inebriation. Even when spitting, some alcohol is absorbed via the mucous membranes of the mouth, and some via the small part that is inevitably swallowed.