How To Taste Wine And Assess Wine

Learn all about how to smell, taste, and evaluate a wine

Enjoying a glass of wine

Whether you are in a formal blind wine tasting, a winery tasting room, or at home with your friends, tasting wine can be an educational experience.  Learning how to systematically and critically assess wine can heighten your enjoyment and open up new depths of experiencing a glass. 

As always, the most important factor in drinking wine is enjoyment. It's a sensory experience. If this process helps you enjoy the wine more thoroughly by understanding the components that go into a balanced wine, proceed. If this adds stress to your experience then don't worry and just enjoy the glass you have. This is intended to be educational and fun. 

Ultimately, the element that matters the most in wine is balance. If a wine is balanced between alcohol, acid, sugar, tannin, and fruit then you are drinking a well-made wine. The formal tasting experience will help you move step by step, from assessing the wine color, the wine aromas, the wine tasting notes, and more.

It's important to remember that tasting wine is one of the most complex brain functions you can engage in. Being able to assess a taste that can vary enormously and then put it into words is incredibly difficult. Your tasting can be affected by the mood you are in, the location, and even the soundtrack playing in the background.

So if you aren't getting all the notes other people seem to be tasting, then it might just be a matter of trial and error. Here's some tips to help you along the way to becoming an avid wine drinker.


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Wine Tasting Basics

Wine tastings take place in many different settings. There are formal wine competitions where wines from all over the world are judged systematically against similar wines. There are flights that are offered at wine tasting rooms in wine country regions across the globe. There are even informal and educational wine tastings that take place between friends, wine clubs, wine bars, or at some wine shops. 

Knowing how to critically taste a glass will help you jump start your knowledge of different wines. 

Some sommeliers and wine critics refuse to drink or eat anything but water before tasting events. Coffee, perfume, and other smells are prohibited and could possibly affect your tastebuds and sense of smell. If you are just beginning on your tasting journey we would say this might be overkill, but as you progress it can help.

Quick Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Wine Tasting

-Taste with other people. It's easiest to learn if you are willing to talk about what you taste. Everyone's palate is different. Hearing what other people are tasting can help direct your perception as well. Wine is nuanced and evaluating it is easiest with others. It's best to find like-minded wine lovers if possible, but a spouse or close friend that is willing to try will work in a pinch. 

-If you can get a group together, regularly tasting a wide swath of grape varieties will keep you fresh and experiencing new wines and winemaking styles. 

-Wine can release different aromas over time after opening, if you are tasting on your own it can be interesting to taste a wine just after opening, a few hours later, the next day, and so on to see how it changes. 

-Swirling wine will release the aromas, and not overfilling your glass is essential for this. A wine glass filled up to the top will spill, and there's nothing more heartbreaking than spilling an expensive Bordeaux or whatever fine wine you are drinking.

-Tasting wines side by side will allow you to assess the nuances and the quality. We would recommend tasting three wines from the same region, the same varietal, or the same style. Practically this looks like tasting three Napa Valley Cabernets at different price points. It could mean tasting Merlot from different regions across the United States, or it could mean tasting different styles of Sauvignon Blanc like Pouilly Fume, Sancerre, or a highly acidic New Zealand example.

How to Assess the Color of a Wine

In a formal wine tasting, the color is your first quality indicator. If you aren't formally tasting wine blind, you can still learn something about your wine, but this process is most helpful in discovering what it is in your glass. Smelling and tasting the wine will give you a much better insight into whether or not the wine will be enjoyable to your palate. 

To assess color, make sure that your glass is clear and clean. Pour the wine in and hold it over a white tablecloth or piece of paper. 

Look at wine. Is it clear or is it hazy? If it is hazy this can tell you that the wine was exposed to too much oxygen, that is wasn't fined, or that it still had active yeast or bacteria and underwent secondary fermentation in the bottle. It could also indicate that it was unfiltered on purpose, this is most common in "Natural" wines. 

Look at the wine again. Are there tears? This can tell you about the alcoholic strength of a wine. Is there sediment? This can tell you about the vinification or the age of the wine. Are there bubbles, and if so how vigorous are they? This can tell you about how a bottle of sparkling wine was made. 

Now look for the color intensity. Is it pale, medium, or deep? Depending on the varietal this could tell you how much time the wine spent with the skins or how the winemaker handled extracting color. As color tends to fade over time in red wines, deep color typically indicates a younger wine. 

Then look at the color itself, below are the colors and what they can tell you associated with different styles of wine.

Red Wine

Red wines are described as being:

Purple, Ruby, Garnet, Tawny, and Brown 

Some wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tannat, Zinfandel, and Malbec, are deep red/purple wines. Grenache is a medium red, and Gamay and Pinot Noir are light red. Knowing what a grape typically looks like in the glass will help you identify what it is or how it was made.

Over time, bright red colors fade to brick red, and the rim becomes clear with color concentrated at the center of the glass. If you see this in your wine it could be an aged wine. 

White Wine

White wines are described as being:

Lemon-Green, Lemon, Gold, Amber, and Brown.

Chardonnay can be anywhere from lemon to gold and varies in intensity. With many white wine grapes producing multiple styles this can give you an indication of what type you are dealing with. 

Rosé Wine

Rosé wines are described as being:

Pink, Salmon (Pink-Orange), or Orange

Rosé can be made in a multitude of ways, with the wine's color being determined by how it was made: skin contact with red grapes for varying amounts of time (the longer the deeper the red), or they can blend red and white wines together to get the color wine they are searching for. This makes identifying a mystery rosé incredibly difficult. 

Orange Wine

Orange wine is possibly the oldest style of wine on earth, these natural-leaning wines are made with red wine techniques and white wine grapes. They are tannic and full-bodied with color ranging from Pink to Orange to Amber. These are not typically included at formal tastings, but will probably be in the near future.  

How to Smell Wine

This is the most important step of the wine tasting experience and is helped by having an aroma wheel handy. Swirl the glass of wine and agitate the liquid. Swirling the wine introduces oxygen through the process of aeration. This allows the release of flavor compounds to reach your olfactory sense. 

Stick your nose in the glass. How does it smell? Does anything smell off or is it gobs of fruit or maybe alcohol? These are your first indications of what a wine will taste like, although taste doesn't always correlate to smells. If the wine has weak aromas, sometimes smelling with your mouth open allows for a deeper look at what is in the glass as it moves more air and flavor compounds across your olfactory senses.  

It should be noted that some wines display interesting and very unique notes. Very good aged Riesling, for instance, can smell like gasoline and this is a good thing. So if you are tasting a wine something and get a weird smell, speak up! As a taster, your experience is driven by discovering new and unusual flavors.

How to Taste Wine

When a wine touches your palate you can learn a lot more about the wine you are drinking. Once you have a wine in your mouth you can evaluate texture, sweetness, acidity, and more. 

Flavors

As you first taste a glass of wine, do you still get what you smelled in the nose? For instance, if you are tasting a wine from the Rhône, do you still taste the smokey notes that you smelled, or does that disappear under fruit? What is stronger and what is weaker in the palate than on the nose? Refer back to the aroma list if you need help with some typical flavors. 

Sweetness

How sweet is the wine? Sugar can be anywhere from non-existent to viscous and syrupy in a dessert wine. One mistake many new tasters make is confusing sweet fruit flavors for sugar. Our brains associate sugar and fruit together through memory, not from the palate to the brain. It's a shortcut to preserve brainpower, as putting words to wine is difficult. 

Tannins (Red Wine and Orange Wine)

Is the wine tannic or no? Does it dry out your gums in an astringent manner or are the tannins balanced with the rest of the wine in a well-integrated manner? When talking about tannins the typical textural descriptions are silky, fine-grained, velvety, ripe or grippy, coarse, and drying.                                               

Acidity

The acidity in a glass of wine is almost the opposite of tannin. Is the wine refreshing? Does it leave your mouth watering or slightly puckered? Too much acidity can make a wine taste sour and a wine fault known as volatile acidity can make your wine taste like nail polish remover. 

Alcohol

How alcoholic does the wine taste? Does the wine burn your nostrils when you smell it and does the alcohol overpower the fruit? Tip: if a wine is served too warm this can speed the evaporation of alcohol which will dominate the palate by bringing alcohol to the surface of a wine. 

Texture

How viscous is the wine? Dessert wines are often syrupy and sparkling wines have carbon dioxide bubbles. Both of these textural elements can dramatically affect your experience of flavor on the palate.

Finish

How long does the aftertaste linger on your tongue? Generally, if you enjoy the wine the longer the better. This is one of the biggest factors that indicates quality in a wine.

Final Observation of a Wine

The final and most important observation about a glass of wine is balance. Looking back at all of these criteria, is the wine balanced and enjoyable to drink? Do all of the elements work together in harmony or does one aspect dominate?

This is a nuanced skill that takes a long time and a lot of tasting to develop, so if you come away at the end of this exercise and like the wine then that's fantastic. The more you try, the more you have in your memory to compare against. 

Wine is a sensory experience and meant to delight you. If this all sounds dry, feel free to ignore it, but know that tasting like this could open up a whole new level of discovery for your wine experience.

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Petit Verdot
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Sparkling Wine
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Join Firstleaf to taste delicious wines from all over the world and learn more about these grapes. The club has featured amazing examples, take the quiz to get the pairings for your individual palate.

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