Wine can be a complicated world with its own vocabulary and bizarre customs. However, once you learn the basics, wine quickly loses its intimidating aura and becomes a fascinating beverage that you’ll enjoy learning about. One of the first basics is how to taste and evaluate a wine. Movies and television shows often portray sommeliers and wine professionals completing a rigorous, complex tasting process. But it isn’t nearly as complicated as it looks, and you certainly don’t need to be a sommelier to taste like one!
The first step in wine tasting is the simplest; simply look at the wine in your glass. By sight alone, you can tell a good amount of information. First, note the color. Both red and white wines come in a variety of different shades. Red wines can have shades of purple, orange, or even brown, whereas white wines can come in shades such as straw, gold, and tawny. Different grape varieties and different winemaking processes can impact the final color of the wine.
Next, tilt your glass and check out the rim of the wine. The color here is a good indication of the wine’s age. Red wines lose color as they age, so if the edge is starting to turn an orange or rust color, it’s probably an older wine. Whites are the opposite; they gain color as they age. Accordingly, if the edge is starting to turn a brownish, tawny color, odds are the bottle has seen more than a few years.
You can also get an idea of the alcohol level of the wine. Give the glass a quick swirl and watch as the wine runs down the sides. We call these "legs," and the fatter and slower they are, the higher the alcohol. However, be aware, if your wine is sweet, sugar will also make fat, slow legs regardless of the alcohol level.
The next step involves smelling. Yes, I know, swirling and smelling often evokes eye rolls from dining companions. However, as pretentious as it looks, it serves an important function! With that in mind, start by giving your glass a quick swirl, which will release some of the aromas in the wine, making it easier to smell. Just be careful with your swirling, especially after a glass or two. It can be easy to get a little carried away, and the next thing you know, you and your neighbors will be wearing the contents of your glass.
Now it’s time to start smelling. I’ve noticed many people seem hesitant to put their nose into the glass; however, unless you have some super sense of smell, you need to get that nose all the way into the glass. Yes, the eye-rollers are back, but you can’t see them because your eyes are so close to your glass!
What do you smell? Sometimes it’s helpful to think in terms of categories. Start with fruits, and then move onto herbs and spices. Next, try to find earthy notes like raked leaves or forest-y smells. Are you smelling any signs that the wine has been aged in oak? If you smell any baking spices, vanilla, butter, tobacco, or even just wood, those are all signs of barrel aging. You can also see if you can sense the alcohol. How strong is it? If it’s burning your nose, then it’s probably pretty high. Just keep in mind, aromas are not the same for everyone. When I smell strawberry, you may smell currant or cherry. It’s all very dependent on your experiences and the smells with which you are most familiar.
The last step is the best: actually putting the wine in your mouth! So go ahead, take a sip. Do you taste some of the same aromas that you smelled? Do you notice any new ones? Go ahead and review the categories again. Now, while the wine is in your mouth, we can evaluate a few more things.
This can be difficult, as our brains are so used to associating fruit flavors as sweet. However, there are many wines that are fruity, but not at all sweet. The easiest way to avoid this is to pay attention to the sweetness as soon as the wine hits your tongue, before your brain has time to register the fruit flavors.
Now, while the wine is in your mouth, pay attention to the weight or body of the wine. Full-bodied wines are heavy on the tongue, whereas light-bodied wines are lighter and more watery. Think of the difference between whole, 2%, and skim milk.
Like sweetness, acid can sometimes be tricky to determine. The easiest way I’ve found is to move a little bit of wine under your tongue before swallowing. Then pay attention to how much your mouth waters once the wine is gone. After tasting a wine with high acidity, you’ll probably have to swallow a couple of times to get rid of the excess saliva.
Tannins are mostly found in red wines, and are identified by the dry or astringent feeling left in your mouth after you’ve swallowed the wine. The bigger the feeling, the more tannins that are present.
The level of alcohol is probably easiest to determine through taste. Right after you swallow the wine, breathe out and see if you notice an alcohol feeling on your breath. If you try this with a strong spirit once, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t notice any alcohol feeling, the alcohol level is probably on the lower end.
As with many things in life, the only way to really figure out what you're doing is to just start doing it! So grab a couple bottles and start tasting! Just remember, you don’t need to go through the tasting steps every time you drink a wine. Just as important as knowing how to taste, is knowing that there are times to taste and there are times to simply drink and enjoy! Cheers!