Wine Basics

By: Steve Pitcher

How to Taste Wine

Wine is full of complex and mysterious nuances.
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Tasting wine is different than tasting just about anything else you can think of. All the swirling and sniffing might seem like an affectation, but these steps really serve an important purpose: helping us make sense of the complex and mysterious nuances of wine.

Learning the Language

Think about it: How many words can you come up with to describe how a banana smells and tastes? Could you describe it to someone who has never tasted one? Although a banana has distinct characteristics, it is difficult to explain to someone else. Its smell, texture, and taste are easy to recognize but hard to put into words.


The same is true for wine, though to a greater extent. Unlike the banana, which resembles a banana and not much else, wine doesn't smell or taste like grape juice; it's a collection of complex and intense flavors. So, to say, for example, that a glass of Chardonnay smells and tastes like wine is woefully inadequate. Wine smells and tastes like so many things that describing it can strain your everyday vocabulary. Fortunately, the world of wine has a language all its own.

Good wine can be enjoyed and appreciated without saying a word. But if you want to explain to someone else why you love or hate a particular wine, it's helpful to be familiar with the language. For example, you might say that a Cabernet Sauvignon smells pleasantly of ripe black currants and tobacco. Another taster might describe the same wine as leathery. There aren't actually currants or tobacco or leather in the wine. Rather, these are smells commonly encountered in wine; they express the essence of this particular wine.

Taking Memorable Notes

"Tasting" can mean anything from a simple sip to serious palate analysis. The occasion can be as casual as a glass of wine after work or as formal as an organized tasting. Whatever format you prefer, there is one golden rule: For the experience to have any lasting significance, you'll need to really concentrate on the task. The best way to do this is to make written notes, if only to scribble down the name and vintage of the wine and whether you liked it or not and why. Record your impressions in your personal wine journal so you'll have all your notes for future reference.

Taking successful notes is merely a matter of deciding whether you like what you taste, akin to the old adage, "I may not know anything about art, but I know what I like. " Just note what it is about the flavors that make the wine appealing or unappealing. This exercise, repeated over time, will lead to the development of a focused palate.

With so many wonderful selections of wine to sample and enjoy, you are embarking on an exciting, robust journey. And since each growing season provides a new vintage, your horizons will continue to expand. You'll find that each glass adds new dimensions and impressions for you to ponder.

By using the journal to document your tasting experiences, you will enhance your enjoyment. Taking notes will help you focus on the abundant characteristics of wine, enabling you to identify the aromas and flavors that make up a wine's charm. And, in the end, your notes will provide you with a valuable record of what you have enjoyed.

Journal notations should identify a wine's outstanding attributes or faults. Your notes can be as brief or as detailed as you like. You can pepper the pages with colorful wine lingo or take advantage of everyday adjectives. It's up to you. Then spend time mulling over what you have written. It should help you recognize which wines to choose for a truly enjoyable experience.

You'll be pleased at how much you learn from your own reflections, and you just might discover your favorites among the abundant wines of the world.

In addition to making notations, you might like to assign a numerical rating to each wine. Some people find it helpful; others find points of value too subjective to be meaningful. If you decide to assign point values, the following point ranges correspond to the various quality determinations (based on the widely used 100-point scale):

outstanding = 96-100 points

fine = 90-95 points

average/acceptable = 80-89 points

below average = 70-79 points

poor = 0-69 points

An Excercise in Taste

It is finally time to taste! However, you don't taste wine the same way you might taste a glass of soda or tea. Rather, tasting wine is a little like detective work. Each step in the process gives you another clue about the wine until you have enough information to isolate and identify each of the complex aromas and flavors.

After each step, jot some short notes in your wine journal. Putting your observations on paper requires you to focus on what it is you're seeing, sniffing, and tasting.

Initially, make sure your glass is less than half full. This way, you'll have the confidence to tilt and swirl it without spilling the wine.


Hold the glass by its stem to prevent the wine from being warmed by your hand and to keep the glass clean. Tilt the glass away from yourself slightly so that you are looking through the rim of the liquid. If possible, hold the glass over a white background, such as a tablecloth. Study the wine's appearance, noting its color and clarity.

Is the wine cloudy? Does it contain floating matter, such as cork particles, or other deposits, like sediment? Good red wine can be opaque, clear, or brilliant in appearance. Good whites should be at least clear, at best brilliant.

The color should be pleasing to the eye. Fine young reds exhibit deep, vibrant color, ranging from light purple to deep ruby. Good whites can be very light in color, though young wines will be greenish-gold, and sweet, dessert wines will be yellow-gold to amber-gold. If a wine is yellowish-brown and dull in appearance, it is either magnificently old or prematurely dead. Browning occurs in white and red wines just as it does in apples--as a result of oxidation.


Carefully begin to swirl the wine in the glass. To do this, set the base of the glass on a flat surface, grasp the base of the stem with thumb and finger, and, starting slowly, push the glass in tight circles on the tabletop. Gradually increase the speed of this motion so that the wine slides up along the inner surfaces of the glass. Just a few swirls will do. With practice (try it with water instead of wine to save slosh expense), you can confidently swirl the wine without using a tabletop. Simply hold the glass by the stem, and move it in a quick, circular pattern.

Swirling may look like an affectation, but it does serve a purpose. By swirling, you mix a little air with the wine, releasing its aromatic components.


Just after the final swirl, bring the glass to your nose and take a few good sniffs to prepare your palate for the taste of the wine. The first impression is the most important; let your mind wander through memory and grasp recollections as they pass. What does the scent remind you of? Is it sweet or floral? If sweet, from what? Is it fruity? What kind of fruit? If floral, what kind of flower? Your nose will become accustomed to distinctive smells rather soon, so the first few sniffs are important ones.

The wine's scent is called its nose, which consists of aroma and bouquet. Aroma describes the smells that come from the grape itself. As the wine ages, the aromas should evolve into a more complex bouquet of fragrances.

Scents you might encounter when tasting a white wine include apple, pear, peach, melon, grapefruit, lemon, mango, pineapple, butter, roasted grain, vanilla, honey, fresh-cut grass, asparagus, and bell pepper. For red wine, common aromas include blackberry, cherry, raspberry, black pepper, plum, tobacco, smoke, chocolate, mushroom, oak, coffee, and loamy earth.

The scent of pears is common in some white wine.
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Occasionally, you might notice a "foreign" smell or an "off" odor, something strange. An unpleasant, wet cardboard smell is a sign that the wine may have been contaminated by a bad cork. A vinegary smell means oxygen has seeped into the bottle, rendering the wine undrinkable.

Now that you've looked at the wine and smelled it, it's time for the best part -- tasting it. But you don't want to swallow it just yet. Tasting is one thing, drinking another. A gulp only quenches a thirst or washes down food. A quick swallow probably means you haven't actually tasted the wine.


Take a small sip of the wine, holding it in your mouth. Some people slosh it around like mouthwash so that it reaches all parts of the mouth. Others draw a small amount of air into the mouth and over the wine (be careful not to dribble!). This little trick requires practice, but the process opens the wine, releasing the aroma up into the nasal passages in the back of the throat, so you can smell the wine again.

The taste should supplement the clues provided by your nose. Ask yourself whether the wine in your mouth (the palate) delivers what the nose advertised. After all, your sense of smell is much more effective and sensitive than your taste buds.

The principal tastes in wine are sweet (tasted by the tip of the tongue); sour, which will taste tart (think of lemons); and bitter (can taste like aspirin if it's really bitter).

So, what does it taste like? Describe the fruit taste. What does it remind you of? Is it fresh and bright? Most important, do you like it? This is a good time to jot down your flavor impressions--while they are fresh in your mind.

Also think about the wine's texture--how does it feel in your mouth? Would you describe it as silky, smooth, velvety, sharp, big, refreshing, round, rich, firm, intense, crisp, puckery, lush, creamy, lively, flat?

Does the wine have a drying effect on the sides of your mouth? Does it bite the tongue? If so, this astringency is probably tannin, which comes from the grape's skin and seeds and sometimes from the wood of the barrel in which the wine was aged. The sensation of tannic astringency is similar to the rough, dry way your mouth can feel after drinking a cup of black tea that was brewed too long.

Young red wines usually display some tannic astringency, which will dissipate and smooth out as the wine matures. If the wine you are tasting has significant tannins, making it uncomfortable to drink now, consider whether the wine seems to have enough fresh fruit character to survive in the bottle until the tannins begin to mellow.

The wine's level of acidity should also be evaluated. Acid can feel sharp in the mouth, or it can be a fresh, tangy sensation. Good acidity lifts the flavor of the wine and gives it a fresh, lively feel. Too much acid makes the wine taste tart or sour.

If the amount of acidity and tannin measured to the fruit in the wine seems equal or favorable, the wine is said to be balanced.


After you've drawn all possible flavor out of the wine, spit it out. Spitting a wine into a "dump bucket" is perfectly acceptable when tasting. After all, you want to be able to concentrate on the wines you are tasting, not get inebriated.

After the wine has left your mouth, try to determine how long the taste sensation lingers. This is called the wine's aftertaste or finish.

Finally, think about the overall impression the wine has made. Did it come on strongly, and then fade quickly in the mouth? Did the aromas you smelled match the flavors you sensed when the wine was in your mouth -- and after the wine left your mouth? Were the various components, including fruit, alcohol, tannins, acidity, of the same magnitude; or did one element overshadow or overwhelm the others? Did the wine seem simple or one-dimensional, or did it show some complexity?

Be sure to record your final thoughts in your journal. You'll want to remember if you liked the wine or not so you'll know whether to buy it again!

If you really want to punch up your journal with some wine terminology, move on to the final section where you will find an extensive glossary of wine vocabulary.