You sit down at a nice restaurant and are presented the wine list. You might ask for a few recommendations and finally settle upon a bottle to order. Before you know it, your waiter is proudly presenting the bottle to you and pours just a tasting amount in the glass with a flourish. If you’re not a certified sommelier, you’re probably like the rest of us who swirl it, taste and nod your head that it’ll be just fine. But wine tasting doesn’t have to feel intimidating or pretentious, especially when you know what to look for. Follow this beginner’s guide to wine tasting and you’ll have your waiter convinced you’re a wine connoisseur!
Step 1: Sight
Wine tasting truly uses all of your senses and our eyes give us the first impression of the wine. Like many of us recently learned with “that dress,” our eyes can play tricks on us. To sip like a sommelier, you’ll want to get the full color range of the wine and look at it in four different ways. First, look straight down in to your glass to take in the deep color of the core of the wine.
Next, hold the glass to the light and look at it through the sides of the glass. Wine should always be clear with some sparkle to it, like a brilliant diamond. A murky wine is a sign of a problem with the fermentation process or a chemical imbalance.
Tilt the glass to let the wine thin out toward the edges to determine if the wine is young or old. If it looks watery or very pale at the edges, it could be a wine that is too young and lacking any flavor. You can also see if the wine is past its prime and oxidized if the color of the edge looks brown for a white wine or orange for a red wine.
Finish off your sight evaluation with the swirl. And you might laugh, but the mid-air swirl is a practiced technique. Beginners should place the glass back on the table and swirl while firmly planted on that table. There’s nothing more embarrassing that sloshing some wine out while “free-styling.”
Step 2: Smell
Did you know that 50% of taste comes from smell? So it’s pretty much a crime not to allow your nose to take in the bouquet of the wine. You’re robbing yourself of half of the taste!
To get the full bouquet, it’s best if the wine can oxygenate before smelling it. For a red, 30 minutes in a decanter is optimal. But even a few minutes in the glass while you’re examining the color will make a big difference. The swirl also helps release the bouquet.
Don’t stick your nose right in to the glass; that just looks ridiculous and you won’t get the full bouquet of the wine. Instead, hover over the glass and take several short sniffs, swirling in between. While it’s impressive that sommeliers can name a number of the fruits, spices and herbs in a wine, and it can even be fun to guess, it’s really not necessary to learning how to taste and enjoy wine. But if can you pick out a few, it admittedly does enhance your experience. Whenever I sniff blackberries, I know the wine is going to be a hit in my book.
Just like bad apples happen, flawed wines happen. Certain scents are a sure fire way of sniffing out a spoiled wine. Scents like vinegar, nail polish or rotten eggs are scents you definitely don’t want in your wine. It it smells funky, it will definitely taste funky. If you’re at home, pour it right down the drain. If you’re at a restaurant, send it back.
Step 3: Taste
Finally it’s time to put that glass you’ve been tinkering with to your lips and get a taste of that divine liquid! But as with sight and smell, you want to savor it; don’t just swallow it. Take a sip and swirl it around your entire mouth to get a true sense of taste and texture.
Yes, wines definitely do have different textures – one of my favorite textures is a jammy wine. Sommeliers, I know you cringe at jammy wines but don’t be a hater. A jammy wine has a syrupy, cooked berry quality about it. In my world of wine, jammy = yummy.
Back to tasting though, the taste happens in three parts: initial impression, evolution and the finish. The initial impression is when you pick up the flavors and is influenced by the sniffing phase. You smelled black pepper? I bet the wine tastes a bit spicy to you. Picked up on those blackberries? It feels jammy in your mouth.
The evolution is when you pick up on more subtle flavors that you didn’t notice initially. Take the time to enjoy it and think about the familiarity of the flavors. The finish is how long the wine keeps expressing itself in your mouth. A good, quality wine will linger.
Food also influences the taste of wine. There are a number of wines I just don’t like as a stand alone, enjoy a glass with a book wine. But paired properly with food and suddenly they are delicious! Reversely, improperly pairing wine with food can also make it not taste good.
Take a Wine Tasting Class
If you really want to get a grasp of wine tasting and learn more about the various appellations of the wine region you’re visiting, there are often wine tasting classes you can attend. I attended a beginner’s guide to wine tasting in Crete and learned about the Cretan wines from a local expert who walked our group through a variety of six different wines. The wine cellar is in the heart of Chania, perfect for then taking a stroll to a nearby taverna for dinner after. You can even purchase wines at the cellar, which I did to take to the beach with me the next day.
Our Crete wine tasting was provided by Viator in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.