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Wine Tasting Lessons


Maybe we should begin with what wine tasting isn’t. Despite the picture the phrase “wine tasting” may create, wine tasting is neither snobby nor pretentious–it’s a lot of fun. Whether you’re attending a “walkaround” tasting, sampling at the winery, tasting “blind”, or simply enjoying a great wine with friends at dinner, never forget that the true purpose of wine tasting is to promote hedonistic pleasure. That being said, there are times when you want or need to evaluate wine from a more critical standpoint. This is when the step-by-step process used by wine professionals can be applied. And that’s the subject for this discussion.


Wine professionals often taste “blind”–that is, taste wine with the bottles hidden. Why? Those in the know say that one glance at a wine label is worth 30 years of experience. In other words, it’s easy to praise or dismiss a wine based upon preconceptions about the producer. Tasting in a blind context provides objectivity, but you don’t have to taste blind to apply the fundamentals of wine tastings. Following the steps in any tasting situation will increase your knowledge and heighten your pleasure with any wine you taste.


A good wine, assuming there are no apparent technical flaws, is simply one that you, personally, enjoy. One man’s (or woman’s) “90” may be your “85”-and vice-versa. So don’t fall into the ratings trap. Use the wine tasting process to develop your own criteria, and evaluate wine using your personal set of preferences. The more you taste, and the more you pay attention as you taste, the more you will understand how and why certain varieties, producers and styles of wine thrill you-and others leave you cold.


Wine tasting is a deductive-dissective process which involves “sensory evaluation” The use of the senses, sight, smell, taste and touch, allow anybody, regardless of skill or experience, to better understand a wine. Carefully observing a wine, for instance, reveals important clues about how, where and when a wine was made. Sniffing a wine allows analysis of the many components found in the aroma. The taste reveals both flavors and tactile sensations.

There’s a lot of information to be processed at each level. Deciding along the way which pieces are relevant, and how to express what you are observing, is key.


You already posses the most important equipment for successful wine tasting-and it’s attached to your neck! The senses of sight, smell, taste and touch, coupled with that remarkable computer we call a brain, are perfectly suited to the task of evaluating and enjoying wine.


First, observe the wine in the glass against a white background, such as a tablecloth or tasting mat. Tilt the glass forward so you can look at a cross-section of the wine. Note any changes or variations from the center to the edge, such as the “swimming pool efffect”–how shallow the color appears at the edge and how deep at the center. Look at the color. Obviously, this gives you clues about the varietal, but it also tells you about maturity and quality. Color changes with age–whites, darken, reds lighten. The wine should be bright and refract light, with no milkiness or foreign matter floating about. Swirl the wine in the glass. Observe the “tears” or “legs”–the droplets of wine as they sheet down the glass. If they sheet quickly, the wine will be lighter-bodied with lower alcohol. Slow tearing means fuller body and more alcohol.


Smell is the single, most essential step. Work fast. The nose fatigues after about five or six seconds-or six quick sniffs! Again, swirl the wine in the glass. This releases chemical compounds know as esters and aldehydes. How you perceives and evaluate these compounds provides important data for your imaginary wine information bank.

The first sniff should trigger some recognition about the type of wine–or quickly clue you into problems. The musty odor of wet cardboard means the wine is tainted with TCA or “corked”; the sulfurous smell of rotten eggs should likewise send you back to the wine store or off to fetch another sample!

The second sniff will confirm what you suspected in the first sniff in terms of varietal or “flavor”. Master Sommeliers like to call this the “Banker Factor”, varietal aromas so unmistakable you can “bank on it”. In other words, if it’s Cabernet Sauvignon, it should smell like Cabernet Sauvignon e.g. blackberry, black currant, mint, olive etc. For a quick descriptor reference for the most common varietals, click here. But don’t worry about the lexicon too much. Once you have smelled and tasted 30 Cabernet Sauvignons, you will have a very good idea of exactly what to expect!

The third sniff allows you to further interpret the data your nose is receiving. Think in terms of F.E.W.: fruit, earth and wood influences.

At this point, the fourth sniff, you can begin your exploration of certain physical characteristics in the nose These include:

Tannins: Bitter

Sulfur: Burn

Alcohol: Burn, but more in the back of the nose

Acid: Causes salivation!

By the time the fifth or sixth sniff rolls around, you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re dealing with. If you’ve been paying very close attention, you will have virtually exhausted all your information sources. Why? Because what you can’t smell, you won’t taste (try tasting with a head cold and you’ll understand!) That’s why it’s so important to spend quality time information-gathering in the olfactory stage. And that’s why you shouldn’t underestimate the pleasure you will get from smelling wine. Just for fun, come back to the wine at the end of the tasting, and see if you can detect any changes. The meaning of the old adage that says 20 minutes in a glass is like 6 months of bottle aging will become crystal clear!


At last, the final confirmation-though it might seem a little anti-climatic after all the serious sniffing! Before you sip, consider for a moment where on the tongue flavor is perceived. Sweetness is the first flavor tasted, as a sweet hit on the tip of the tongue. Acid is the second flavor, tasted as a medium hit on the sides of the tongue. The taste of acidity varies, and can be described in these terms:

Acetic: Vinegary

Citric: Lemon/lime

Malic: Apple

Lactic: Cream/Yogurt

Almost the very last flavor tasted and sensed in the back of the mouth and throat and as a long hit, is tannin. Tannin, the astringent, puckery sensation familiar in black tea, also has a distinct leathery quality. It can be experienced as soft (think kid gloves) or harder (think Western saddle). The final, final note is that of alcohol, perceived both in terms of sweetness of flavor, in the weight,in the viscosity of the wine, and in the level of “burn” in the throat.

In the tasting stage, you should note and evaluate tactile/physical attributes as well. How does the wine coat your mouth and taste buds? What does it feel like in your mouth? Heavy, light, medium in weight? Finally, how long does the taste persist in the mouth? Does it seem to go on and on? Or does it evaporate quickly? The ultimate measure of quality is in the end-with the proverbial “23 second delay”. This simply means, the longer the finish the better the wine!


At this point with all your data gathered and processed, you should be able to evaluate how successfully the pieces come together. Is there balance? Are there appropriate levels of structure? Do all the components mesh into a pleasing whole? If the answer is yes, chances are you’ve got a wine you can consider a winner!

Always follow the steps in order. Truly observe the color. Spend a good portion in the olfactory stage. Leave the tasting (the payoff!) for last. Try not to go back and forth (the palate can become confused). But do consider returning at some point after the wine has been exposed to oxygen in the glass, just to see what’s developed! Like a good golf swing, follow the steps, carefully, deliberately, in sequence. You’ll be perfectly set up for wine tasting success!


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