How to Taste Wine

The intentional exercise of wine tasting encourages us to slow down, pay more attention to what’s in the glass and eventually learn to describe what we smell and taste more accurately. In short, it not only helps you learn about wine, but also helps you enjoy wine more because you are paying closer attention to it.

We all know how to taste wine – sip, savor, swallow, repeat. But as you begin your wine journey, we invite you to slow down a bit – spend some time with your wine. Get to know it a little better. Like any relationship, a little time and attention make a big difference.

We recommend a comparative tasting featuring four common varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Go through the four steps for each wine, starting with Sauvignon Blanc and progressing to the Cabernet.

Common Descriptors
Here are some common aroma and flavor descriptors associated with our selected wines. You’ll notice over time that, when grown in different climates, these varietals can have widely varying profiles.

Sauvignon Blanc Citrus, grass, herbs, bell pepper, fresh cut hay, melon
Chardonnay Citrus, apple, pineapple, pear, mineral, stone fruit, floral, vanilla, toast
Merlot Blueberry, plum, chocolate, red berry, bramble, green bean
Cabernet Sauvignon Black currant, cassis, red berries, black pepper, bell pepper, prune


Thoughtful wine tasting has four basic steps:

  • Look
  • Smell
  • Sip
  • Describe

Step 1 – Look: The Wine’s Appearance
In evaluating a wine’s appearance, we are looking for color and clarity.
Hold your wine glass up and notice how the wine reflects the light.
Note its color and brilliance (or lack thereof). 

(Assuming your glass is only 1/3 full) tilt it slightly and hold it over your white tasting mat. Is it deep or pale? Opaque or clear? Look for color change around the edge of the wine – this can indicate age.

White wines tend to be light straw in youth and age to a deep gold. Different varietals will show different hues.
Red wines are more purple when young. As they age, they will change from ruby to a deep garnet. 

Step 2 – Smell: Enjoy the Aromas
The total impression of a wine – which we tend to call “flavor” – is actually a combination of aroma and palate impression. Think of how the flavors of food are muted when you have a bad cold. The aromas of wine – often called “the nose” – have much to do with our overall enjoyment of the wine, so take some time on this step.

Holding your glass on the table, gently swirl the wine in a circular motion three to four times.
Bring the glass to your nose and inhale deeply. Swirling the wine coats the sides of the glass with the wine, releasing more of the aromatic components of the wine. Get your nose way down there in the glass – don’t be shy!

Think about the aromas you are experiencing – try to describe them.
Swirl and sniff again – did you notice anything more? Anything different?

If you are evaluating the wine with others, listen to what they observe in the wine – and then take it or leave it. What they say may be exactly what you were trying to describe or you may have a completely different impression of the wine.

Step 3 – Sip: Palate Impressions
Building on the aromas you’ve already found in the wine, take a medium-sized sip of the wine.

Hold it in your mouth for a bit, letting it cover all areas of your tongue. You will see serious wine tasters purse their lips and draw in a bit of air over the wine. This takes some practice and looks a little goofy but helps to release more of the flavors in the wine.

Swish the wine gently in your mouth (as if you were chewing).
Now swallow the wine (or carefully spit into your spit bucket if you wish). If you are swallowing the wine, note the impression it makes in the back of your mouth as you swallow – called the “finish.”

As you go through this process, your brain is taking some time to develop taste impressions. Note the following:

Sweet or Dry – most table wines are “dry” – but a very fruity, youthful wine may seem “sweet”
Acidity – often a “tart” impression. A wine without enough acidity will seem flabby.
Tannins – tannins often give a bitter “puckery” sensation.

The difference between acidity and tannin? Acidity will make your mouth water. Tannins leave your mouth dry.
White wines get their backbone from their acidity – red wines from tannin structure.

Weight – does the wine seem thin or full? Structured or flabby? Elegant or robust?
Finish – as you swallow the wine, is the finish long and lingering or short and abrupt? Smooth or harsh?

Step 4 – Describe: Record What You Taste
Take the time to write a few notes as you go through the tasting. It helps to cement your impressions, especially as you become better at describing what you taste and smell. Don’t be afraid of any word that pops to mind – fat, grassy, smoky, herbal, buttery, leather – all these terms are commonly used to describe wine.

Like anything else that you practice, going through this exercise repeatedly will make you “better” at it. You’ll start to notice – and be able to name – more flavors and aromas. You’ll learn the common characteristics of different varietals and be able to note more readily the differences when you taste wines side by side. But most of all, have some fun.


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