By Carl Hanson
May 16, 2016

Tasting wine isn't work. It's playtime, with benefits. Even so, there's a ritual to wine tasting that can seem stilted and stiff and leave you feeling intimidated. Going into it armed with a little knowledge will put you at ease and help you get that much more enjoyment from the wines.

Stemware Awareness

Let's start with stemware. Some glasses do offer advantages. Wine glasses with tulip-shaped bowls have two benefits over straight-sided glasses: they capture and show off aromas better; also, their tapered rim makes it harder to splash wine all over yourself -- an occupational hazard.

Fill your glass about one-third or so of the way, and you'll leave plenty room for error in the swirling and tilting departments, and also make space for aromas to build up in the bowl.

Don't try this blindfolded |Photo by Meredith

Incidentally, the "rule" that holding the bowl portion of the glass warms the wine is...mostly nonsense. The wine won't be in the glass long enough to experience temperature change. And speaking of temperature, if your white wines are poured too cold, you may have difficulty picking out aromas. Give the wine a moment to warm up and the tightly bundled aromas will reveal themselves.

A Quick Look-See

Taking a moment to gaze adoringly at your wine is a non-essential but still worthwhile part of wine tasting. When you look at the wine, sometimes it helps to hold a sheet of white paper behind it to set off the color of the wine.

It can be fun to compare a few wines side by side. Some reds are darker than others. For example, you'll notice how dark and inky an Australian Shiraz is compared to an Oregon Pinot Noir.

Observe the color of young wines beside older wines of the same grape varietal. Young reds are often more purple, older reds grow brownish or brick-colored. Some whites are a warm honey color, particularly if they've spent time in oak barrels; others are very light and bright, almost totally clear, or even greenish hued.

You might also look to see if the color of the wine is consistent all the way across the surface, or does it lighten at the edges? Tilting the glass a bit stretches the wine across a longer plane and gives you better sense of the wine's color as it extends out to the rim.

Here are a few appearance-related words you might keep in mind: Bright, dull, clear, dense, hazy, luminous, flat, deep, opaque.

The Nose Knows

Next, give the glass a good swirl. This will help release aromas. As we said, a tulip-shaped glass will help capture the aromas and funnel them toward your nose. Go ahead and put your nose right in there. And breathe deeply. The first sniff is usually the most revealing.

Smell is, of course, a critical part of taste, and as you get a sense of a wine's aroma it stimulates the palate. But take a moment to tease yourself a bit more before you sip. What do you smell? A wine's aromas can tell you a lot.

This is also where wine tastings can begin to feel intimidating. Most of us feel lucky if we can pick out a single overriding aroma. "Mmm, this Chianti smells like cherries!"

It is in identifying underlying flavors that folks often begin to sound like they're giving a poetry reading. But as with most things, with practice you can teach your nose and palate to identify more aromas and flavors.

Also, when trying to detect aromas, it helps to know that each grape varietal has a few classic aromas. Here is a guilt-free cheat sheet that covers several of the more popular red and white varietals. (Of course, aromas are also determined by where the grapes are grown and how they are handled in the cellar.)

Cabernet Sauvignon: black currant, mint, plum, eucalyptus, bell pepper, olives, vanilla, black cherry, cedar, anise, cassis.

Merlot: red berries, black berries, eucalyptus, mint, herb, bell pepper, plum, violets, cassis, fruit cake, chocolate

Pinot Noir: red currant, strawberry, cherry (red or black), raspberry, violets, mushrooms, decaying leaves, cola

Syrah/Shiraz: raspberry, black or white pepper, blackberry, red or black currant, cassis, jam, smoke, leather, tar, coffee

Zinfandel: Wild berries, raspberry, plum, pepper, bramble, earth

Chardonnay: apple, melon, peach, pineapple, pear, lemon, fig, honey, butter, toast

Sauvignon Blanc: grass, gooseberry, nettles, herbs, tropical fruit, citrus, fig, cat pee

Riesling: green apple, lime, peach, grapefruit, honeysuckle, mineral, slate, floral, petrol, toast

Tip and Sip

Go ahead, take a sip. Ah, now that's the stuff! But before you swallow the wine (or spit it out), let it linger a bit in the mouth. At this point, you have many options, some more flamboyant than others. You can tighten the mouth and breathe in over the wine to send the aromas into the back of the nasal cavity -- extra points for not breathing the wine clear into the wind pipe. Or you can "chew" on the wine a bit to move it around the tongue. However you do it, let the flavors wash over your palate.

Do you find that the first flavor sensation remains constant? Or does it change a bit? Did other flavors move to the forefront? Were the flavors the same as the aromas you picked out?

Do you have a sense of the wine's acidity? (Does it make your mouth water?)

Is it pleasantly weighty? The alcohol will give it the "body" that is felt in the mouth as viscosity or weight. (A highly alcoholic wine is often described as "hot.")

Is there a drying sensation in the mouth? That indicates the presence of tannin. Interestingly, we tend to perceive tannins and alcohol as feelings, not flavors.

Use Your Words

Now that you've tasted and have directed your attention to noticing the flavors, language will be helpful. There are thousands of flavor compounds milling around in that glass, compounds that share flavors with other foods. We tend to detect in wine flavors of fruits (though, curiously, almost never grapes!) plus vegetables, herbs, spices, and minerals.

Part of the fun of identifying flavors in wine is allowing yourself the freedom to assign words to it that might seem silly or out of place. It takes courage to say, "I'm smelling decaying leaves in this Burgundy" or "My Syrah smells a little like a walk through the barn" because rotten leaves and barnyard smells don't seem like the kind of aromas you should be experiencing in nice wines. But go ahead and say it loud and proud. As it happens, in the wacky world of wine, those are not uncommon aromas to find in those particular wines. Go with your instinct. Be daring with the language.

Here are some classic flavors to look for:

  • Pinot Noir and cherries or mushrooms
  • Beaujolais and strawberries
  • Merlot and plums
  • Shiraz and leather (even barnyard smells)
  • Nebbiolo and "roses and tar"
  • Sauvignon Blanc and grass (even cat pee!)
  • Riesling and petrol (again, in a good way), and so on.

Tasting Tips

Now that you've started tasting wines, pay special attention to the aroma of foods as you're cooking with them. Go ahead and put the mushroom to your nose, give the lemon a sniff, breathe in the aromas of those freshly chopped herbs. The nose has a powerful memory, and taking care to notice aromas in the ingredients will prepare you to pick out aromas in wines.

Going Beyond the Basics

Once you've tasted for a while, you might find yourself taking your aesthetic evaluations to (potentially insufferable) new levels. At this point, you can begin to evaluate such things as the wine's "balance." Do the wine's acidity, alcohol, tannins (if they're there) and flavors come together as a pleasurable whole without different parts sticking out unattractively?

As your knowledge and experience expand, you might even get to the point where you feel comfortable talking about the "typicality" of a wine as it relates to its place of origin and style of production: "Yes, this California Sauvignon Blanc is good, though I'm not detecting the tropical fruit flavors that I'd expect in a warm-weather Sauvignon Blanc. And the brisk acidity -- it seems more typical of a wine from the Loire." Just don't blame us if your friends suddenly stop inviting you to their wine tastings.

Get quick tips for sipping wines in a tasting room, including a short video of Alea Curtis, from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, pouring wines.