The Beginner's Guide To Wine Tasting - Part 1


When tasting in order to select a wine for an important occasion - or simply because you wish to enjoy a special bottle to the full - it's worth learning how to taste wine properly. This is because there is a lot more to judging the quality of a wine than just tasting it. Predominantly it involves your olfactory system (your hooter) and actually concentrating on the product rather than just glugging it whilst watching television or chatting up the person you're sitting next to at a dinner party...

Despite this simple fact many regard those that know enough to swirl and sniff their wine as pretentious ‘wine snobs’. However, this is not the case – all they are doing is getting the most from their drink, as the vast amount of what we perceive as flavour is in fact aroma. Never be intimidated by the thought of a wine-tasting, if you can tell the difference between pork and beef then you can certainly taste the difference between wines, and never let anyone’s prejudice tell you what you like – trust your own palate. If everyone liked the same wine there would only be one white, one red and one rose and wine merchants would be out of a job!

There are five main steps in wine tasting

1) Looking

Just looking at a plateful of delicious food increases our enjoyment and appetite - and it's the same with wine. There is even a saying amongst publicans wanting to produce the perfect sediment-free pint that “people drink with their eyes”. Apart from the fact that our appetites are whetted by the anticipation of what is to come, looking can also tell us an awful lot about what we're about to put in our mouths, and give vital clues if you are trying to work out what a wine is in a blind tasting.

As the first step to looking, hold the glass still and tip it away from you at an angle of 45 degrees whilst holding it against a white background - a piece of white paper is fine although more interesting surfaces like a white blouse or a shirt front also work as well. You are doing this to look at the colour.

This can tell you a lot about the wine, for instance with white wines if the liquid is a water-white or pale straw-coloured with a greenish tinge and barely noticeable bubbles at the meniscus (where the surface of the wine meets the edge of the glass), chances are that is a very young, recently bottled, unoaked white. If the wine is the rich golden yellow colour of morning pee then it's probably an oak-aged Chardonnay. Red wines give similar clues, thin-skinned grapes such as Pinot Noir and Gamay tend to be lighter in colour than wines from thick-skinned grapes such as Cabernet. And if a red wine is too young the core of the glass will still be a deep ruby/purple colour and the meniscus clear. As the wine ages this will fade to tawny in the centre and the colour will creep to the edge. Generally, once the core and the rim are the same colour the wine is ready to drink and once the rim starts to turn a deeper amber-brown than the core it is getting too old.

The second step to looking is to give the glass a quick swirl and look at the sides of the glass – you are looking for how well the wine sticks to the glass, known as the legs. There are two viscous (sticky) ingredients in wine; alcohol and glycerol (sugar) so if the wine sticks to the side of the glass it is either very strong or very sweet.

2) Smelling

With twirling over, now comes the time to sniff, here a whopping great Gerard Depardieu-style honker helps; blocked sinuses do not. Our sense of smell is completely entwined with our sense of flavour – hence everything tasting bland when you have a cold

 A properly designed glass can help capture and massively enhance a wine's aromas by funnelling them to a focal point (just imagine a Bunsen Burner flame coming off the top of the glass).

As with the colour of a wine, its perfume will vary according to its age and composition (grape variety). The region where it was made can also influence its aroma, as can ageing in oak barrels. Think about the smell. Is it powerful and complex, or simple and light? Does it linger or is it soon dissipated? If unsure what to say and you feel the need to inject a comment you can always say the wine is “forward" or "generous” if it smells of a lot, equally if you cannot smell anything at all it can be described as “closed”.

 3) Tasting

Now at long last you are allowed to taste. Take a fairly large sip, in contrast to the fairly small measure in your glass, curve your tongue if you can and drawn in some air whilst swirling the wine around your mouth for 15 – 20 seconds. This will result in a slightly sordid sucking noise but you have to remember that this is a wine tasting not a dinner party and it is vital in order to aerate the wine in your mouth. There is however a fine line between swirling and gargling.

You are doing this mouth swilling as the tongue has a range of taste receptors in different places - you will taste sweetness most at the front, acidity along the sides and bitterness at the back. High acidity will make your mouth water at the sides of your jaw, while tannin (which tends to be most pronounced in young red wines intended for long cellarage) will have the opposite effect, particularly at the front of your mouth.

4) Spitting

"Alcohol is ultimately stronger than anyone's constitution," as American wine expert Jeff Morgan said. You should always spit out the wine you taste into the nearest available spittoon, box of sawdust or potted plant - any taster who didn't would become incapable after half an hour. Within the trade accurate long-distance spitting is seen as an art form, most famously mastered by Len Evans, a popular Australian wine writer, vintner and raconteur. Evans would make a point of bravely turning up to a day’s tasting wearing a white shirt, suit and tie, where upon he would spend the day emitting a laser beam of purple spittle and not spilling a drop. Be wary, though, of spitting sparkling wine too vigorously – it has a tendency to come out of your nose! Try and note the amount of time that the wine’s flavour stays in your mouth after you have spat it out or swallowed it, this is known as the length.

5) Assessing

After you have sampled a wine with your eyes, nose and mouth and surreptitiously drunk some of it, then you will be in a position to assess it. Is it simple and easy to drink or is it complex, with many different layers of flavours that will reveal themselves over time? Is it ready for drinking now or should you keep it for a while? Does it offer value for money? Most importantly, do you enjoy it? Write it down or you will forget it!

Read our next post for what to look for when tasting wine...