Wine tasting can be intimidating to witness, but is straightforward in practice, although in the end the judgment you reach regarding any particular wine really is a matter of taste or, to be more accurate, a matter of taste and smell. That’s right, the first step in any wine tasting is to examine the wine’s aroma—to take a great big sniff and see how it smells. Here are the four S’s of wine tasting, in order:
Swirl and Smell.
First up, you are going to smell the wine. Pour some into the glass, and swirl it a little to expose it to the air. If it is a white wine or an aged wine, you don’t want to oxygenate it more than that. If it’s a young red, you may want to leave it in the glass for a bit–five or ten minutes will do–before you go further in your tasting. Either way, you want to take your first sniff immediately after pouring, to get a first impression of the wine’s dominant characteristics: does it smell acrid? Sweet? Can you discern any fruity or plant-based notes? Now, take a deeper whiff. Try to see how many different scents you can make out. Complex is good, and a better wine will usually have a few different smells. Wine-tasters identify these by naming similar scents, like cinnamon or tree bark, or by describing an impression, like ‘woodsy’, or ‘smoky’.
The next step is to take a small sip of the wine, and pay attention to the sensation of it on your tongue, and the initial flavor. Wines are often described as ‘creamy’, ‘rich’, ‘thin’, ‘smooth’, ‘rough’, and other words that speak to the feeling of the wine as it crosses your palate. Champagne, with its bubbles, is supposed to feel creamy rather than just ‘fizzy’ (think of cream soda). Other wines have other qualities that are supposed to be desirable in that variety, but you just want to pay attention to what the wine in front of you is like, so that you can look for the qualities you find that you like when buying wine in the future.
This is the part that you hear about, where well-dressed people at fancy wine-tastings are spitting back into their cups. (A good idea at a wine tasting event, so that you don’t get snookered, but not necessary at home!) The idea is to take a larger sip of wine, and move it around your mouth a bit, so that you give it a chance to reach all of your taste buds. Swish it around your cheeks and over the back of your tongue, and pay attention to the array of flavors. Do you taste the same notes that you smelled earlier? Is the wine fruity, or dry? Is it overwhelmed by tannins, the bitterness obscuring other flavors, or is there a nice balance? Again, complex is good, as long as you enjoy the way the flavors complement each other. This is where you really+ notice the particular qualities that make one varietal stand apart from another.
Yes, you do get to swallow the wine! The tasting isn’t over though, because you want to pay attention to the aftertaste, or finish, of the wine. Does it leave your tongue feeling wooly? Is the aftertaste bitter and unappealing? Or does it leave you wanting another sip of Australian chardonnay? The purpose of wine-tasting isn’t really to impress others with your observations and expertise—but it will help you learn more about what you enjoy, and gives you ways to describe those qualities to others when you are looking for wines with similar qualities.
Clara Smith is an author of numerous works on food and wine. Smith also loves to visit vineyards and wine festivals in France.