Wine can be intimidating. Thousands of books have been written on wine. Many men spend their lives and careers learning, tasting, and making wine. That’s all great, but not everyone can devote a lifetime to wine. So I’ve written this guide as a starting point. For those neophytes looking to develop a palette, I present A Young Gentleman’s Guide to Wine: How To Taste And Tell.
When tasting a wine, first note the varietal (that’s a fancy word meaning the type of grape used to produce the wine). Is it a pinot noir? A cabernet sauvignon? Perhaps it is a malbec? Although many argue whether or not you should know what you’re tasting, I call BS. I say the only way for a beginner to learn about wine is to start developing sensory associations. So pick up the bottle and read the label. If it has one, read the description, and note where in the world the grapes came from. Do what you can to prime your palette for what you are about to experience.
One more tip: If you’re tasting with the variety in mind, don’t rule any wine out. Just because you got sick from indulging in too much cheap Moscato in your early twenties, doesn’t mean you can’t give a quality Moscato a shot.
Next, look at the wine. Like a jeweler with a diamond, tilt the wine and examine it against a white background. Swirl the wine to see it from different angles. After looking at a few wines, you’ll start to notice the differences. Some reds are more purple, while others have yellow and orange hues. Just describe the color. You can’t be wrong, unless you are color blind. Then you could be wrong. Look at the viscosity. Does the wine look thick or thin?
If you want to sound like a pro, notice how the wine falls along the glass. You can tell if a wine has a high alcohol content, before you even taste it, by how it drips down the glass. A wine is said to have tears or legs if, after you swirl the wine, droplets of wine form a ring and slowly fall in tiny streams down the side of the glass. Comment that the wine’s legs indicate a high alcohol content, just by looking. You’ll appear very studied (and classy, too).
Take It All In
Take a deep… sniff. Seriously. What does it smell like? Think hard. Scour of all your sense memories. Recall the of vacations you’ve taken, the restaurants you’ve sat in, and the plants you’ve smelled. All that your nose has ever experienced is fair fodder for describing a wine. I once heard a guy describe a white like a “rubber hose”. Points in wine circles go to the most specific (and sometimes obscure) scent description you can muster up (pun intended). Just don’t make something up.
If you want to get really good at this, you need to work at it. Throughout the day, take time to smell your surroundings. Smell the wood of your desk, the leather of your belt. Sniff the flowers outside your office. You will develop your nose as you take mental notes about what you are smelling. The more scents you recognize, the more varied ways you will be able to describe wine.
Taste It (Finally)
Bring the glass to your lips and slowly let a little bit of the wine fall onto your tongue. Roll the wine around on your tongue. Swallow. Notice how the wine tastes as it first hits your tongue and how it “finishes” as you swallow. You could even speak to the aftertaste.
As you taste, be sure to pull in a little air with the wine and breathe out through your nose. This is called aspirating the wine. The goal here is to help you detect even more flavors and give you a deeper understanding of the complexities of your particular pour.
Now, describe how it tastes, similar to how you described the smell. You should aim to be accurate; don’t speak for the sake of speaking. Some common descriptors of wine are acidic, floral, spicy, vanillin, earthy, sweet, sour, fruity, vegetal, and bitterness (often comes from tannins). A good rule of thumb is if you taste it, it’s there. Trust your first instinct. Most often, you won’t be wrong.
A note about spitting wine: only do so if you are in a circle where it would be right to do so. If a spittoon is present and you’re trying a lot of wines, go ahead and spit. Just don’t spit your wine at dinner with the in-laws, please.
The More You Know
Finally, you can comment on your overall impression of the wine. Did you enjoy it? How does it compare to other wines of the same varietal? Do you typically enjoy wine from this winemaker? Asking yourself these general questions will help you build up an internal database of wines. Keep a few vineyards and years top-of-mind, so the next time you’re out to dinner and everyone wants to split a bottle of wine, you can lead and impress with an informed recommendation.
If you have any questions or would like to share a wine tasting experience, comment below!