Advanced Tips on How to Taste Wine & Develop Your Palate
Wine is so much more than just a delicious alcoholic beverage! It’s a drink produced as a result of a unique chemical reaction that turns the fruit, juice, and skins of grapes into a form of ethanol that depresses the central nervous system.
There is nothing quite like it in the world!
Before you knock back that glass of wine, take a moment to stop and think about what you’re putting in your mouth.
What types of grapes were used to make the wine?
Did the wine sit in an oak barrel, concrete or metal container before bottling?
Where did the wine come from, and why does wine from that region taste different from wines from other regions?
The more you think about it, the more fascinating your wine becomes. It stops being just a “great drink”, but it becomes an entire experience.
You can find the subtle differences between the various wines on your shelf, and you’ll start to notice the variety of smells, colours, textures, and flavours.
Before you know it, you’ve developed your palate and have become a wine connoisseur!
If this appeals to you, read on to find out everything you need to know about how to taste wine – but the right way! You’ll learn a few wine tasting tips to help you get into the habit of really savouring each wine and enjoying its unique individuality!
How to Taste Wine like a Pro
In order to understand how to taste wine, you need to understand the wine tasting process. This process is designed to engage all of your senses, which is why you:
Follow these steps, and you’ll understand everything there is to know about the wine.
The more you understand it, the easier it will be to savour each bottle of wine for its own uniqueness. But, before you can serve the wine, make sure you are in the ideal wine-tasting conditions. What does this mean?
- Limit noise
You want to engage all of your senses when tasting the wine, but it’s hard to do so when distracted. Have your wine tasting in a room that is quiet.
- Eliminate odours
Even the slightest change in smell can affect the flavour of the wine! Your sense of taste relies heavily on your sense of smell, so eliminate smells as much as possible. Pet smells, food smells, perfume and even the smell of detergent on the glass can change the wine’s flavour.
- Serve the wine at the right temperature
If the wine is too cold, the chill will mask the flavours. If the wine is too warm, it will bring out the alcohol too much. Serve wine at the correct temperature to give your palate the best chance to detect all the complex, subtle flavours. If in doubt, serve on the colder side and you can warm it in your hand.
- Condition the glass
The wine glass should be as clean as possible, but without traces of water. To “condition” the glass, pour a bit of wine into the glass and swirl it around. This will eliminate outside flavours. Dump the wine and pour fresh wine into the glass before tasting. It is a shame to waste any wine of course, so this previous step is unnecessary if your glass really is clean.
If you’ve done all these things, you’re ready to begin the wine tasting process…
The First Step: Looking
As all foodies, chefs, and food experts will tell you, eating or drinking is an experience that should engage all the senses. The first sense to engage in the wine tasting process is your sense of sight.
Pour the wine until your glass is roughly 1/3 full, and do the following:
Look at it from above
Look straight down into the glass. This will give you a sense of the wine’s colour, giving you an idea of how dense and saturated the wine is. It’s useful to have a white background to look at the wine through, even a white sheet of paper can help.
Some grapes can also be identified by their colour, for example:
- Wine of a deep purple or near black may be Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or a Zinfandel
- Wine of a lighter colour may be a Sangiovese or Pinot Noir
Look at it from the side
Hold the wine glass up to the light and look at it from the side.
If a wine is cloudy or it has a lot of sediment, it may mean that there was a problem with the fermentation. This can indicate a less-than sterling quality wine.
Of course, a cloudy wine with sedimentation may not be bad. It may just be unfiltered which can be the sign of a very good wine that is more natural, or it could be that the wine was shaken up (not a good thing) before serving.
Tilt the wine glass to one side, and study the wine near the rim of the glass. The wine will thin out there, and it will help you to see the wine’s weight and age.
A thin or light wine will usually be pale and watery near the edge, meaning it won’t have a lot of body or texture.
- Older white wines will look brown or tawny near the edge
- Older red wines will look orange or rust-coloured near the edge
Swirl the wine around in the glass, and see if there are “tears” or “legs” running down the inside of the glass. If so, this means the wine has a higher glycerin and alcohol content, and it will be a riper, bigger, denser, and more mouth-filling wine. If there are no legs, the wine is thinner and less dense.
Once you’ve engaged your eyes, it’s time to move on to your next sense: the sense of smell…
The Second Step: Smelling
Your nose is able to identify thousands of unique scents, making it one of your best tools to use in the wine tasting process.
To smell the wine, hover your nose above the rim of the glass and take a few slow sniffs. Breath in through your nose, and sometimes closing your eyes even helps with the concentration and focus on smelling. You will pick up all sorts of aromatic compounds – fruits, flowers, herbs, spices etc. – and these will tell you about the wine
However, what you’re looking for is:
Will There will be certain “off” aromas that will tell you that your wine has spoiled?
- If the wine smells like a musty attic or damp cardboard, it is spoiled. This will be down to cork taint usually as is known as TCA, and is present in between 1 to 3% of wine corks.
- If the wine smells like vinegar, it has excessive volatile acidity.
- If the wine smells too yeasty, has too much animal like aroma or cheesey traits, it could be brettanomyces (a different and generally unwanted type of yeast) infected, this will obliterate fruit flavours. A small degree of ‘Brett’ however is considered sometimes beneficial.
- If the wine smells like burnt matches, there is too much sulphur dioxide or SO2 in the bottle, which can be improved with decanting or aeration.
These aromas will help you to determine if the wine is faulty.
If the wine has no aromas indicating faults, the next thing to search for is fruit aromas. Wine should smell like fresh fruit; there are only three types of wine that won’t smell like fruit:
- Wine that is very sweet
- Wine that is very cold
- Wine that is very old
- The wine has too much oak and that is all that can be detected.
The fruit aromas will help you determine the origin of the wine, as well as the type of grape used in the winemaking.
These floral aromas are subtler than the fruit scents, but they’re no less important.
- Rhone reds can smell like herbs from Provence
- Cabernet Sauvignon reds smell more like vegetation and herbs (think blackcurrant leaf)
- Sauvignon Blanc whites smell grassy, or nettley
- The floral and herbal aromas are delicate, but they add balance, complexity, and harmony to the wine.
There will be deeper, richer aromas in the wine, such as chocolate, coffee, nuts, vanilla, smoke, and toast. These scents aren’t from the wine itself, but they’re from the barrels in which the wine was aged.
The flavour of the barrels can be affected by:
- Type of oak used
- Barrel making process
- Age of the barrels
- Char on the barrels
- Mixing of the wine in the barrels
- Size of the barrels
The barrels can add another level of complexity to the wine’s aromas. For example you may pick up vanilla aromas from wine that has been in oak.
The Final Step: Tasting
Your tongue is covered with taste buds, which are capable of detecting a limited range of flavours. In fact strictly speaking the tongue can detect just four (or five) flavours, and these are sweet, sour, bitter and salty (and umami).
These flavours typically are picked up more specifically on certain areas of the tongue, for example sweetness is particularly strong on the tip of our tongues. Give your tongue the chance to taste the wine, and you’ll get a lot more out of each vintage.
Don’t gulp down the wine, but take a small sip. Hold the wine in your mouth for a moment, then suck air through it to aerate it. This will open up the wine and expose your taste buds to all the flavours, and more importantly send the aromas coming off the wine up to your much more receptive nasal receptors.
When tasting the wine, look for these four things:
A good wine has all the flavour components in the right balance. You want plenty of sweet, but enough sour and acidity to balance it out. There should be very little salty (apart from in some dry Sherries), and the tannins will provide the bitter. Your taste buds will tell you if the wine is well-balanced. If the wine is too sweet, sour, hot, bitter, or doesn’t have enough acidity, the wine is NOT well-balanced
A young wine that isn’t well-balanced will not age well. An old wine that isn’t well-balanced may be “falling apart” – losing its flavours.
A good wine is complex, with multiple flavours and aromas in many layers. Complex wines won’t just have the primary flavours that you experience upon first tasting them, but the flavours will change even as you taste them. These wines are the best, as they are the ones that will give you a unique drinking experience every time.
If the flavours of the wine linger on your tongue even after you swallow, it’s a good indication of complexity. Don’t take another mouthful or move on to the next wine before giving the complex vintage a chance to impress you. If the flavours last a long time we say the wine has good length.
If the wine has a satisfying finish after a balanced, complex, and harmonious mouth-feel, it’s a complete wine. These are the wines you want to try, as they will be the most pleasurable and will offer the best tasting experiences.
Wine Tasting Tips from the Experts
Here are a few wine tasting tips to help you maximise the pleasure of your wine:
1. Swirl the wine right
Swirling will release aroma compounds, giving your nose more to latch onto when tasting. Coating the wine glass with wine gives more surface area and hence more smell.
2. Taste multiple wines
The more wines you taste in the same sitting, the more you will expand your palate. It’s easier to spot differences through comparisons, but take your time and don’t drink too much! – Sipping is de rigueur for many wine tastings.
3. Take a larger sip
This will coat your mouth, and when you follow it up with smaller sips, you’ll have more wine to taste – making it easier to isolate flavours. Move the wine around your mouth.
4. Keep and read tasting notes.
The more you taste, the more you will want to taste. Take notes of each wine you taste, and read others’ tasting notes to learn more about the wine tasting process.
Follow these tips as a beginners guide, and you’ll get the most out of each bottle of wine you drink!