How to Taste Wine

I have a Rule 1 when it comes to drinking wine: Drink what you like. Most wine professionals that I respect agree with this rule, even those with serious wine tasting training. But if the goal is drinking what you like, what’s the deal with the forensic tasting that the professionals seem to do so often? What’s with all the swirling, and sniffing, and tilting and holding up to the light?

That process is for many, myself included, one of the ways we find out if a wine we’re drinking is wine we like, and more importantly why we like it. So here I’m going to go through my wine tasting process, adapted from a number of books and talking with wine professionals about how they drink wine.

Image: Philip James

Swirl the wine. With the wine glass on the table, move the glass in little circles so the wine starts spinning up the sides but does not go over. Aroma is a huuuuuge part of how we taste, and swirling the wine up the glass releases more of the components that make up a wine’s aroma into the air.

Image: Philip James

Sniff the wine. Get your nose way deep into the glass and take a bunch of short sniffs or one long one — whatever works best for you to get the most of the aroma into your nose. While you’re doing that, try to find things in the aroma. For white wine, you’re normally going to find citrus, tree fruit, tropical fruit, minerality (smelling like wet rocks is a desirable quality for many wines) and floral scents. For red wine, we’re going to look for red fruit or black fruit or berries, as well as earthiness and spiciness. We do this so we can start trying to build a profile of the wine in our minds. This profile is going to help us determine whether (a) we like the wine and (b) if we like it, what we like about it so we can find other wines we might like. If you’re at a tasting room, they might have one of those “Flavor Finder Wheels” handy.

Taste the wine. At long last! We can drink the wine! Hold on though. To help us build that profile, we don’t want to be taking big gulps of wine. We want to take a small sip, swirl it around the mouth, checking for how it feels against cheeks, tongue, and teeth. This is looking for the texture of the wine. At the same time, we’re checking the taste on the tongue and how it tastes in feels in the back of the throat. … WOOF! That’s a lot to try to get out of one taste. Which is why the next step is…

Taste the wine. Give it another sip, swirl it around again in the mouth, and check for the things in step 3 you were looking for. Texture, taste, and finish. Once you’ve done that, it’s time for the next step!

Taste the wine. What, again? Yes, again. This is where you make an important final decision: Do you like the wine? Now, maybe you knew this from the first sip, or even from the first sniff, but three tastes will help you definitively know whether this is a wine you’re going to be taking home, buying again, or leaving at the tasting room.

Check the color. A lot of tasting guides say to start with color, but I find that color is way less important than aroma or taste. Color can confirm things you find in the wine through sniffing and tasting, but in my experience it can’t tell you if you’re going to like the wine or not. What you’re looking for here is depth of red in red wine, which will tell you things about how dark the grape is, and how long the wine was left on the skins of the grape in fermenting. In white wine, the darker the color the more likely it is that the wine was aged on oak.
Enjoy the wine! Continue the tasting, share the bottle with friends, or decide that the best thing you can do for this wine is let someone else enjoy it while you find one that fits you.

Remember, this process is supposed to help you find wines you like, and help figure out what parts of the wine you like best, so you can remember the ones that that make your mind sing, and find their equal again. In the same way there there’s no universal best flavor, there’s not universal best wine. There’s the wines that are best for you, and the wines that are best for someone else. Like what you like.

Here’s the process one more time:

  1. Swirl
  2. Sniff
  3. Taste
  4. Taste
  5. Taste
  6. Color
  7. Enjoy!
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