Tasting wine like a “pro” is more about mindfulness and intentionality than anything else. It’s so easy to sip something without thinking about it, gulping it back. While this can still be incredibly enjoyable, if you take the time to sip and savor and enjoy the wine, it’s going to be a completely different level of experience. Neither is wrong, just different.
When entering this space, it’s important to park your expectations. Don’t think about the next question or what you’re “supposed” to be finding in the glass. Lean in. Wine is subtle. You have to lean in and listen to the wine. Use its language. Be honest to the wine and what it’s telling you. Approach the wine with genuine curiosity.
For this post to make the most sense, it’s incredibly helpful to have a glass of wine in front of you. Go on, pour something you like. Just make sure to only fill the glass ¼-1/3 full, leaving plenty of space for this exercise. You want enough you can do something with it, but not so much you’ll spill it when moving around the glass. Most glasses have a natural wide point about 1/3 of the way from the stem; this is the natural place to fill the glass to.
Once you’re settled in and have your glass of wine in front of you, take a deep breath. Firmly plant your feet on the ground, and remember to let go of expectations. The wine will tell you its story, if you just listen. Don’t let your thoughts and preconceived ideas for it get in the way.
One more deep breath. In. Out.
Let’s dive in.
When meeting a new wine, the first, most instinctual step is to look at the glass. Really look at it. I like to hold my glass tilted at an angle against a white surface to really see its true color. Is it brilliant or dull? Does the color extend fully to the edges, or does it become more clear or golden around the rim? These can be signs of aging in a wine, but not necessarily.
Wines will have different colors – if it’s a “red” wine, is it purple? Ruby? Garnet? Tawny? Brown? If it’s “white”, is it lemon-green? Lemon? Gold? Amber? Brown? If it’s rose, it could be pink, but it could also be salmon or orange in color. What is the intensity of the color? Pale? Brilliant? Average? If you held the wine up to a piece of paper with words on it, could you read the letters through it, or is the color so intensely dark that it’s not possible?
At this stage, you’re not trying to “figure out” anything about the wine necessarily. It’s more of a step to get yourself in the mindset to listen to the wine. Observe what’s in front of you. And be present with the glass.
Our next step is to swirl the wine. You want this to be a gentle action, nothing too harsh. Just a gentle swirl it in your glass. Most professionals do this with the glass in the air, although when I was just starting off, I found it easier to set the base on the table, hold the glass gently by the stem with my thumb and forefinger, and swirl it lightly by drawing little circles.
Swirling allows wines to aerate slightly; this releases more aromas and begins to soften it, or allow it to “open up”. Believe it or not, the complexity of a wine's taste is created through our nose and not our mouth. Our taste buds can only distinguish sour, bitter, salty, sweet and savory. The wide array of fruit, earthy, floral, herbal, mineral and woodsy flavors present in wine are derived from aroma notes sensed by our noses. When a wine is swirled, literally hundreds of different aromas are released, the subtlety of which can only be detected with the nose.
This is why people can detect flavors of “roses” or “wet stones” or “forest floor”. It’s not because they’ve gone around licking and tasing these things, but because they recognize that those flavors are actually caused by aromatic compounds. And if you’ve smelled it before, you can taste it. Which brings us to our next step…
This is my absolute favorite step. There are some wines where I could just spend hours with my nose buried in a glass.
After you’ve given the wine a gentle swirl, stick your nose right into the airspace of the glass, and breathe in softly, but deeply, like you’re leaning in to smell a flower.
I’ve noticed I almost always close my eyes when I do this, to really allow myself to lean in and “listen” to the aromas in the glass. What is it trying to show me?
This is where you want to eliminate any preconceived ideas for what the wine “should” smell like. Just let it be. Allow yourself to free-associate what aromas come to mind as you ponder the glass.
Perceive the aromas, then define them. Sometimes it can be hard to put into exact words what you’re noticing come up. Sometimes it’s an exact fruit or food or a material, like leather. Sometimes it’s like a memory. I’ve had wines that remind me of strawberry toast on a sunny morning at my grandmother’s house. Or of childhood summers, barefoot by the pool on a warm, humid night.
Remember, there’s no right or wrong here. This is where people get the most intimidated when it comes to wine. It can be scary to share your findings, and hear other people don’t find them too, but our brains have different dictionaries of aromas, and different memories that smells are associated with. It’s okay to find something unique to you in the glass. It’s fun, actually, to compare notes and see what other people are experiencing.
If you’re serious about wanting to get better at identifying aromas, the best way is to practice. Every day, everywhere you go. Smell that weird fruit at the grocery store, intentionally smell the aromas of new leather shoes, consciously realize and connect the aromas around you to what’s creating them. This builds that “aroma dictionary” so you can make clearer connections when drinking wine.
Fun fact for you here – mindfully drinking wine activates more brain cells than listening to music, hitting a baseball, or solving a complex math problem. It’s incredibly beneficial for our brain health and enhances our memory retention. So keep that in mind next time you’re enjoying that glass of wine. 😉
Now onto everyone’s favorite step…
Take a small sip of the wine, and hold it in your mouth. To mix in more oxygen and enhance the flavors, many professional wine drinkers will sort of lightly “chew” the wine or breathe in oxygen over it. I prefer the latter as it feels more loving to the wine.
To do this, part your lips just slightly; this will take some practice, as you obviously don’t want the wine to spill out of your mouth. Breathe in your through your mouth, like reverse whistling. Let that caress the wine lightly. Experience the flavors the wine is offering. Then go ahead, and swallow the wine.
As we’ve touched on, most of the flavor in wine comes from the aromas, a sort of “internal smelling”. The aroma molecules are carried to the same receptors as the nose, but through the throat instead of the nostrils. If you don’t believe me, take a sip of wine while plugging your nose. You’ll still taste sweet or bitter, but the flavor compounds will no longer be present.
Once you’ve tasted it, similar to smelling, allow the wine to speak to you. What is it saying?
You’ll most likely notice flavors similar to what you found on the nose, for the reasons I’ve explained. But dig deeper. Sometimes there will be additional notes the wine is trying to tell you.
In addition to flavors, you want to also look for the wine’s texture, and length.
A wine’s texture refers to things such as its body and its tannins. When you hold the wine in your mouth, does it feel thick and full, like whole milk? Or is it thin and light, like water? This one takes some practice, as it’s not something we’re commonly exposed to outside of wine. Many apps, such as Vivino or Pocketwine will explain the wine’s body, which can be helpful for validating your experiences. Body is usually described on a scale from light, medium, to full.
Tannin is one of the most misunderstood aspects of wine for new beginners. Just because a wine is “dry” doesn’t necessarily mean its tannic and vice-versa. Tannins are caused by contact with the grape stems or skins, or by barrel aging. This means they’re much more present in red wines than whites simply because of the winemaking processes they both go through.
Tannins add bitterness and astringency to wines; I like to compare it to black tea. If you want to get a very clear idea of what tannins are, moisten a black tea bag, then place it in your mouth. The tannins will quickly dry out the back of your tongue and the sides of your mouth. Overly tannic wines will do this as well.
Now, I’d love for you to take another sip of your wine, and swallow it. Sit for a few seconds, then think.
What was this wine’s finish like? Did the flavors leave your mouth immediately after swallowing, or did they linger? Did they linger for a short time? Medium? Long? Did any new flavors arise out of the finish, or what was the predominant flavor after swallowing?
And now, last but not least.
Take a moment to think about the wine in its whole. Did it feel balanced to you? Did you like it? What stood out as good or bad? What aspects would you enjoy in another wine and try to steer clear of in another?
This is when you can really look at the wine through your personal lenses. The more time you take to understand what you did or didn’t like, the easier time you’ll have navigating the wine shop and finding future wines to sample and enjoy.
With that in mind, sit for the wine a while and really think it over. Look it up on Vivino or Pocket Wine. Which of the 6 styles of wine is it? Is it a style you enjoy? Remember that and note similar varietals to try in the future.
Take your time with this. Enjoy what’s in the glass, and take a moment to get to know it. Cheers!