The Wine Blog

How to Taste Wine: Part I

July 14, 2011

By Julia van der Vink

I have an irrational anxiety about ordering wine at restaurants. It is not selecting the wine that bothers me; it is the moment when the waiter/sommelier brings out the wine, pours a taste, and benignly waits for my approval before serving the rest of the table. There is something about this situation that obscures everything I know about wine with a 30 second spell of self-doubt. Is it corked? No, that’s earth. No it must be corked…

After systematically tasting more and more wines, I have gradually overcome parts of the performance paralysis. However, it occurs to me that I was never alone in my discomfort. I have observed a few different wine-tasting methodologies, including but not limited to: the self-conscious swirl n’ sniff, the thoughtful “mmm” and nod, the random rattle of vaguely relevant facts, and the irreverent pour-guzzle-repeat.The fact is that few people know how to taste wine, including many wine lovers and serious drinkers.

I do not mean to argue that there is only one way, or even a so-called “right way” to taste wine. As far as I’m concerned, there is certainly a time and a place for guzzling. But there is also a time to evaluate wine more deliberately. Many people don’t fully inhabit the opportunity simply because they are intimidated by the pomp and circumstance. They in fact underestimate their ability to understand the wine simply because they are unsure of what they are looking for. However, no matter how many raised eyebrows and sardonic smirks you receive, the best way to truly understand what is in your glass, is to employ a systematic approach to tasting.

Part I: You can learn a lot about a wine just from looking at it

      1) Check for clarity. Does the wine look cloudy or murky? If you’re unsure, it may help to hold it up to a light. If a wine is too old, has been badly stored, or had a bad seal, poor clarity will warn you of these faults. A sound, well-made wine should always be clear. Note that some red wines produce natural sediment that settle at the bottom of the bottle; this is fine.

      2) Assess color and intensity. The best way to judge color and intensity is by tilting the glass 45° against a white background. This can reveal information about the wine’s age.  If you’re drinking a red wine, is the color purple, ruby, garnet or tawny? Purple is an indication of youth in red wines, and they get paler and more brown in tone as they get older. If you’re drinking white wine, is the color lemon, yellow or gold? Green is an indication of youth in white wines, and they get darker and more golden as they age.

      3)   Is the wine transparent or opaque? This can tell you a lot about the type of grape that was used to make the wine. Thick-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot will appear much more intensely-colored and opaque in the glass than thinner skinned grape like Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese. (This is also an important tip for blind-tasting).

      4)   Look for legs. Swirl the wine to test its viscosity, then wait for the legs or tears to fall down the side of the glass. These normally suggest high alcohol content or residual sugar. The thicker the legs, and the more slowly their fall, the more full-bodied the wine.


Stay tuned for Part II: Aroma