Look, Sniff, Taste

By Ryan Snyder on March 10, 2005

Category: Wine for Newbies

Look. Sniff. Taste. These three steps are all that is required to properly taste a wine. Sure, you’re welcome to chug wine, but by doing so you’ll miss the subtle flavors and aromas that have made this a cherished beverage for millennia.

Examine Your Wine

First, fill your glass less than half-full and examine your wine by tilting your glass above a white tablecloth or backdrop. You’ll notice that each wine has its own unique appearance. For example, red wines can be brick, ruby, crimson or violet, among many other shades. Some wines have a bright and attractive look through the glass while others may seem dull and boring upon first glance. Notice the clarity of the wine. Can you see right through it? Is it murky or cloudy? Cloudiness is rare, but could illustrate a defect in the wine.

Next, swirl the wine in the glass. Tiny rivulets of wine will streak down the side of the glass. These are called the tears or legs. The size and speed at which these form indicate the wine's body and viscosity. But we swirl for more reasons than just determining viscosity – swirling lets oxygen mingle with the wine, allowing it to open up, meaning aromas become more prevalent and the fruit shows more vividly on the palette.

Use Your Sniffer

Now, get your nose in there! After giving the wine glass a couple quick swirls, stick your nose in the glass and sniff. What do you smell? Specific aromas may be hard to pinpoint at first, but stick with it and you’ll begin to notice certain scents jumping out at you.

Perhaps a fruit aroma from your Merlot will immediately waft to your nose, or maybe you’ll find a hint of grass in your Sauvignon Blanc. A sparkling wine may remind you of the fresh pastries at the local bakery. And that Grenache wine from the Southern Rhône may nearly knock you on your toosh with its country barn aromas. This is a good thing!

When it comes to descriptions of the scents wafting from your glass, we’ve heard it all – from the delicious aromas of clove honey, wildflowers and blueberry pie to the lip-curling scents of a musty basement, a funeral home parlor or even (gasp!) grandma’s feet.

“Why would I waste my time smelling a wine, when I could be drinking it?” you may ask. One reason is the glorious feeling of anticipation. Remember as a kid when Mom would have lasagna (or insert your favorite dish here) in the oven and the garlic-tomato aromas drifted to your upstairs bedroom. Your tummy grumbled, your mouth watered and your taste buds almost pulsated at the thought of sitting at the table and chowing down on Mom’s goodies.

More importantly, our taste buds don’t really taste – they feel. Our tongues are designed with different areas that feel specific sensations. The front of the tongue registers sweetness, the sides sourness and the back of the tongue bitterness. Saltiness is the other sensation registered by the tongue, but is seldom found in wine.

The retronasal passage connects the throat and nose at the back of the throat. This passage is the main reason we experience flavors in our mouths, and it’s also the reason we shoot milk out our noses when we laugh. So when we taste, flavors are actually the combination of feeling and smelling the wine. Once in the mouth, the black currant and leather flavors that we taste from a Cabernet Sauvignon are actually aromas that we re-smell once the wine enters our mouths.

Mmmm... Wine

Yes, you are finally allowed to taste the wine now. The directions aren’t much different than most consumable items – Open mouth. Insert beverage. Enjoy. But each wine has so many facets occurring simultaneously that we winegeeks prefer to take our time with the enjoyment stage.

To elaborate further, sip a little wine and let it settle on the top of the tongue, then move the wine around in your mouth, coating every part before swallowing. You’ll notice that the wine changes in each part of your mouth. A Shiraz may show berries on the front of the palette, then shift to a spicy, cracked pepper flavor on the back of your tongue. A Pinot Grigio may show melon on the front of the palette, and when it hits the center of your mouth the high concentration of citrus acid will make you salivate almost uncontrollably.

Notice the texture which varies from wine to wine. Some red wines are full-bodied, nearly to the point of being chewy and pack a serious punch, while others are light-bodied and go down the throat smoothly. Some whites are acidic with the consistency of water while others are rich and syrupy.

Deliberate tasting opens our eyes to what we like. Maybe you’ll find that you prefer the strong vanilla found in California Chardonnay, or maybe you’ll prefer the lush baked cherry found in Pinot Noir. No matter which wine is your favorite, you’ll be able to pinpoint what it is about the wine that you love.

Trust Your Palette

Finally, don’t let anybody tell you what you do and don’t like. Your thoughts about each wine will ultimately come down to whether or not you like it. If a wine snob turns up his nose and scoffs at you because you prefer California Chardonnay over French Burgundy, don’t sweat it. Everyone's tastes are different. Besides, life is too short to drink bad wine.