How to Taste Wine

420672_2836276950540_1604260635_nPosted by Theresa Cederoth on September 12, 2013.

Drinking wine is not the same as tasting wine.  Even those of us who have been wine drinkers for years may never have stopped to appreciate the full experience of our beverage.  To truly taste wine, you need to slow down and pay attention to your senses of smell, sight, and touch, as well as taste.  You don’t need to be a wine expert to become a proficient wine taster—all that’s required is a little focus.  Here’s a cheat sheet to guide you through the basic aspects of wine tasting.

Step 1: Control Your Tasting Conditions

Start with a clean wine glass, since the taste and smell of dust or detergent can affect the wine’s flavor.  (Along similar lines, avoid strong perfumes while wine tasting.)  Whenever possible, choose a good wine glass.[1]  The glass should have a large bowl so that you can swirl and aerate the wine, and the rim should bend inward to help funnel the aromas to your nose.  A clear glass, rather than colored or printed, will give you an unimpeded view of the wine (which becomes important in Step 2).  The rim should be thin, as wine flows more cleanly and evenly over a thin rim than a thick rolled one.

Next, there is a correct way to hold your wine glass, and it makes a big difference: hold your wine glass by the stem, never by its bowl.  Holding the bowl of the glass not only creates unpleasant fingerprints and hinders swirling, it allows your body heat to raise the temperature of the wine, usually for the worse.  Although stemless wine glasses are popular and look nice, they’re objectively worse for wine tasting.

If you’re tasting several wines, begin with the lightest white wines and progress to the heaviest reds.  Remember that different wines should be served at different temperatures: most whites, rosés, and sparkling wines should be served between 40º to 50º F, and most reds should be served at 60º to 65º F.  A good rule of thumb is to take white wines out of the refrigerator fifteen minutes before serving, and put reds in the refrigerator fifteen minutes before serving.

This part is tough for wine enthusiasts, but don’t overfill your glass.  A full glass of wine should be no higher than the widest part of the glass, or 1/3 of the way up the glass, whichever is lower.  A properly-filled glass allows you to appreciate the full flavor of the wine and swirl without spilling.  You can always have a second glass later!

Step 2: Evaluate by Sight

Before you take that first sip, take a moment to look at the wine.  Tilt the glass slightly and hold it against a white background.  A wine’s color toward the rim differs by grape and geography, but it also provides clues about the wine’s age and weight.  For white wines, a light straw color indicates a young wine, and a more tawny yellow indicates an older wine.  Younger red wines will be purplish, while older wines will be a rusty, orange red.  The wine should maintain a strong color gradient; wine that is very pale and watery near its edge will likely taste thin and watery.

Give your glass a swirl.  Swirling takes some practice, so beginners may find it easiest to swirl the glass on a flat surface—eventually work your way up to “freestyle” swirling, and you’re well on your way to becoming a wine snob!  (Which can be a wonderful thing.)  After you swirl, notice if the wine forms “legs” or “tears” running down the side of the class.  The thicker the legs, the higher the alcohol content.[2]

Step 3: Evaluate by Scent

After you’ve swirled your wine, take a few quick, short sniffs of the glass.  Because human senses of taste and scent are closely related, identifying aromas at this point can give you a preview of the wine’s flavor.  Here are some basic categories of aromas to look for:[3]

  • Wine Flaws: First look for any off-smells that indicate a wine is spoiled.  A wine should not smell musty (this indicates that it is corked), sulfuric, horsey, or vinegary.  Hopefully your wine won’t have any of these problems, and you can focus on more pleasant scents.
  • Fruit Aromas: Obviously, wine is made from grapes and isn’t actually infused with other fruits, but you will probably pick up on different fruity scents.  Common fruit scents in white wines are citrus (lemon, grapefruit), light tree fruit (apricot, peach, apple), and tropical fruit (pineapple, melon, passionfruit).  Among red wines, you may pick up on dark tree fruit (black cherry, plum), berries (blackberry, raspberry, strawberry), or dried fruit (jam, raisins, figs).
  • Spice and Floral Aromas: Many full-bodied red wines will smell slightly spicy, like black pepper, cloves, or licorice.  Other wines, like Rhones and cool-climate white wines Riesling and Gewürztraminer, might display floral scents of orange blossom or rose.   
  • Herbal and Vegetal Aromas: Certain varietals tend to carry herbal or grassy scents.  Sauvignon Blanc is often grassy, while Cabernet Sauvignon is commonly herbal and smells lightly vegetal.  Look for scents like bell peppers, grass, mint, and eucalyptus
  • Barrel Aromas: Wines aged in oak will retain scents from their barrels.  These aromas include vanilla, toast, roasted nut, coffee, caramel, and honey.

Scent, like palate, is highly subjective, so there are really no wrong answers when describing a wine’s “nose.”  But the more you practice, the better you’ll become at labeling the scents you detect.  UC Davis has developed a great “aroma wheel” to help you pick out some of the most common fragrances found in wine:[4]


Step 4: Evaluate by Taste

It’s finally time to drink!  Take a small sip, trying to suck on the wine as if you’re drinking through a straw.  This slurping of air allows you to aerate the wine, releasing flavor and aromas.  The taste of the wine should follow along with the aromas you identified by scent—any range of fruit, flower, herb, mineral, or barrel characteristics.  At this point you should also use your taste buds to determine a few other characteristics of the wine:

  • Balance: A wine is balanced if its basic flavor components—sweetness, sourness, bitterness—are good proportion.
  • Harmony: A harmonious wine has all of its flavors blended seamlessly.  Harmony often comes with age, with components of younger wines “sticking out” more than those of older wines.  That’s why wine connoisseurs cellar younger vintages for years before drinking.
  • Complexity: Complex wines are multifaceted, evolving as you sip.  A good sign of complexity is a wine’s “length,” or how long its flavor lingers in your mouth after you swallow.

Step 5: Enjoy Your Wine!

After you’ve made it through all these steps with your first sip, relax and enjoy the wine you’ve come to understand so thoroughly.   Once you get the knack of it, these steps generally take only a few seconds.  Wine tasting is a great life skill, and you will improve at it with practice.  What a great excuse to drink more wine!

[1] Upscale wine glasses come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and in a perfect world you would always use the correct shape for the varietal you’re drinking—but that’s a topic for another post.  For those with interest in the subject and a large stemware budget, Riedel leads the way in varietal-specific wine glasses.

[2] For a full explanation of wine legs, see Lauren Thomas, Check Out Those Legs: The Science Behind Wine Tears, Society of Wine and Jurisprudence (March 4, 2013),

[3] See How to Taste Wine, WineEnthusiast Magazine (last accessed September 11, 2013),

[4] Wine Aroma Wheel, University of California at Davis (last accessed September 11, 2013), available at

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