Are you a newer wine lover with a thirst for knowledge? Check out our simple guide to tasting and you’ll be sniffing, sipping and slurping like a pro in no time.
As with any skill, mastering wine tasting takes study, practice and repetition. But as the tools of the trade here are your own senses, it’s possible to pick up the fundamentals in a surprisingly short time. This step-by-step guide – plus a selection of wines specially chosen to help illustrate some of wine’s key characteristics – will show you the basics. Gather a few friends, get out your pens and make an evening of it. School is in session!
1/ Find a space as free of odours (candles, cooking smells, perfumes or colognes) as possible. Try to avoid smoking or eating strong-flavoured foods prior to tasting. Chewing bread or drinking water can help cleanse the palate before the tasting and between wines.
2/ Cover your table with a white cloth or sheet of paper against which to study the wine’s colour. Natural daylight is best, or pure white lights (avoid soft-yellow bulbs).
3/ Chill your white and sparkling wines in advance. Have the reds at room temperature.
4/ For comparison tastings, have a separate glass for each wine, and set out spittoons or small cups. Spitting is an important part of tasting (ingesting the wine will impact your ability to taste, particularly if you’re tasting several wines).
5/ Arrange your wines from light to full-bodied, with sweet wines at the end. Once you’re experienced, tasting order can become a matter of personal preference.
6/ Have a notebook and pen for each participant or use the notes app on your phones.
We paired up the 10 wines below – based on their production method or a notable feature – so you can taste them side by side.
Pay attention to how the tannins, body, acidity, intensity, sweetness and flavour profile differ for each wine, then compare notes afterwards.
Tannins are compounds in red wines that create that drying sensation you also get from drinking black tea. They’re more about texture and mouthfeel than flavour.
Body is the perception of “weight” in a wine. A light-bodied wine will feel a bit lighter and thinner in your mouth than a full-bodied one.
Just like fruit, wines have acidity, typically ranging from soft and light like a ripe pear to crisp and bright like a lemon.
Intensity is about how fast the aromas and flavours hit your sense of smell and taste buds. In general, if it’s quick and strong, it’s likely a more intense wine.
Sweetness is about how wine tastes (not necessarily the amount of sugar). An extra-dry wine won’t taste sweet; a dessert wine will be at the other end of the spectrum.
Prosecco is made using the tank method, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in a tank. This method produces lighter, more fruit-focused wines than the traditional method. Traditional-method sparklers are made in the same manner as Champagne, with the secondary fermentation taking place in the individual bottles. This imparts richness, creaminess and autolytic notes such as toast and brioche. The bubbles are also smaller and more persistent than those in sparkling wines produced by other methods. All sparkling wines have bright, fresh acidity.
Sauvignon Blancs from cool regions such as Marlborough will have intensely herbaceous and tropical aromatics. Chardonnay is rarely aromatically pronounced, instead reflecting more vineyard characteristics such as minerality. It also shows the influence of winemaking techniques such as lees ageing and time in oak, the latter of which adds suggestions of caramel and vanilla.
Body is the textural impact of alcohol, sugars, fruit extract and acidity. Lighter-bodied wines such as Gamay will typically be low in alcohol, high in acidity and daintily flavoured, while fuller-bodied wines like Cabernet will have higher alcohol, more intense flavours and often grippy tannins.
Tannins are extracted from grape skins, seeds and stems, as well as from oak. They’re rarely a consideration for white wines, but they’re an important element in assessing all reds. Tannins create a drying sensation on your gums and contribute to a wine’s texture, and they range from astringent to velvety. Taste this Pinot Noir and Barolo side by side and compare and contrast the impact of the tannins.
Fermenting a white wine in oak barrels introduces flavours such as smoke, vanilla and clove, as well as creating a creamy texture and adding depth, complexity and weight to the wine. Chablis typically sees no oak at any stage. This emphasizes the purity of fruit, razor-sharp acidity and minerality of the wine. Texture and body can be enhanced through lees ageing.
1/ Pour – About 60 mL (2 oz) of wine is plenty to allow you to assess it. Get your pen and paper ready and make notes as you go through each step.
2/ Look – Hold the glass at about a 45° angle against your white background. Pay attention to the clarity of the wine and the intensity and hue of the colour.
3/ Swirl – Swirling oxygenates the wine, releasing and enhancing the aroma and flavour compounds. It also lets you observe the tears: the liquid that clings to the side of the glass. Wines with high levels of sugar or alcohol will have thicker and more persistent tears.
4/ Sniff – Enjoying a wine’s aromas is one of the delights of tasting and provides important clues to a wine’s nature. Take an initial gentle sniff to check for obvious faults such as cork taint, which smells like wet cardboard or a damp basement. Then get your nose right in there. Don’t be shy! Draw in a deep, slow, steady sniff. Make note of what you’re sensing and be as specific as you can. Primary aromas are the flower and fruit notes inherent to the grape. Secondary aromas are those produced by the winemaking process and can include buttery notes and/or nuts, biscuit, bread and oak. Tertiary aromas are introduced by the ageing process and can comprise caramel, toffee and vanilla.
5/ Sip & Slurp – Take a small sip while drawing air in over your tongue to involve your nasal passage and enhance the flavours. Swish and swash like you’re using mouthwash. Particular areas of your tongue may be more sensitive to certain flavours, and not everyone’s tongue reacts the same way, so you want to make sure you engage it all. Pay attention to the flavours and also the tannins, body, sweetness and acidity. Is the wine balanced? Does one characteristic overpower the others?
6/ Spit & Contemplate – Spit the wine and consider the finish (i.e., how long the sensations and flavours you identified last). A short finish is typical of lower-quality wines, while a long finish of a minute or more is an indication of a fine-quality wine.
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