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Wine Tasting 101 - The Basics Of What To Do & Say

May 11, 2018 7 min read

Even a regular drinker of wine might not know the key things to be doing when approaching and appreciating a wine. But don't worry, it's not hard to know the basics.

We know about wine tasting and the (often slightly pompous) bravado that can accompany it. We have seen, from near or far, the rituals of the professional wine taster as they stare with narrowed eyes, sniff profoundly, and swill the wine loudly in their mouths, before the onlookers around them are either enthralled or confused by the long winded descriptors that can come thereafter.


Not all wine needs to be dissected to the nth degree to be enjoyed, but certainly to get the most out of a decent wine, it’s good to know what to be looking for and how to approach it. With a few simple steps, anyone can gain a better appreciation of a wine and enjoy it to a greater level.


Like anything, practice makes perfect (Wahoo - taste more wines!) No one should be surprised that if they are new to wine, or even if they are new to process of tasting wines in step-by-step manner, that it takes a while to hone the skill. Keep at it, go through the following motions to basic appreciation and look forward to enhancing your wine drinking experience.


Here are the basics broken down into 3 simple steps:

1) Visual 



Take a look at the wine, preferably against a white background.


One of the things to look out for is assessing the age of the wine by the shade.


(Image taken from the excellent - click on the image to view this page and do take a minute to browse around their website!)



Red Wines:

Purple hues – Youthful

Ruby-Brick – Aged


White Wines:

Pale Yellow-Green – Youthful

Deep Lemon-Gold – Aged


Something not to be too drawn on is the “legs”. The legs, or tears, are the remnants of wine that cling to the glass and drip down the inside of the glass.  



This has often been spoken of as an indicator of quality, when in fact it shows only one of two things; alcohol content or residual sugar. Either of these components leads to viscosity in the wine, which causes the wine to cling to the side of the glass, creating these ‘legs’. Neither of these things, however, are an independent verifier of quality itself.


Do say:  “I can see it’s a vibrant purple, this must be a young red”.


Don’t say: “Look at the legs! This must be a great wine”.


2) Smell




This is one of the most crucial parts of wine tasting, because the aromas, perceived only through the nose, are a vital part of our appreciation of a wine.


The swirl and sniff is well known. However, I advise you to sniff BEFORE you swirl, THEN swirl, then sniff again.


Sniff, swirl, sniff, repeat.  And if you find your self being drawn back again and again, almost involuntarily because you keep finding new smells, then that is your biggest indicator of complexity in the wine and therefore quality.


But the reason to sniff before swirling first is that there is often a tangible difference in aromas presented to the nose before and after, as the most delicate aromas will show themselves before the other aromas are agitated by swirling them in the glass; so this ‘before and after’ comparison is really important.


The next tip is not to be afraid to stick your nose deep into the glass. Smelling from a distance that you might smell a hot soup on a stove isn’t going to get you far. However, noting how close you had to get to the wine before you started to perceive aromas would tell you how pronounced the aromas are. The further away your nose, the more pronounced it would be. Wines which you can’t smell much of at first may just be a bit ‘closed’ and need some time. Swirl a bit more. 


Smelling the wine also tells us where the wine is in its development cycle,  depending on whether we perceive aromas that come from:


  1. The fruit - primary – e.g. black cherry, yellow apple, orange blossom, violet
  2. The winemaking - secondary – e.g vanilla, toast, charred wood, smoke
  3. The maturation process - tertiary – e.g forest floor, mushroom, leather, cereal, honey


It takes time and skill to get good at detecting specific aromas, but each of them come at different stages of the evolution of the wine, so you can tell whether its young and fresh, nearing its peak, or past its best. 


But many of us find this smelling and identifying process hard, but training your nose in general will help, so smell as many things around you as possible and actively mentally note them. This will help your recall when you smell wines later – it’s all about the memory bank that you can access quickly.


But for beginners or novices, see if you can categorize red and white wines into these broad categories.


White wines

Is it either:

  1. Aromatic (i.e lots of aromas) or
  2. Neutral/simple.


If it’s aromatic, is it:


  1. Fruity and floral or
  2. Herbaceous?


Red wines

Is it either mainly:

  1. Black fruits or
  2. Red fruits


Hint: Examples of wines with black fruits characteristics would be Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, red fruits would be Pinot Noir or Sangiovese.


Do say: “This white wine is really aromatic and floral”

Don't say: “It just smells like wine” 



3) Taste

 Your tongue helps you perceive 5 things:

1)   Sweet

2)   Bitter

3)   Sour

4)   Umami

5)   Salty



Nothing more! (Although this is being disputed)


Therefore we don’t ‘taste’ a strawberry per se, in the way we generally talk about tasting a strawberry. We just taste the sweetness, whilst the smell helps us build an appreciation of the strawberry flavor; pinch your nose and strawberry just becomes sweet mush.


The taste characteristics are appreciated at specific spots on the tongue, for example we sense sweetness at the front tip whilst bitterness is at the back. 


A ‘dry’ wine contains little to no sugar, but a lot of people have trouble with amounting floral and/or fruity wine as being therefore somewhat sweet. Here’s a trick to help you tell the difference – dip just the very tip of your tongue into the wine, and see if you can perceive sweetness. If you can, there is sugar content, if you can’t, it’s dry, regardless of if when you drink and smell it you perceive fruitiness which makes your believe it to be sweet.


However, there are more things that can be appreciated only when the wine enters your mouth. These are body, tannin, acid and finish. 


BODY can be quite a confusing concept, but is so often spoken about when we refer to wines, reds in particular.  Essentially it is how the wine feels in the mouth, and the weight and texture to it. Alcohol adds weight, and combined with higher tannins and fruit components will all work to increase this perception of ‘body’.  A full-bodied wine has, therefore, higher alcohol, tannin and intense fruit flavours. Light bodied wine would have delicate flavours, lower alcohol but perhaps higher acidity.


TANNIN is like a gripping sensation that can also be found in tea and can have a drying effect. For those completely in the dark, if you bite down on a bath towel, that feeling is similar to how tannin can affect your mouth; the stronger this sensation, the higher the tannin.


ACIDITY is really important in wine. Too much can of course be unappealing, but too little and a wine can feel flat or ‘flabby’; balance is the key. A simple way to test for acid is to see how much your mouth waters after you try a wine. A lot of mouth watering indicates a lot of acidity – it’s a natural reflex.  Tilt your head slightly forward after drinking the wine and see if you can feel the salvia running forward.  (Agreed on this being perhaps one step too far in a public bar. Perhaps leave this for if you’re taking a wine exam or wanting to write very detailed tasting notes!)


FINISH This is the length of time that you can continue experiencing the taste of the wine after you have swallowed it. A long finish is desirable as it gives you more time to enjoy the wine. A taste that quickly disappears is described as short, and it can leave you somewhat unsatisfied. 


Do say: "This wine is full bodied, with plenty of ripe tannin, well-balanced acidity and a long, persistent finish"


Don't say: "The wine is heavy bodied with an aftertaste and it sticks to my teeth." 



So there you have it! Take a look, take a smell, take a taste and repeat as many times with as many wines as you (responsibly) can. 


On a final note, one of the most vital things is to actually consciously make yourself remember each wine, noting where it's from and the variety. As I mentioned previously, it's all about the memory bank and being able to call on it, not only to describe a wine but also to compare it to others you have had previously. That's why the biggest leap forward you will make in your wine appreciation comes from going to a tasting event where there are lots of wines for you to try back to back, as it's this comparative experience that will help you understand to breadth, depth and vast differences to be found in wines from around the world.