Wine tasting is subjective in nature, but there are three general guidelines for judging a wine's character. The nuances of a wine's look, smell and taste will increase the pleasure you derive from each tasting.
You can tell a lot about a wine simply by studying its appearance. Pour the wine into a clear glass and hold it in front of a white background (a tablecloth or piece of paper works nicely) and examine the color. The color of wine varies tremendously, even within the same type of wine. For example, white wines are not actually white. They range from green to yellow to brown. More color in a white wine usually indicates more flavor and age, although a brown wine may have gone bad. While time improves many red wines, it ruins many white wines. Red wines are not just red. They range from a pale red to a deep brown red, usually becoming lighter in color as they age.
You can guess the age of a red wine by observing its "rim." Tilt the glass slightly and look at the edge of the wine. A purple tint may indicate youth while orange to brown indicates maturity.
Give your wine a good swirl before tasting. This serves many purposes, but visually it allows you to observe the body of the wine. Does the wine adhere to the sides of the glass, forming what are called "legs"? Good legs may indicate a thicker body and a higher alcohol content and/or sweetness level.
When you swirl your wine, it also interacts with oxygen and releases molecules that allow you to smell the aroma. This is called the "bouquet" or "nose." To take in a wine's scent, put your nose near or even into the glass. Take a quick whiff, formulating an initial impression, and follow with a second deeper whiff. Or take only one deep whiff. Again, how you smell a wine is subjective. Either way, after you smell the wine, sit back and contemplate the aroma. Don't try to "taste" the wine yet, concentrate only on what you smell. It may be difficult to describe in words when you're a novice, but after trying many wines you will notice similarities and differences. Refer to our Terminology section for a list of commonly used terms to describe a wine's smell. Sometimes a certain smell will be very strong with underlying hints of other smells. Take your time. By labeling an aroma you will probably remember it better. Take notes to remind yourself if you like what you smell.
The most important quality of a wine is how it balances the basic tastes: sweetness, acidity, bitterness, etc. To get the full taste of a wine follow these three steps:
- Initial taste (or first impression). Take a sip. Allow your taste buds to respond to the sensations of the wine.
- Taste or “chew” Slosh the wine around, "chewing" it, and then draw in some air. Examine the body and texture of the wine. Is it light or rich? Smooth or harsh?
- Aftertaste / Finish. Now swallow. Try to describe the taste that remains in your mouth after you have swallowed the wine. How long did the taste last? Was it pleasant?
After tasting the wine, take a moment to value its overall flavor and balance. Is the taste appropriate for that type of wine? If the wine is very dry, is it supposed to be? The more different wines you try, and the more attention you pay to each wine, the better you will become at ascertaining and describing each wine's characteristics. Our Terminology section offers a nice list of adjectives to help you describe what you're experiencing.