A Maenad’s Guide to Wine Tasting

Ahh, wine tasting, a subject that remains infinitely obscure and intimidating to many. Books have been written about the subject, classes are held to shine light into its mysteries, and countless wine bloggers and educators have published their personal methods. All of these resources can make it seem even more overwhelming. So where should you start?

The method is actually quite simple. At its core, you simply taste a wine and decide whether you like it or not. Ideally, you want to figure out why you liked a particular wine (or why you hated it) so you can be more informed when picking out wines in the future.

So, how does a professional taste wine? A Master Sommelier can pinpoint the exact grape varietal, region, and even approximate age of a wine just by sniffing and sipping. It’s not only a great parlor trick, it can become a career.

But these men and women aren’t superhuman, and they weren’t born with a special wine tasting gene. They have the same eyes, nose, and tongue we do. They’ve simply honed their palates with years of practice and study.

The 4 S Handshake, as my friend Flynn likes to call it, is a 4-step system for experiencing a new wine.

The 4 S Wine Tasting System

See: Look at the wine in your glass. For best results, use natural light or a well-lit room. Sadly, most restaurants that serve wine have dim mood lighting that borders on darkness, but do your best. Hold your wine glass at a 45 degree angle in front of a white background, like a napkin or paper. Look at the color and clarity of the wine. Notice if there’s any carbonation or sediment.

Swirl: Gently swirl the wine in your glass. Use the table for support if you’re worried about spilling. You look fancy! You’re also introducing air into your wine and releasing its aromas and flavors.

Smell: Hold the glass a few inches away from your face and take a few short sniffs. Bring the glass closer to your nose and take deep, nasal breaths. Try to detect the aromas you’re smelling. You might smell fruit, minerals, earthy scents, flowers, tobacco, leather…the list is endless. Try to verbalize specific things you’re smelling. Verbalization is the hardest part, and it takes practice. Don’t worry if all you smell is “wine” at first.

Sip: The best part! Take a mouthful of wine and swirl it around in your mouth. You want it to touch your tongue, cheeks, and gums. Swallow. Then take a deep breath in through your mouth and out through your nose. Do you taste anything you smelled? Did your impression of the wine change? Your palate needs three sips to get a full impression of the wine.

At this point, you can determine not only the wine’s flavor profile but other traits of the wine, listed below.

Acidity: Wines with higher acidity make your mouth water. We taste sour or acidic flavors on the sides of our tongues. If you feel tingling there or mouth-watering, chances are the wine has high acidity.
Sweetness/Dryness: This is the amount of sugar in a wine. Many wines are dry, or have very little residual sugar. We taste sweet flavors on the tip of our tongue. Fruity flavors can fool you into thinking a dry wine tastes sweet, so try holding your nose while allowing a mouthful of wine to sit on your tongue. If you feel sensation on your tongue’s tip, the wine likely has noticeable residual sugar. If you don’t, the wine is dry.
Body: A wine’s body describes how much weight it has in the mouth. Wine Folly’s Madeline Puckette has a great analogy for this using milk, but don’t take my word for it. Get your hands on a copy of her book to find out!
Alcohol Content: Wines described as “racy” or “hot” have a higher alcohol content. You’ll feel a slight burning or warming sensation in the throat due to a wine’s level of alcohol. Note that sweet wines (except fortified wines like port) almost always have low alcohol content.
Tannins: Tannins come from grape skins, and are only found in red wines. Tannins produce a drying or gripping sensation on the inside of your cheeks and gums.
Texture: A wine’s texture is usually referred to as lean/linear or creamy/round. Lean wines typically have pronounced acidity, whereas round wines have a creamy, buttery texture in the mouth.
Finish: A wine’s finish is how long the flavor lingers in your mouth. Sometimes flavors can change between the wine’s attack (immediate taste impression), midpoint, and finish. How long after you swallow can you still taste the wine?

Alright, I know that’s a ton of information, but don’t get discouraged! Ultimately, your journey to becoming a knowledgeable wine taster starts with practice, practice, practice. Here are some steps you can take to improve.

  • Drink wine. A lot of it.
  • Use tasting notes. Keep a journal (or use an app like vivino) whenever you try new wines. Jot down what you taste and whether you liked the wine or not.
  • Check out other online resources. My favorite is Wine Folly. You can read their article about the wine characteristics I mentioned earlier here.
  • Get educated. Most wine retailers and some restaurants offer wine tasting classes. They’re not free, but you’ll get your own wine educator to walk you through the basics (or more advanced topics) and they always include a few glasses of vino. If you’re local, come check out my wine classes!

Now, what are you waiting for? Go pour yourself a glass!