How to Taste Wine

Close up of a man's nose smelling a glass of red wine illuminated by the sun

It seems intimidating, but it's really not.

By Erin Henderson

I teach a number of wine workshops every year. One of my favourites is our foundational class, leading wine lovers through the basics of wine appreciation. 

Like many "fancy" things in life: golf, art, theatre... we assume only the upper echelons of society know the secret rituals to doing it right. The rest of us are just fumbling our way through. And that's probably true for parenting or excel spreadsheets (life's obligations that make you want to drink) but I'm here to tell you, anyone can learn the proper techniques to tasting wine with confidence and style. 

Let's start from the beginning. 

A headless person in a green sweater opening a bottle of red wine with a waiter's corkscrew
Opening the Bottle 

This is your first hurdle.

I have students who avoid wine that's sealed with a cork at all costs. There could be the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory in there and they still run for a screw cap, potential riches be damned.

But truly, it’s not that hard. It may take one or two tries, but once you get it, you never forget it. Like riding a bike but with less bruises.

First cut under bottom lip of the foil and remove the top portion in one neat and clean tear. Then stick the curly cue in the cork, winding down until there’s only one curl left, and pulling up on the handle remove the cork. Voilà

We get into more detail (with a video on how it’s done!) here.

close up of red wine being poured into a wine glass
Pouring a Glass

Now, we pour your newly freed wine into a glass. Preferably one with a stem, but I know there are many a-wine lovers out there who cherish their dishwasher-safe stemless glasses. It’s not really my preference, but ultimately there’s nothing wrong with it.

Pour to the proper level (spoiler alert: it's not to the brim. Don't shoot the messenger.) 

You pour only to the widest part of the bowl, which is generally a third of the way up. The reason being is that you want to leave enough room for swirling (and not dumping all over your clothes). You want to do this because swirling encourages air circulation in the glass, and a bit of air encourages the best personality of the wine to show through. (We discuss this in more detail below).

Wine is a living, breathing thing that has been trapped in a bottle at least one year, if not several, and needs time to stretch itself out. Just like you, trapped in a plane on an eight-hour journey to Europe, you weren't fresh as a daisy getting out of that cramped, tin can in the sky. You needed time to stretch out, and so does wine. 

You might also like: Choosing the Right Glass for You

A line up of of 6 wine glasses with red, white and rosé wine lying on their side on a tan floor
Look at the wine 

Now the ceremony begins!

Holding your glass by the stem (a-hem), place the base towards your tummy and the opening away from you. Peering over a white surface (ideally) look directly through the bowl to appreciate the colour.

All wines oxidize as they age, turning brown. Just like biting into an apple and leaving it on the counter, five minutes later that white flesh begins to colour, and the fresh-apple taste changes as well. Wine is the same. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Reds turn more garnet or tawny as the age, whites turn more amber. 

A make and female server sitting in a cellar sniffing their wine glasses and taking notes
Now we smell

I, personally, like to give the wine what I call a "drive by."

No other sommelier does this, but it's a little safeguard against faults. Just like walking into your teenager's room, you want to give it a cursory sniff before barging on in there. A quick, shallow whiff in the glass let's me know if it's safe to proceed or if I need to walk away. 

If we don’t smell any wet dog, musty basement, or something that makes us gag, we carry on to the swirl – everyone’s favourite baller move. Swirling allows a little bit of air into the wine to "open it up."

This is done very easily, by holding the glass by the stem (a-hemmmm) and drawing little circles on the ceiling, or, if you're nervous, keep the base firming on the table and draw little circles on the table. 

You also might like: How and Why to Decant

four white wine glasses clinking together
Finally the time has come! 

Let's take a sip. But not the sip you take with your "book club."

The sip we take as professionals, which, because it's wine, and wine is always extra, is more involved than anything else on the planet. 

Take a gargle-sized amount onto your palette (or, as normal people say, "into your mouth.") Swish it gently all over, coating all areas of your tongue, your cheeks, even the roof of your mouth. This allows you not only to taste the wine but appreciate the structure. (Seriously).

Now push that wine to the front of your mouth, and opening your mouth as if to whistle, breath in as if breathing through a straw. 

Inevitably, someone always chokes or drools on themselves, but that's the way it's done. Breathing while the wine in your mouth works like a mini-decant, opening up the wine even more on your palate. 

(Admittedly, new wine drinkers are often concentrating so hard on not choking they forget to actually taste the wine, but that's why, like yoga and martial arts, wine drinking is a practice. Which is fantastic.)

While holding the wine in your mouth, try to detect the wine's body: does it feel like water, milk, or cream on your tongue? Consider how much acid is in the wine by how much your mouth is watering. All wines have some acid – some more, some less – but you should be getting at least a bit of salivation. What about tannins (mostly found in red wine)? Does you mouth feel fuzzy and dried-out, or supple and smooth? Finally, and maybe the most challenging, is the wine sweet or dry? 

It's a lot to consider at lightning speed while a snooty server glares at you impatiently, but try to consider as many of these points as possible. 

However, as annoying and unhelpful as it may be, the most important things to consider is if you like it. 

Your next read: What's the Difference Between Acid and Tannin?

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