Culinary Arts

How to Taste Wine and Understand Your Palate: A Guide to Navigating a Wine Tasting

Written by MasterClass

Jul 1, 2019 • 5 min read

Wine has been a part of human civilization for thousands of years, but it didn’t always taste as good as what we drink today. Wine quality has improved exponentially over the past century as wine producers discover better techniques for grape growing and winemaking. Global commerce allows us to drink wines from all corners of the world, and the internet allows every drinker to share their opinion, which makes it all the more important to know how to taste wine so you can get to know what’s in your glass and find wines you truly enjoy.

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What Is Wine Tasting?

Wine tasting is the process of analyzing the wine in your glass through the senses of sight, smell, taste, and touch. You can taste wine blind (where you don’t know what the wine is), or non-blind. The goal is the same: to examine the wine’s appearance, aroma, flavors, and textures to understand how and where it was made, as well as its quality.

Wine tasting experiences can happen in a winery’s tasting room, at a wine bar, at a tasting event, or at a private tasting with a producer in their wine cellar. It can, of course, happen at home, where it is easiest to create a quiet, comfortable, and distraction-free environment. Wine events can be overwhelming and you’ll find that wines show differently depending on the circumstances in which you taste them.

Elements of Tasting Wine

Whether you are tasting with a group or for your own enjoyment, it’s important to have a way to think about wine quality. You may judge wines on a scale from poor quality to outstanding, with stops along the way at acceptable, good, and very good. Or you may get more specific and assign points to the various elements of a wine to grade on a numeric scale, like James Suckling’s 100-point scale. Whatever you choose, write down your conclusions in a notebook so you can remember what you tasted and see how your evaluations evolve over time. The best wine is not necessarily the most expensive, but rather the one you like the most based on your personal taste.

How to Taste Wine:

  • Use a wine glass with a large enough bowl to be able to swirl a 1.5 ounce taste of wine.
  • Take short breaths through your nose and breathe out through your mouth to capture the most aroma.
  • The first sip of wine will give you the most information, so pay attention before your taste buds get fatigued.
  • Don’t forget to spit rather than swallow your tastes if you want to keep your senses sharp.

When tasting wine, take note of how the wine impacts each of your senses. How does it look? How does it smell? How does it taste? What is the texture of the wine in your mouth? What is your overall impression of the wine? If you are using a graded scale, assign numeric values for each of these categories, then add them up for your final score.

How to Evaluate Wine Based on Color

  • The depth of color can give clues to the grape variety. Pinot noir will be lighter and more transparent than deep ruby cabernet sauvignon. Look at the wine against a white background.
  • Sediment may indicate an older wine.
  • Red wines are darker when they are young and lose color as they age.
  • White wines start out lighter in color and become more gold or brown as they get older.
  • Higher viscosity (indicated by thicker legs or tears on the sides of the glass) tells you that a wine has high alcohol or high sugar content.

How to Evaluate Wine Based on Aroma

Use your sense of smell to tell if the wine is sound (not flawed). If the wine smells musty, like wet cardboard, it is corked. This flaw does not make the wine unsafe to drink, merely unpleasant. Any good wine store will replace a corked bottle.

Note the intensity of the wine aromas. Some wines smell shy, like pinot grigio, while others, like sauvignon blanc, seem to jump out of the glass.

Smell for fruit aromas first:

  • For white wines, think of citrus fruits (lemon, lime, tangerine); orchard fruits (apple, pear); b (peach, apricot, nectarine); and tropical fruits (mango, passionfruit, pineapple, melon, etc.)
  • For red wines, think in terms of red fruits (red cherry, raspberry, strawberry, cranberry, pomegranate, etc.); black fruits (black cherry, blackberry, black plum, blackcurrant, etc.); and blue fruit (blueberry)

Next, identify other aromas. Highly complex wines are those with aromas from multiple categories.

  • Herbs and flowers: grass, black pepper, rosemary, thyme, licorice, honeysuckle, rose, violet, etc.
  • Earthiness: wet stones, chalk, damp leaves, dry soil, barnyard aromas, etc.
  • Winemaking techniques: spicy notes like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove can indicate aging in oak barrels. In white wines, there can be notes of caramel or brioche. In reds, coffee or cocoa. In white wines, creamy or buttery brioche notes indicate malolactic fermentation.

How to Evaluate Wine Based on Taste

Wine’s flavors and aromas are linked, so check for similar and different flavors on the palate compared to the nose.

Sugar, alcohol, tannin, and acidity contribute to a wine’s body, from light to full. These elements make up a wine’s structure. A balanced wine has these elements in proportion:

  • Dryness: Is there any residual sugar left in the wine, or is it completely dry?
  • Alcohol: A warming sensation from elevated alcohol indicates a warm climate.
  • Tannin: Relevant for red wines. Some grapes, like cabernet sauvignon, have more of this astringent, bitter quality. Pinot noir is naturally lower in tannin.
  • Acidity: High acid wines make your mouth water. Lower acidity gives the wine a rounder feeling.

The quality of the wine is usually indicated by how long the flavors last in your mouth, called the finish. A wine’s complexity can also help you determine its age and quality level. Older wines and higher quality wines tend to have more layers of flavor.

If you are tasting to hone your deductive tasting skills, have someone else pour the wine out of your view and then try to use your observations to guess what grapes or wine regions the wine could be from. If you are tasting to determine quality, pay close attention to the wine’s aromas and structural elements, and see if they come together in harmony. This is the mark of a good wine, one worthy of your money and appreciation. Last, but most importantly: Do you like the wine? Then pour a full glass!

Learn more about wine appreciation in James Suckling’s MasterClass.