Here are 8 easy steps that you can use to impress your friends and make them think you know how to taste like a pro.
1. Look at the wine against a white background. I’m already making the assumption that you have clean glasses as well as good lighting (and some wine). You can remember the 3 C’s – clarity, color and carbon dioxide. Do you see any particles? Is it white or red or pink? Pale or dark? Does it have bubbles? Feel free to use fancy words like straw yellow, old gold, garnet and brick red. The white background will help you more accurately gauge the color as well as the opacity of the wine.
What does the color tell you? Different grape varieties will make deeper or lighter colored wines because the color in the wines comes from the skin of the grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo tend to produce deep red wines. Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris are two examples that produce deep white wines (their skins are pinkish). A deep color can also mean youth in a red wine or oxidation or barrel fermentation in a white wine. Red wines lose color as they age, while white wines gain.
2. Swirl the wine in your glass. Yes, there really is a good reason for this. You’re increasing the surface area of the wine by coating more of your glass as well as releasing some additional aromas that have been trapped in liquid form in the wine.
Tears are not a sign of quality in wine, but rather give clues about the wine’s viscosity and alcohol content. Fuller bodied, higher alcohol wines often have more pronounced tears. If you see pink stains on the side of your glass after swirling your red wine, it could be because the wine maker let his or her wine sit with the grape skins a little bit longer to extract more color.
3. Take a few deep sniffs of the wine. This is the most important part, so don’t be shy and get your nose right in the glass. Is it restrained or pungent? Does it remind you of anything you’ve had before? Fruits? Spices? Vegetables? Flowers? Wood?
As you practice, you’ll become familiar with common aromas found in certain varietals – i.e. Grüner Veltliner often has arugula and white pepper on the nose. You can also gather clues about how the wine was treated – i.e. vanilla, baking spices and toast are common aromas found as a result of oak aging.
4. Taste the wine. It’s helpful to think of mouthwash here, because you want the wine to hit all parts of your palate. While the myth of the tongue map is not true, you do want to look for certain things in certain parts of your mouth. You want to look for sweetness on the tip of your tongue. You can gauge the acidity in the wine by how the sides of your tongue feel. Are they tingling? Do you feel like you might start drooling? That means high acidity. You can rate the tannins based on how the inside of your cheeks feel. Are they dried out like someone stuck cotton balls in there or like when you oversteep your tea and don’t put any milk or sugar in it? That means a high level of tannins in the wine.
5. Concentrate on your perceptions. Once you swallow or spit the wine out, the experience is not over. The finish of the wine, especially if it’s a good one, will last long after you have it in your mouth. What you’ll notice, too, are aromas coming up the back of your throat, so you might get some notes now that you missed in the beginning.
6. Evaluate the wine. Is the wine’s flavor bold and concentrated or is it subtle and understated? Is is fruity? Do you think any oak was used? Think about the sweetness, the acidity, the tannins and the body. A good way to think about the body of the wine is to think about milk. Did the wine drink like skim milk or was it more like half and half when you had it in your mouth? The body is esentially the weight of the wine.
7. Think about the wine. Will it taste better with food? Is it appropriate for the season? Is it worth the price? And the most important question of all – do you like it? In the end, even if you’re following all of these fancy steps, that’s all that really matters.
8. Record your impressions. Hopefully you’ll be trying lots of different wines and by keeping notes you can keep track of what you liked and didn’t like. This will make you sound smarter the next time you go to your local wine shop or have a conversation with a sommelier at a restaurant because you’ll be able to say things like, “I prefer crisp, refreshing whites with high acidity”.
Even if you think you have a lousy palate, you just need practice. The biggest obstacle for most people to overcome is the lack of vocabulary to describe what they’re smelling and tasting. So, practice, practice, practice. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.