If you consider yourself a wine beginner, and need some tips on learning more about wine (like wine tasting), you’ve undoubtedly come to the right place. There’s one piece of advice I tell wine beginners looking to learn more about wine:
Tasting wine frequently is the best way to learn.
If you read my article on wine pairing basics, I emphasized that drinking and tasting wine often is really how you become a wine master. That’s why I put together a guide of basics and tips on tasting wine. Most importantly, you can use these tasting tools anywhere you’re enjoying wine: at a tasting room, in a restaurant, at a wine festival, or even at home.
Above all, if you want to taste a lot of wines and get a lot of practice, there’s one thing you need to do: visit a wine festival. If you’ve never been to a wine festival, or just want to make your next festival experience more memorable, I have some great tips on going to a wine festival as well. Check them out here. Here are a few reasons why I find wine festivals to be a great opportunity to learn.
- Wineries often hold presentations about their wines’ history, characteristics, and recommended food pairings.
- You’ll visit a lot of different wineries in one day.
- Servers welcome and encourage your questions (they do at a tasting room too, but the festival is a prime place for wineries to educate consumers on their wines).
Before tasting, put together your tools.
- A notebook and pen/pencil, or your cell phone (just something to take notes on!)
- A big bottle of sparkling water (I’ll explain why).
- An attitude to learn.
- A willingness to spit your wine out.
Next, let’s get the basics down.
One of the most important wine tasting tips is to taste in the proper order. Tasting sweet wines before dry ones makes them extra dry, and red overpowers your taste buds when drinking it before white. It’s therefore best to taste wines in the order of white to red and sweet to dry. On the other hand, I’ve had people curious about a dry wine after tasting a sweet wine, or white after red. I let them know the flavor may not be ideal as it would in order, but they don’t seem to have too much of a problem after I tell them. I personally think it’s better to follow this order.
There are five ‘S’s to wine tasting. They are:
Jim Hammond, one of New Mexico’s top sommeliers (“saw-mill-yay,” or a person who serves wine and is an expert on it), talks about this process in-depth in his book Wines of Enchantment: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying the Wines of New Mexico. I have taken some of the information and added my own thoughts to build the details of this section. I also took some information from The Oxford Companion to Wine (First Edition), edited by Jancis Robinson MW (Master of Wine, one of the top wine professional certifications in the world).
Firstly, what does the wine look like? Is it pretty to you? (Yes, I’m being dead serious asking this.) As you become a pro you’ll be able to figure out multiple things, like if the wine is aged or has any flaws. But, for now, just examine the wine and see if you like the appearance. The color of the wine is part of the sensory experience. This may sound like total bullshit, but trust me, I’ve enjoyed wines better because of their pretty color.
Evaluate the color, then give the glass a gentle swirl to introduce air into the wine. This allows the aromas of the wine to rise out of the liquid.
It of course takes a little bit of practice to swirl wine confidently. In the event that you feel like you can’t swirl your wine without spilling it, you can always swirl it by bracing the bottom of your glass on the table. This YouTube video explains what I’m talking about really well.
We call the aromas of wine the “nose.” To do this, just hold your nose to the glass, close (but not too close) to the wine itself. What does the wine smell like to you?
I actually sniff before I swirl, then sniff again after I do so. My nose seems to be pretty sensitive to the alcohol and it becomes most of what I end up smelling if I swirl too much.
This one’s self-explanatory. Take small sips and don’t chug.
If you don’t like the wine, it’s okay to spit it out. As a matter of fact, it’s actually proper etiquette if you’re tasting wine so you don’t get buzzed or drunk. I’ve had a lot of people at festivals tell me they don’t like the wine I just served them but insist on finishing it. While it’s good to not be wasteful, you could look like a wine beginner doing this.
Spend some time analyzing the wine. The key here is to be mindful. What’s it taste like? What does the taste remind you of? How does it feel in your mouth?
Don’t forget to examine the finish, or aftertaste of a wine. A long finish is nice. As with the nose and the palate, examine what it tastes like and what it reminds you of.
Some more wine tasting pro tips:
If you’re careful enough, you can also try and put your palm over the rim of your glass while swirling the wine. This further concentrates the aromas.
If you really want to look badass, sip the wine, then gently suck in air through your lips before swallowing wine. It helps wine aroma travel back into your nose, creating a better taste for you. Pros do this.
Jim told me that tasting sparkling wine at the end helps “zap” and re-energize your palate after being overwhelmed with tasting. Sparkling water does the same thing, hence why I suggested having a bottle. If you have sparkling wine, just sip it, but if you have water, take a nice big drink of it to hydrate you some.
How I Take Notes:
Equally important to tasting is taking notes on on said wine you’re tasting. In fact, many people actually make a wine journal. I use my phone to take notes as I always have it on me. This is what I write down:
- The wine (if it’s a certain varietal or blend),
- the winery that made it,
- the vintage (the year it was made, if there is one),
- and the region.
As I’m going along with the tasting, I take notes on the color/appearance, smell, palate, and finish. Don’t be afraid to go out there with your imagination. If it smells like damp leaves or tastes like petrol/gasoline, write it! (These are common wine aromas.) Furthermore, I’ll write down facts about the wine. Anything interesting that the server said about the wine (pairings, history, secret grape blend, awards, etc.) is also good to write down.
Finally, there is one more thing you can do: evaluate the wine according to your tastes and knowledge. Most professionals use a 100-point scale. I will use a letter grade for any wine that I review on this blog. You don’t have to go this far if you don’t want to. Write what you thought about the wine. Did you enjoy it or not? Why?
And as always, my most important wine tasting tip: don’t pressure yourself when doing all this! The key to all of this is to have a little fun for once. As long as you follow the 5 ‘S’s, there’s really no right or wrong way to taste or take notes.
Now look at you! You may be a wine beginner, but with these tips and tools your journey toward expertise is off to a great start. Soon, your friends and family will come to you as the wine expert!
“Tasting for pleasure, which is what most wine drinkers do every time they open a bottle, requires nothing more complicated than a moment’s concentration and an open mind.” –The Oxford Companion to Wine (First Edition)