See, Sniff, Sip, Savor, Speak. The 5 Steps to Wine Tasting that uncover a wine’s secrets! Each of the 5 S-actions opens the wine to your senses revealing clues you can use to describe a wine – whether to others or for your own notes.
If you’ve ever wondered what wine pros are doing (and looking for) when they taste wine or wanted a bit more wine savvy yourself…. Read on. Soon you’ll be seeing, swirling, sniffing, and sipping your way to new wine discoveries with boosted wine confidence!
Why We Taste Wine
Wine – It’s not just liquid refreshment. It’s a libation of sensory delights.
Much of the time, we drink wine for sheer pleasure, never stopping to ask why we like it. A wine’s overall impact in the moment is just deliciousness (ie, Yummy!). But wine can also be magical. It enchants us precisely because of possibilities! The possibility of discovery with each new cork pulled, and the layers of charm just one wine might offer.
But there are times we want to pay closer attention to the wine – whether for our job or study, to make a better food pairing, or to simply figure out what quality makes us like a specific wine (or not). If you’ve ever wanted to more clearly describe a wine to a sommelier or uncover your personal preferences, it’s time to incorporate a little more structure to your tastings.
Using a commonly shared and systematic approach to wine gives you a solid footing for assessing all wines equally, which in turn boosts your discovery, your learning, and your confidence, knowing you’re speaking a “Wine language” others understand!
Use Your Senses – in 5-Steps
Professionals taste wine by opening all their senses; we tune them on high.
When we “taste” wine, we’re actually performing Sensory Analysis. We pay attention to each sense in turn in a 5-step process, progressing from the least physical contact with the liquid (visual) to the most (letting it pass your lips). If a wine looks or smells bad, you don’t have to taste it! This is known as “The Path of Least Damage!”
FOLLOW THE 5-STEP TASTING ORDER the pros use
- Appearance (What you SEE)
- Nose (What you SMELL)
- Palate 1 – Structure (What you TASTE in terms of FEEL: Texture, Mouthfeel, the 5 Basic Tastes)
- Palate 2 – Flavors (What you TASTE in terms of FLAVORS and finish)
- Overall Impression (What you SAY. Your final Assessment & Summary of the wine)
WINE EVALUATION IN 5-STEPS – MY PRO TIPS
Wait – First, how much do I pour for a tasting?
Maximum 1/3 of the glass (no higher than just under the widest point of the glass’ “bowl”). You need plenty of empty space to tilt the glass and swirl away without spilling! Plus enough air space above the wine to hold all the beautiful aromas you just released with that swirl.
Wait again – I don’t know “Wine Speak”! How can I take notes?
Use your own language. Jot down anything that comes to mind and is meaningful to you. Your grandmother’s powder room? A wet sidewalk on a hot day? Warm apple cobbler? Cut grass? Even “Pow!” “Zippy,” “Sweet-Tarts candies” or “Dr. Pepper.” Use your sense memory and life experiences to describe what you see, smell, feel, taste in your own words. This helps you recall the wine later, in your own terms, based on what’s meaningful to you!
Now, find a spot with no distractions or strong aromas, pour yourself a glass, grab a notebook, or your Crush Course© Wine Evaluation Sheet …and …
Follow My S-ACTIONS:
1) See 2) Sniff-Swirl-Sniff 3) Sip-Swish-Spit 4) Savor 5) Summarize through the 5-Steps
5 Steps to Wine Tasting
- STEP 1: APPEARANCE (SEE/Look)
Provides clues to grape variety, wine style, age, level of sugar/alcohol and clues to ripeness or region.
DO: Tilt your glass at a 45 to 30 degree angle over a neutral white surface (your white tasting mat!). Look through the glass to the core (heart) of the wine, and the meniscus (the rim). Don’t hold the wine in the air or over a colored surface! Background colors distort your color assessment. Look through the core. Can you see the writing on the mat or evaluation sheet behind it? Can you read it? How well? Is the meniscus thin or wide? Is it watery or does it carry highlights of other colors?
What we look for: CLARITY – cloudy may indicate an unfiltered wine. Brilliant is filtered or no oak contact. COLOR – holds many clues to potential grape variety, winemaking technique, ripeness and age. Ex: Golden hues in whites might indicate a warmer vintage/riper fruit or contact with oak; a clear wine with green tints: underripe fruit or cool growing region. CONCENTRATION of color/ DEPTH – hints at variety and winemaking method. Deep color indicates deeper pigmented grapes (a Malbec, Syrah, or Mourvedre perhaps, not a Pinot). An opaque vs. translucent core points to the wine’s body, concentration, and mouthfeel.
- STEP 2: AROMA / BOUQUET (SNIFF-SWIRL-SNIFF)
Tells you about grape, ripeness, wine style and winemaking methods. Think in terms of broad categories first.
DO: Hold that swirl a sec! Before swirling, take a couple pre-swirl sniffs, your nose hovering over the still glass. What aromas waft out? Take note; they are the wine’s most delicate aromas. You’ll miss them completely once you swirl!
Now swirl. And sniff again. The swirl allows all the deeper aromas to “volatize”(release them) into the bowl of your glass. Note what aromas dominate. Fruit? Herbs? Spices? Flowers? Or is it the winemaker’s hand (from oak perhaps)?
Start general and that’s a win! “This wine is earthy and herbal” describes a lot! With practice, you can add extra detail – are those spices baking or savory? Is the earthiness damp soil or dry dusty? Does the fruit remind you of citrus or tree or tropical? Does its quality lean underripe, ripe, over-ripe or baked? (think green apple, crisp ripe apple, bruised fruit, apple cobbler).
What we sniff for: CONDITION – does the wine smell clean (normal) or is it faulty (smelling of moldy wet newspaper, or like a dirty cow pasture) – would you want to drink it? INTENSITY, would you describe the aroma as light, or medium, or intense? This hints at grape variety, ripeness, and your preferences.
Then there’s the AROMA itself – What aromas are most prominent – fruit and spice? These broad findings tell a lot about the wine, giving you strong clues to the grape/wine itself, ripeness/growing climate, and help you differentiate wine style. For example, both Syrah and Zinfandel can have peppery aromas. While Zin’s are accompanied by both red and blue fruit, Syrah’s are layered over blue fruits and add earth and animal aromatics. Notice the aromas you prefer and those you don’t, to help you recognize your wine preferences. Do you like wines with spice? Are you attracted to wines with herbaceous and green notes or shy from them? Do animal or inorganic essences add interest or detract?
- STEP 3: PALATE 1 (SIP)
At first sip, pay attention to how the wine feels on your palate, from watering acids, drying tannins, weight and texture, to where it hits your palate and how it fills your mouth and flows from sip to swallow.
DO: Take a good sip and lightly “chew” (squeeze/swish) the wine around in your mouth for a couple seconds. Now spit (or swallow). What do you notice? How does the wine feel from when it first passes your lips, then moves toward the back and fans across your tongue?
What we taste for in Palate 1: When the wine hits your palate, pay most attention to these key “structural” elements: Level of ACIDITY (mouthwatering), TANNINS (drying texture) or bitterness, ALCOHOL (heat – most noticed after you swallow, at the back of the throat and in the nose), SWEETNESS (from sugar, and added viscosity and weight), and BODY (thin and light or full and round). Note all textures, how smooth or rough, including any bubbles, their feel.
- STEP 4: PALATE 2 (SAVOR):
Now pay attention to the flavors on your palate and how long they last.
DO: Take another sip. You may also add this: With head tilted down slightly, pull in a bit of air (short gurgle). Bringing in air opens the aromas – and in turn, flavors – in your mouth! Spit. After you spit or swallow, flavors become even more evident. Note those that linger.
What we taste for in Palate 2: Do the FLAVORS agree with the aromas you found or are there new ones? Herbs? Fruit? What kind? Fresh fruit or baked, ripe or underripe? Note your first impressions. How INTENSE Are those flavors light, medium, or high?
After you spit, wait, and savor. Do the original flavors evolve into new ones? How long do the flavors last? Describe the FINISH (aftertaste) – Is it clean? Bitter? Refreshing? Fruity? Mouthwatering? Don’t sip the next wine too soon. See how long the flavors (and acidity and tannins) linger. A long (clean, pleasant) finish is one sign of wine quality!
- STEP 5: OVERALL ASSESSMENT (SUMMARIZE and Evaluate):
This is where you bring it all together, a brief descriptive summary of the wine from your notes, but more importantly, your overall assessment of the quality of the wine and why/when/where one might enjoy it.
DO: Based on your assessment in steps 1-4, how would you summarize this wine? Are the levels of fruit to tannins to acidity in BALANCE or does one dominate? Is the wine more simple (tells a one or two-note story), or is it more COMPLEX, giving you many different aromatics and flavors in layers, evolving over the time of your tasting?
Based on all your findings (including balance and complexity) how would you assess the wine’s QUALITY? Do you want to drink the wine? Who would? How much are you willing to pay? What do you want to drink it with? (front porch and a friend? A big steak? Mushroom pasta? Salty Popcorn?). These are all fair game for your final descriptive wine summary!
Keep on Tasting!
Give it a try! The more wines you taste using the 5-step evaluation process, the more you’ll discover and learn. Not just about an individual wine, but about the wine world. I promise, the more you discover, the more you’ll enjoy the entire wine experience!
What wines are you tasting? Have you made any discoveries? Leave us a comment below about your victories (and any challenges) through the tasting process. And drop me a line anytime!
~ Mary Beth
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Ready… Set…Enjoy Your Tastings!
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Intro to Wine Tasting -or- Tasting Wine Like a Pro -or- Deductive Blind Tasting