The Basics of Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting I: Assessing by Appearance
Wine Tasting II: Assessing by Smell
Wine Tasting III: Assessing by Taste

Wine Tasting I: Assessing by Appearance

Serving Temperature

Before beginning, determine the ideal serving temperature for the wine you will be tasting. For the serving temperature of a specific wine, ask your wine dealer.

Sweet White Wine 45º F
Dry White Wine 48º-50º F
Very Light Red Wine
(i.e. Beaujolais)
52º F
Young Red Wine 46º-58º F
Mature Red Wine 60º-64º F

Color and Clarity

Choose a tulip bowled, clear wine glass. If you are trying to achieve a professional feel of wine tasting, glasses made specifically for tasting are known as INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) glasses.

Before pouring the wine into the glass, smell the glass to ensure that there is no unpleasant odor.

The correct way to hold a wine glass is by the stem. Although a bit awkward, this prevents the heat of your hands from altering the temperature of the wine and your fingerprints from altering the appearance of the wine.

Fill the glass no more than 1/3 full. This will allow you to "swirl" the wine without spilling. "Swirling" wine is a key element when smelling and tasting wine.

View the wine by holding the glass to a white background in a well lit room. A white sheet or simple white paper plate will suffice. The color of the wine is influenced by the length of fermentation, exposure to the grape skins, and length of ageing in the cask and bottle.

The appearance of the wine can reveal winemaking flaws. First to be observed is the clarity of the wine. Both red and white wine should appear clear and brilliant in color, rather than cloudy and dull. Tipping the glass slightly will give you a better view. If you peer straight down into the glass, can you see the bottom of the glass? Does the color of the wine appear to be the same at the rim of the glass as it is in the middle?

A handful of reds produce natural sediment, though it should not be spread throughout the wine. The presence of sediment can be very positive, dependent on the wine. If sediment is visible, resting the bottle will allow the sediment to settle to the bottom. Decanting wine should be reserved for old vintages of fine wines. Ask your wine dealer if it is appropriate to decant your wine before tasting.

Red Wine

Red wine begins life as deep purple (sometimes opaque) in color. As red wine ages it tends to fade in color through the following color stages:

Deep purple > Garnet > Red Brick > Brown

The depth of color in red wine is a good indicator of high quality wine with good flavor. Pale red wine can be an indicator of bad winemaking practices or that the grapes encountered bad weather conditions before the winemaking process began. Possible exception: Red wines from the Burgundy region of France tend to be fairly pale in color when at their best.

Red wine that has an orange or brownish tinge to the wine or to the rim of the wine is typically an indication that the wine is reaching its peak in the aging process. A red wine that exhibits uncharacteristic darkening may have been exposed to air that caused the wine to oxidize.

You will learn by experience what the depth of color should be for each variety of wine.

White Wine

White wine begins life clear or with hues of green or straw. As white wine ages, it tends to go through the following color stages:

Clear/Green/Straw > Yellow > Gold > Brown

While viewing the white wine, take note of the color. In white wines the color is often an indicator of age and origin. Example:

Wine Origin California, Australia, Chile Europe
Coloring When Young Intense Yellow Pale Straw, yellow, greenish Yellow
Coloring When Aged Deep Gold Deep Gold

The coloring is influenced by the grape varietal(s) and is the first indicator of the wine's character and intensity. Typically, the lighter the wine, the lighter the flavor and intensity. Also, most pale whites have been produced by grapes from a cooler growing region, while those wines with deep yellow hues may have been produced by grapes from a warmer climate and/or may have been oak-aged.

Almost all simple white wines are meant to age only 1 to 2 years if at all. Most white wines that reach a deep gold color have become too old to enjoy. There are exceptions to the rule, such as the white wines of Burgundy, Sauternes, and German whites that are at the Auslese level and above.

You will learn by experience what the depth of color should be for each variety of wine.

When white wine is poured, tiny bubbles may appear around the rim or directly on the side of the glass. Some white wines contain small, clear crystals that appear at the bottom of the bottle. Neither of these characteristics is considered a flaw. The bubbles are a sign of residual carbon dioxide that was created during fermentation or carbon dioxide that may have been absorbed during storage. The crystals appear if the wine was stored in an extremely cold place for any length of time. Tartaric acid, naturally present in grape juice, is what makes up these crystals. It is also an indication that the wine was not exposed to over filtering, a process known to result in loss of flavor.

Legs (or "Tears")

Refers to the thick droplets of wine that form on the inside of the glass and stream down when wine has been swirled or consumed. The legs are a visual tool for assessing a wine's body and flavor characteristics before actually tasting the wine. While some wine connoisseurs believe that the appearance of legs is an indication of a full-bodied and luscious wine or lack of is an indication of a weak wine, others believe it is no indication of quality but simply a myth. Myth or no myth, it is best to rely on your nose and palate to determine the quality and characteristics of a wine.

To observe the legs, you must "swirl" the wine. While firmly holding the stem of the wine glass, gently swirl the wine in the bowl.

Instances thought to affect the appearance of legs:

  • Glasses that have not been washed and dried correctly
  • Less reputable wine makers have been known to add
    glycerin to wine to achieve the effect of legs, a practice
    that is illegal

Wine Tasting II: Assessing by Smell


Fill the wine glass no more than 1/3 full. While firmly holding the stem of the wine glass, gently swirl the wine in the bowl for 10-20 seconds. The glass should be held parallel to the ground and use only your wrist to make subtle, circular motions.

The purpose of swirling wine in a glass is to oxygenate the wine. When oxygen is introduced to a wine it releases the chemical components that produce those aromas we search for and is thought to smooth the taste of the wine.

Tip: If you find yourself spilling the wine as you swirl, place your wine glass on a table and swirl the wine using the table as a base. Give the wine a few good circular motions, allowing oxygen to penetrate the wine.

The narrowing of the wine glass bowl intensifies and concentrates the aroma of a wine.

The "Nose"

The term "nose" is used by professional wine tasters when referring to the bouquet or aroma of a wine.

"Bouquet" is a term used to describe various fragrances evident from the processing and/or ageing of wine.

"Aroma" is a term used to describe the smell of a young wine. More specifically, it refers to the distinct aroma of the grape variety.

"Sniffing" the Wine

Once you have successfully swirled your wine, place your nose into the bowl of the glass and sniff. There is no proper sniffing technique. Some wine connoisseurs prefer to sniff by quickly inhaling two or three times. Others prefer one deep sniff or smelling with one nostril at a time.

Hint: Try each of the sniffing techniques listed above, being sure to swirl between each to see if it affects the results. Closing your eyes may help you concentrate.

Whatever the technique you choose, one main goal remains, to draw the aroma deep into the nose so the sensation can be registered and ultimately translated into words.

Our sense of taste is limited to four categories (sweet, sour, bitter, and salt). Therefore, our sense of smell may just be the most revealing phase of a wine tasting.

What the "Nose" Reveals

The "nose" of a wine can range from pronounced to moderate to unsubstantial. If a wine is referred to as "lacking nose", a detectable smell is not evident.

Tip: Sniffing the wine before you swirl may help to detect minor flaws in the wine that may disappear after swirling.

Primary Aromas

Primary aromas appear in young wines and are often directly related to the grape varietal. The aromas are often fruit related (i.e. black or red raspberries) and may simply be described as "fruity".

Secondary Aromas

Secondary aromas most often appear in wines that have been aged. These characteristics are typically earthy and animalistic.

Surprisingly wines rarely smell of grapes, at least the table grapes that most of us are familiar with. Table grapes are characteristically different than wine making grape varietal and are unsuitable for wine making.

Once you have decoded your senses, be sure to make a note immediately. No matter how odd your first impression may be, it is your personal experiences that allow your taste memory to grow. Describe in detail the aromas and how intense they are.

No matter if you are an expert or a novice wine taster, your nose will immediately alert you if the wine is flawed or not. If you experience any unpleasant smell, you are not likely to forget it.

Examples of an "unpleasant nose" that should alert you to the fact that the wine has gone bad:

Corked (Corky)

Musty odor caused by a fungal infection in the cork. The longer the bottle remains open (exposed to air), the worse the smell becomes.
Moldy The result of rotten grapes or unclean casks.
Sulfur Smell given off when a match is struck. There is usually nothing wrong with the wine.
Bottle Stink Similar to the odor of rotten eggs. The odor tends to disappear when the wine is poured.
Oxidized Stale smell that is caused by exposure to air. In reds, the odor can be "cabbagey". When you allow the wine to rest the odor gets worse rather than better.
Metallic Odor that is caused by metal contamination during the ageing or wine making process.
Vinegar Offensive odor is an indication that the wine is unfit for consumption.

You may also be able to assess if and/or how the wine has been matured after fermentation. The wine may have been aged in concrete, stainless steel, or wooden casks. The type of barrel, size of barrel, where the barrel originated, and the age of the barrel all have an effect on the flavor and clarity of the wine being aged. For instance, wines that have been aged in wooden casks typically take on overtones of woodsmoke, cedar, and/or vanilla.

Wine Tasting III: Assessing by Taste

The tongue is capable of perceiving only 4 flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, and salt. The nose is capable of detecting 2,000+ scents. 90% of what you taste is detected by the nose rather than the tongue. Assessing the wine by taste should confirm the conclusions drawn from the appearance assessment and the smell assessment.

  • The tip of the tongue detects sweetness
  • The inner sides of the tongue detect sourness and/or acidity
  • The outer sides of the tongue detect saltiness
  • The back of the tongue detects bitterness and/or alcohol

Continuing to breathe in and out through the nose while tasting will alert you to characteristics you may not be able to perceive if you concentrate only on taste.

Factors that will mislead your senses and should be avoided before tasting are:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Sweet candies
  • Perfume or cologne
  • Aftershave lotion
  • Scented hair spray or gel
  • Cosmetics such as lipstick
  • Gum
  • Breath mints

When tasting more than one wine, it is best to begin with the lightest/youngest wine and crescendo to the fuller bodied/aged wines. Between tastings, clean your palate by eating a bread stick, a piece of bread, or unsalted crackers. Limit the number of wine tastings; too many at one time will have a negative affect on the results.


Swirl the wine prior to assessing the wine by taste. The purpose of swirling wine in a glass is to oxygenate the wine. When Oxygen is introduced to a wine it releases the chemical components that produce those aromas we search for and is thought to smooth the taste of the wine.


Forepalate, Midpalate, and Endpalate

After you have swirled (10-20 seconds) the wine you are going to taste, sip a reasonable amount of wine and do not swallow. Swirl and "chew" the wine in your mouth. If you feel comfortable doing so, carefully slurp some air through puckered lips. This slurping of air (aerating) will help to release flavor and aromas. Swirl the wine for 10-30 seconds. As you hold the wine in your mouth, the characteristics may change. Pay attention to these changes and, if possible, document them. These first impressions may be referred to as the forepalate or initial taste. The forepalate is followed by the midpalate, the endpalate, and the finish.

While deciphering the characteristics, keep in mind the 4 basic components of wine:

  1. Acid
  2. Alcohol
  3. Fruit
  4. Tannin

In a high quality wine, these 4 components are pleasantly balanced.

Taste Assessment

  • How does the wine feel? Is it delicate and light or is it heavy and full?
  • Dry or sweet? If you do not detect sweetness, the wine is thought to be dry.
  • How would you describe the texture? Descriptive terms may be: course, thin, rich, velvety, fizzy, buttery, or even unnoticeable.
  • When the wine is to the front of your mouth, do you feel a prickling ("bite") sensation? This is how you determine the acidity of a wine. An essential in all wine, it can be quite sharp. The acidity of a wine is what makes the wine crisp and fresh. If the wine is too low in acidity it is considered flat and sour.
  • If the wine is red, tannin should be detected on the roof of your mouth, and on your tongue and teeth. The presence of tannin will dry out the middle and back of your tongue. The taste of tannin is similar to cold black tea.
  • Drawing air into the mouth will help you to detect specific fruit flavors.
  • Does the wine have a blend of flavors or is there a prominent characteristic?
  • How intense is the fruitiness of the wine? The intensity is dependent on the varietal, growing conditions, and the techniques used in the making of the wine. With practice you will be able to distinguish these characteristics.
  • Does the wine feel hot and full or delicate and light? The hotter and fuller the characteristics, the more alcohol the wine contains.
  • Is the taste appropriate for that type of wine?

Finish or Aftertaste

Once you have made your conclusions and documented them, swallow or spit the wine. Spitting wine is advisable if you are going to taste a number of wines. After swallowing, gently exhale through your nose and mouth. The impression the wine leaves in the mouth following swallowing or spitting is referred to as the finish or aftertaste. These characteristics are often different from those detected on the palate while swirling the wine in your mouth.


The amount of time flavors linger in the mouth after swallowing (or spitting) is referred to as the length of the wine. Generally, wines of a higher quality have a long length. If the flavor lingers in the mouth for 1-3 seconds after swallowing the wine has short length, 3-7 seconds the wine has medium length, 8+ seconds the wine has a good, long length.


What you are looking for in a wine is a good balance of characteristics. A wine that is multi-dimensional with all parts working together is most appealing. It is best when no one characteristic stands out from others. Balance is what winemakers strive for.

Your conclusion, whether you are a novice or an expert, is going to be based on personal preference and appeal. Do not let others influence you.

Although reading will help, the greatest appreciation and education of wine tasting is gained by experience. As your memories accumulate, your ability to evaluate will grow. Documenting during and after your tasting is essential. As well as documenting specific characteristics, you may also want to comment on:

  • Was the wine worth the money?
  • Did you like the wine and why?
  • Did the characteristics fit the type of wine?
  • Was it balanced?
Tip: Wine journals provide you with an attractive place to organize your thoughts. Favorite wines from faraway travels can be remembered and documented for future reference. Label lifters allow you to save the label along with your personal notes.



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