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Wine Tasting 101

By Alyssa Rapp
Alyssa J. Rapp is the Founder and CEO of Bottlenotes.com, the premier online wine community where wine enthusiasts come to learn about wine, share tasting notes, and buy wine. Alyssa is also the author of Bottlenotes Guide to Wine: Around the World in 80 Sips.

You know that feeling, when you get caught splitting a bottle with your resident wine expert friend…your stomach starts to sink as they pour you a glass only to begin a foreign ritual. They swirl, sniff, swish, spit and suddenly you feel like you’re on another planet. Words like tannin, lush, or stony spew from their lips and all you can do is smile and nod while you quietly sip your wine.

But fear your wino friend no more and embrace your inner sommelier: Bottlenotes has the expert advice you’ve been waiting for. Welcome to Wine Tasting 101.

The basics of wine tasting are simple enough: just think through your senses. The wine expert relies on sight, smell, and taste to expound those lengthy notes.

Wine Tasting 101 consists of three parts:

1. Sight

A glass of wine is more than simply the sum of its tastes. To sip like a true sommelier, the first thing to do is examine the color of the wine. Pour into a (clear) glass and examine the shade or hue of the wine in the light, against a white background if possible. Is the wine opaque or transparent? Consistently colored throughout, or does it have a lighter rim and a darker core? The intensity of the color of a wine intimates the intensity in flavor you will experience when tasting the wine.

2. Smell

When it comes to the nose, the experts tend to refer to the “bouquet” of the wine. Since 80% of wine tasting is olfactory, you really “rob” yourself of the complete wine tasting experience when you don’t stop to smell the roses- er, wine.

The first part of maximizing the bouquet of any wine requires oxygenating the wine before smelling it. If you can decant the bottle to be enjoyed 30 minutes before tasting, it is optimal, particularly for reds. If you’re not going to decant the wine, letting it aerate in the glass for 5-10 minutes before enjoying makes a big difference.

Thereafter, be sure to swirl the wine in the glass again and again to help aerate the wine, thus release the bouquet. Can you smell any particular aromas in the wine? Fruits? Spices? Is it smoky or mossy? Again, imbuing these scents before taking your first sip will only enhance the wine-tasting experience.

3. Taste

Once you’ve seen and sniffed, you’re ready to sip. Take a small swig and swirl it around to coat your entire mouth so you hit every taste center and get a true sense of the texture. Sommeliers tend to classify the taste in three steps, the initial impression, the evolution, and the finish.

The initial flavors may leave a different impression than the evolution phase, when you pick up on the subtleties or plurality of flavors in the wine. Ask yourself about the familiarity of flavors you might discover. Is the wine lush/creamy or light/crisp? Smooth and elegant or heavy and tannic? Fruit-forward or smokey and earthy?

The finish is your last piece of the wine puzzle. How long does the taste linger in your mouth? Is the finish aggressive or smooth? Does it inspire you to take another sip? The length of the finish leads us into the second level of wine tasting.

Wine Tasting 101 Part 2: Digging a Little Deeper

The five most common categories by which to judge a wine are complexity, concentration, length of finish, balance and harmony, and typicity. Complexity refers to the ways in which the wine changes in your glass over time.

Inexpensive table wines are meant to be quaffable and simple, but the goal of a maker of fine wines is to create wines that have many layers that keep you curious and coming back sip after sip. Great wines have the power to leave you hypothesizing far beyond the last drop. The concentration of a wine both improves its intensity and demonstrates the care of the winemaker for the quality of his or her product. Such wines come from vine- yards where the cultivator has limited the yields of the vines. Planting vines close together forces the vines to compete with one another. The more stressed a vine is by the proximity of other vines, the more energy it focuses on its own production—concentrating its grapes with flavor and intensity. Grapes that have been nurtured (or stressed) in this way tend to produce wines with dense, concentrated flavors.

The finish, the amount of time that the taste of the wine lingers in your senses, can hint at the quality of the wine. The best wines keep expressing themselves long after leaving the mouth. In addition, the taste expressed ought to be balanced. The aim is for the alcoholic strength, acidity, residual sugar, and tannins to complement one another in such a way that no single element dominates all others in the wine.

Finally, typicity—the extent to which the wine displays characteristics typical to its region of origin, grape variety, and vintage (in a word, terroir)—indicates the greatness of a wine. Great wines are expressions of their soils, environments, climates, and the grapes and people that made them.