How to Taste Wine
Let's break down what wine tastes like on your palate and the wine terminology you can use to communicate with others. Here is an overview and guide to wine tasting for curious beginners and avid wine enthusiasts alike looking to hone their wine tasting skills.
There are 9 wine categories to discern when you’re swirling the liquid goodness around in your mouth. This is called assessing the palate of the wine, because you are analyzing it with your mouth. The first five categories are the cornerstones: sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol and body.
Understanding these components of wine while tasting can help you pinpoint what you like, or don’t like, about a wine! In turn, assisting with buying wine, ordering wine at a restaurant, and generally communicating with others.
1. S W E E T N E S S
We perceive sweetness toward the front of our tongues. If you notice your taste buds tingling on the tip of your tongue, that’s an indicator of sugar levels. There’s a range, and in the wine world these are words used to describe the different levels of sweetness in a still wine:
Dry | Off-Dry | Medium-Dry | Medium-Sweet | Sweet
For sparkling wine the terms are:
Brut Natural | Extra Brut | Brut | Extra Dry | Sec | Demi Sec | Doux
Other components of the wine impact our perception of sweetness, like acid, so you have to focus on your tongue. For enjoyment, just consider if the wine seems in balance.
2. A C I D I T Y
Notice how your mouth salivates after a sip of wine. That’s acidity. How much salivating and for how long depends on both the total acidity and pH level, but to simplify, you can think of it like taking a bite of lemon. If you pucker you’re mouth with lots of salivating, that’s higher perceived acidity. Like a dry white Riesling. The range:
Low | Medium (-) | Medium | Medium (+) | High
Why do we care? If a wine has too low of acidity, it can taste dull, flabby and uninspiring. Acidity in wine gives it a fresh quality that makes you want to take another sip. It brings flavors together and makes you notice each flavor more, like brightening a picture.
3. T A N N I N
Tannin in wine can get confused with sweetness and the term “dry” because it has a drying effect on your tongue and gums. It can also be perceived as bitter along the sides of your tongue and is sometimes described as astringent. There is a range:
Low | Medium (-) | Medium | Medium (+) | High
A low tannin wine example could be a Gamay (like Beaujolais) and a high tannin wine example would be a Nebbiolo (like Barolo). ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Tannin comes from the skins of the grapes, seeds, stems (when incorporated), and then additional can be added with oak contact. It adds complexity to wine and polyphenol compounds that are associated with health benefits.
4. A L C O H O L
Feel the burn! For assessing alcohol in wine, take a sip and see how far you feel the heat down your throat. Higher alcohol content has more of a “burn” effect. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We typically see wine between 11-15% ABV (alcohol by volume), but it can run 5-20%. The alcohol range is simple:
Low | Medium | High
Generally, you can categorize wine alcohol by these percentages:
<12% = LOW
12 - 13.9% = MEDIUM
14%+ = HIGH
Next time you have a glass of wine, take notice of the “heat” sensation when you swallow and then look at the alcohol percentage. Over time, you’ll start to get calibrated!
When you start thinking about overall quality, the thing that matters with alcohol is if it is in balance and not jumping out at you.
5. B O D Y
A wine’s body is the weight and fullness you feel in your mouth. Mainly coming from viscosity, which depends on alcohol content. Simply put, higher alcohol in wine means the liquid is more viscous and thus feels weightier in our mouths leading to a fuller body. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Think of the light weight feel of water in your mouth versus honey. Or non-fat milk vs. regular milk vs. creamer.
Light | Medium (-) | Medium | Medium (+) | Full
I would also argue, though, that the tannin level and nature, could contribute to perception of body. A high level of chewy tannin can seem like a fuller body. Food for thought!
⠀ 6. F L A V O R I N T E N S I T Y
When you take a sip of wine, how intense are the flavors you taste? Is it subtle or WOW, in your face?! You can think about flavor intensity like cucumber-infused water versus a regular soda.
Light | Medium (-) | Medium | Medium (+) | Pronounced
Great wine can be on both ends of the spectrum! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Take Chardonnay for example. You can have an elegant, chiseled, elevated Chablis on the lighter end of the spectrum, and an aged white Burgundy with generous development displaying a lot of concentration on the other. Both killer. The popular California full MLF¹, heavy oak, buttery Chard would fall on the pronounced end of the spectrum too, as a gauge. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ It’s all about personal preference!
7. F L A V O R C H A R A C T E R I S T I C S
This is the fun part of wine tasting when you hear people say the wine tastes like weird things, like dirt.
Believe it or not, there is a method to the madness here, and this part of discerning flavors in a wine can help you in blind tasting and also describing the wine to someone who has never had it before.
Let's break down flavor characteristics into categories, with some examples, but certainly not all-encompassing.
These are flavors that come from the grape itself and fermentation.
Fruits ... citrus (lemon), tree (apple), tropical (mango), red (cherry), black (blackberry)
Floral ... jasmine, acacia, violet, honeysuckle, citrus blossom
Herbs ... dried oregano, eucalyptus, dill, mint
Herbaceous ... grass, bell pepper
Spices ... pepper, cinnamon, anise star
These flavors come from post-fermentation winemaking.
Wood ... oak, cedar, vanilla, smoke, coconut, cloves, chocolate
Yeast ... think gluten - biscuit, toast, pastry, yogurt
MLF¹ ... think dairy - butter, cheese, cream
As a wine matures, these flavors can develop.
White wine: ... nuts, dried fruit, marmalade, caramel, honey, petrol
Red wine: ... cooked and dried fruit, earthy, leather, tobacco, meat
Intentional oxidation: ... nuts (hazelnut, walnut), caramel, coffee
8. O T H E R O B S E R V A T I O N S
This wine category can be subtle nuances, like texture of the wine. Is it oily? Does it have pétillance (a spritz quality)? Does it seem creamy? All these comments fall into other observations. The catch all.
9. F I N I S H
One element in determining quality in wine (and with so many things in life) is the “finish”. Are you left with a good feeling that keeps going? Is it instantly forgotten when you swallow? Wine is categorize by the following:
Short | Medium (-) | Medium | Medium (+) | Long
I hope this aids in your journey exploring the world of wine and lingers helpfully in your memory for reference the next time you taste a wine!
¹MLF stands for malolactic fermentation, which is a term used to describe when a wine has undergone a malolactic conversion. This happens when the naturally occuring malic acid converts to lactic acid and gives off carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Malolatic fermentation lowers the acidity of the wine and can produce the buttery-smelling diacetyl.