There are countless ways to taste a wine. I think that ultimately, the right way is to taste it the way you would want to drink it. For me, when I drink wine, I tend to look at it, smell it, swirl it, look at it again, another small swirl, smell it again, and then finally taste it. When I taste it, I tend to use my whole mouth, taking in all of the flavors my tongue can pick up. Different parts of your tongue pick up different characteristics. The front picks up sweetness, the back bitterness, and the sides acidity and saltiness.
Let’s talk about each of those steps and variants you can use.
- Look at it: In this step for me, it’s the color for which I’m looking. Generally I associate darker colors with deeper, richer flavors in both red and white wines. While generally true, it isn’t always. So color can be a rough-cut rule of thumb about what to expect, but not an absolute. Optimally, look at your wine with the glass tilted against a white or very light background. Looking at the edge of the wine, you can get a good sense of the depth of the color.
- Smell it: It’s important to smell the wine both before and after you swirl it. Tilt the glass towards your nose so the wine almost falls out, stick your nose in (the pros stick it all the way in) and smell. You will get a sense of the aromatics of the wine, but you won’t yet overpower your nose with alcohols evaporating as a result of a swirl.
- Swirl it: Give it a good swirl. If you are using a proper wine glass, the wine shouldn’t come out. Hint: put the glass on a hard, flat surface and slide it quickly in circles. You’ll be a professional swirler in no time.
- Look at it again: This time, look at the legs right after the swirl. Are they forming slowly or quickly? Do they last a long time or a short time? Are there many or few? Are they thick or thin? How quickly do they run down the glass? Generally speaking, more, thicker, and slower moving legs means a higher alcohol content in the wine. Over time and with experience, if you look at legs and then check the bottle’s alcohol content, you can begin to make pretty good guesses yourself. The legs are caused by the evaporation of alcohol and the remaining components of the wine binding and running down the glass. One caution: Legs can also be caused by viscosity, so the type of wine matters. Most dry reds you can read about the same way, but if you toss in a Port or a Moscato, for example, all bets are off. The high sugar in those wines makes them more viscous; hence more legs. But sticking to dry reds, you can get pretty good at correlating legs with alcohol content and then amaze your friends at parties…
- Another small swirl: By the time I watch the legs, the aromatics from the swirl have mostly worn off, so another quick swirl is in order before step 6.
- Smell it again: This time, do the smelling differently. Since the swirl is fresh, you have a lot of alcohol evaporating. This will give you a ton of aromatics and a great sense of what the upcoming sip will be like, so do a little more with this smell. Tilt the glass as before, but this time, start with your nose at the top of the opening and start to breath in. As you do, make sure your nose is all the way in and move down towards the bottom of the opening (remember the glass is tilted way over towards you) and don’t stop inhaling. Notice the dramatic difference in smell between the top and bottom of the glass. Take it all in and sense what the flavors you are about to taste may be. Also, if you want to go back to the first smelling, just blow a puff of air into your glass, tilt it again and smell without swirling. It’s a great reset. You can go back and forth between the two types of smelling, but practically speaking, you won’t likely do this much. You’ll stay with the post-swirl smelling because it’s so much stronger.
- Taste it (Finally!!!): You can repeat swirling and smelling over and over until you are ready to sip, but if you’ve read this far and actually done everything I’ve suggested, the anticipation is probably killing you. Time to sip! There are many ways to sip. I’ve done baby sips. I’ve taken large sips and sloshed it around my mouth. I’ve taken sips, tilted my head down, and sucked in to aerate the wine in my mouth. I’ve heard experts say “white down the middle, red down the sides”. Try them all. Each will give you a different flavor profile for the wine you are drinking. It doesn’t matter what varietal, each of the above methods puts the wine in a different place in your mouth and on your tongue and the results will be astonishingly different. Some wine, you might love if you sip it just down the middle of your tongue, but it will taste horribly acidic if you let it touch the sides. Conversely, a wine which tastes good down the sides may taste far too sweet or lacking in flavor if you drink it down the middle. My recommendation: Taste it the way you drink it. If you drink whites and reds differently, taste them differently. Ultimately you want to drink what you enjoy so make your approach to tasting match your drinking.
In conclusion, I’d say there is no right or wrong way to do any of the above. What I do is pretty much a full blown version of viewing, smelling, and tasting the wine because it’s fun to do and I discover all sorts of hidden nuances, smells, and flavors in a single glass. But do you need to do it all? Not close. If you are more interested in simply, “do I like it?” instead of exploring all the subtleties, then just pop it, pour it, and taste it as you would drink it. Is it good? – yes/no – done!
As a footnote, I have spent many, many years tasting wines. Only in the last fiver or so have I gone to the lengths described above. I do it because I love the discovery and the exploration of the wine in a bottle. Truth be told, though, for many years, I was perfectly happy with the pop, pour, taste, decide approach. Ultimately, it’s all a matter of preference and what you want to get out of it.