Wine tasting skills can seem elusive. Many people are skeptical of experts who proclaim that one wine has hints of blackberry while another finishes with a mineral flavor.
Skepticism about wine expertise can make sense. After all, some studies show that an average wine drinker can’t even taste the difference between whites and reds if food coloring has been added to the former. However, that’s because most drinkers don’t pay much attention.
True experts have a testable ability to identify compounds and flavors reliably.
We won’t get into every wine term here—there are far too many—but we’ll mention a few of the words you’ll hear most often.
These are four of the most fundamental ways to describe any wine. They also happen to the four most straightforward traits to notice.
Dry wine is not sweet. It has very low amounts of residual sugar. Many people are familiar with a puckery, dry feeling when drinking certain wines and mistakenly think this is what “dry” refers to. It’s not.
In the wine world, sweetness is the opposite of dryness. Some wines, like port, are so sweet that we call them dessert wines.
Tannins cause the puckery sensation of some wines. Tannins are bitter compounds that plants evolved to prevent animals from eating them. Fortunately for us, humans have complex palates and can enjoy things that other creatures might not.
Acidic wines make your mouth water. Though excessive acid makes wine too harsh to enjoy, a proper amount gives wine a pleasantly tart flavor.
All wines have a mix of tannic and acidic compounds. The differences from one wine to another are just in amount.
Next, you need experience. Just trying wine after wine isn’t enough. You’ll need to focus carefully on each one.
Don’t pick the most expensive wines. Because you’ll be comparing so many, you’ll break the bank if you go for top-shelf stuff. More importantly, you don’t have to spend a lot to get good wine.
Choose a wine trait you want to learn about and then research which commonly available wines are known for that trait. For instance, to fully understand the difference between tannins and acidity, you should choose several wines.
- A tannic red wine
- An acidic red wine
- A fully balanced red wine
- A tannic white wine
- An acidic white wine
- A fully balanced white wine
Do similar tests for any other trait you want to explore.
Before tasting each wine, take several small sniffs. Think about what you’re smelling. Much of the pleasure of wine comes from your olfactory experience. Once you try the wine, you can compare its flavor to the scent you originally picked up on.
When comparing wines, don’t drink an entire glass of each. Guzzling whole drinks at a time is a fast way to dull your palate. It’s also a quick way to get too drunk to notice subtle differences in flavor.
Take a few little sips of each wine.
Between each one, have some water and a bite of bread. This ensures that you won’t have residual flavors on your tongue when you try the next bottle.
With each wine, write down the following information so you won’t forget later:
- Brand or vineyard
- Type of grape[s] in the wine
- Year produced, otherwise known as a wine’s vintage
- Place of origin
- Whether you like it
Over time, your notes will reveal clear patterns for you to draw upon.
Go To Tastings
Many vineyards and wine shops hold tastings. You’ll be able to try a variety of wines without having to purchase bottles. Search for “wine tastings near me” to find them. These events are especially valuable if you’re on a tight budget.
Ask for Help
You don’t have to go it alone when you’re at a wine store. Employees will be happy to help you find whatever you’re seeking. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for, a wine seller will give their best guess about what you’ll enjoy. Just let your guide know your acceptable price range.
Once you’ve tasted a variety of wines, it’s worth doing more research. Before you develop a good wine palate, there isn’t much point in trying to detect flavors like mushrooms, minerals, herbs, and so on.
However, those notes become far easier to detect when your palate has become sophisticated. Read as much as you can about these flavors and how to notice them.
You may even be interested in learning about the chemical compounds in wine.
For instance, malolactic fermentation—a process in which malic acid ferments into lactic acid—is responsible for the buttery feel of good chardonnay. Vanillin is a compound created by aging wine in oak barrels. You can probably guess what vanillin tastes like.
Eventually, you might decide that you’ve hit the limit of what you can learn by experimenting and self-teaching. When that happens, take wine tasting classes.
Some classes are for beginners. If you don’t want to teach yourself, you can set this article aside and start there. However, other courses are more advanced. Make sure you know the class’s level.
You might be surprised by how technical lessons can get. If you’re a true wine nerd, you’ll be delighted to discover that some teachers even allow students to taste pure compounds (such as refined tannins). After tasting the pure versions, you’ll find those flavors and the sensations they cause unmistakable whenever you encounter them.
Until then, enjoy your wine!