Wine 101: How to Taste Wine With Andrew Lampasone of Wine Watch
Step One: Look at the Wine
This might sound like an idiot-proof first-step, but there are numerous factors that can be discovered just by visually inspecting the glass. From the color, you can tell the age of the wine -- young or old -- the presence of oak, and even the grape variety or blend.
According to Lampasone, "Red wine appears the darkest in its youth and gets progressively lighter as it matures; red wine in wood also lightens the color. White wine gets darker as it ages, so a wine that has a deep golden caramel color is probably older than a wine with brilliant golden hay color. White wine gets darker if you age it in oak."
Step Two: Swirl
You know when someone orders a bottle of wine and swirls it around after the server pours it in the glass? It's not just for show -- even if it looks superpretentious. In addition to aerating the wine, doing so lets you check out the viscosity. As your swirl it around, residual wine falls down the side of the glass; those streams are called the legs. The thicker they are and the longer they cling to the sides, the more viscous the wine. The more viscous the wine, the higher the alcohol content and/or sugars.
"Hold the glass by the stem and swirl it gently; do not shake it violently, causing it to spill over the edge," says Lampasone. "This technique is the most difficult of the five, and equanimity helps. Hold the glass at eye level to get the best view. A few useful terms to impress your friends: long, sluggish, thick, short, slender, accelerated, leisurely, and scrawny."
Step Three: Sniff
Immediately following the spin cycle is the sniff stage. This is the most important step in tasting, because the olfactory system has the ability to distinguish thousands of aromas. While most people tend to focus on the actual taste of the wine, you only taste four things once you out the wine in your mouth.
To properly sniff the wine, take a deep whiff as it is still swirling around in the glass. Exhale and then take a deep inhale. Repeat a couple of times and take some time to think about the aromas.
While the variations in aromas can change from bottle to bottle, certain varieties are known for exhibiting specific scents across the board, such as cherry in Pinot Noir, ripe berries in Cabernet Sauvignon, citrusy, grassy notes in Sauvignon Blanc, and citrus and possibly oak or butter in Chardonnay.
However, while aromas like cat pee and acetone can be perfectly normal, there are some notes that indicate a wine is clearly off.
According to Lampasone, "If a wine smells musty, like mold or mildew; acidic, like vinegar; or burnt, like cooked vegetables, the wine is probably not fit for normal consumption."