Some people say they don’t like wine because “it tastes like it smells.” That’s a surprisingly astute observation. Flavor is the sum of all the sensations we take in when eating and drinking. Smell, taste, texture and temperature are all components, but smell dominates to the point that many wine professionals refer to taste mainly to confirm the impressions of their noses.
If you want to be a better wine taster but worry your sense of smell is not up to snuff, never fear. Even though smelling is more important than tasting, those with a muted sense of smell shouldn’t give up. Most likely, you haven’t been trained to recognize what you smell, and almost everyone will improve with practice.
Though you may not want to devote time to cultivating a sommelier’s breadth of knowledge and experience, smell and taste are continually renewed throughout our lives. Some people are “supertasters,” who have more sensitive senses, but that’s not a prerequisite for being a great judge of wine.
Everyone has fresh, vivid memories of different smells: roses, violets, cedar, gas stations, blueberries, fresh oranges, and curry, to name a few. The ability to name a smell and harness an association through memory is one of the keys to tasting and describing wine.
Here’s a short tutorial to get you on the grape-lined path to wine drinking bliss: a wine tasting workout in five steps and some key vocabulary words to help you talk the talk as you drink the drink.
Wine tasting workout
1. Prep: Don’t confuse your nose
Avoid wearing perfume or aftershave and move away from people who are. A nose, and specifically its sense of smell, tire quickly. Sniff something neutral, like your sleeve, and give your schnoz a breather.
2. Swirl and sniff
Hold the stem of the glass near the bottom and swirl the wine by drawing small circles on the table. This releases more aromatic compounds by mixing them with air. The swirling also dissipates some of the less agreeable notes that might be present at first pour.
Next, hold the glass at an angle with your nose just below the rim. If you’re too deep in the glass, you’ll lose some nuance of the more delicate scents, or with a high alcohol wine you might be overwhelmed by the nose-burning fumes of ethanol. Take three or four quick sniffs.
3. Name what you smell
This can be tricky at first. What it comes down to is associating smells with their best-known sources, such as connecting a sweet, tart aroma to oranges. You may need to refine your ability to pinpoint familiar aromas.
One way to practice is to check the wine label for that wine’s flavors, such as oak or tobacco or raspberry. Then try to distinguish those smells and flavors. Sometimes even experienced wine drinkers recognize something they can’t put a name to. Referring to a list of fruit and other aromas is helpful.
Additionally, ask an expert. Whether you’re at a wine store or in a restaurant, explain what qualities or notes you’d like to experience and they will point you to options in your price range. When tasting, concentrate on perceiving those qualities.
4. Take a sip, but don’t swallow
Slurp the wine in your mouth a few times, further mixing it with air and saliva, exposing your tongue, palate and cheeks to the liquid. Exhale (carefully) through your nose. Do this for several seconds.
Insider tip: Before your first try at wine gymnastics, you may want to practice at home in front of a sink using water instead of wine.
5. Spit if a spittoon is provided
We all know that too much alcohol clouds judgment. While a few sips are fine, everyone has their own threshold where alcohol becomes numbing. If you’re trying to separate the flavor from the fun and sampling many wines in one session, don’t swallow during the tasting. Otherwise, at your fifth or sixth wine, everything may be tasting fantastic — or tasting the same.
By the way, accurate spitting is a good thing to practice, too. No one takes you seriously when you’re drooling.
Wine aromas and flavors
And now the fun. Here’s your vocabulary list of notes and qualities to search for as you taste.
Dryness: Wine is dry, off-dry (slightly sweet) or sweet. Sweetness, if it’s present, is the first thing you’ll taste. Sweetness in wine comes from unfermented sugar and tends to have a tongue-coating, mouth-filling quality.
Fruit: Which one? Can you smell or taste more than one? Is it ripe, green, overripe? Cooked? Jammy? Be as specific as you can.
Acidity: What happens after you swallow? When your mouth dries and then you start to salivate, you’re experiencing the effects of acidity.
Tannins: Bitterness and dryness are characteristics. Your tongue and sometimes your teeth, gums and palate get dry and stay dry. For some, tannins register first at the back of the tongue.
Oak: Vanilla, toast, smoke, caramel, coconut and baking spices are tastes associated with aging in oak barrels. American, French and Slovenian oak all impart different characteristic nuances, as does the size of the barrel and the number of times that it has been used.
Body: How heavy does the wine feel in your mouth? The standard advice is to think of the difference between the lightness of skim milk all the way up to the heaviness of cream.
Mouthfeel: Texture. Velvety, silky, rough, smooth, lush or creamy. These are the tactile sensations arising from the acidity, tannins and flavors in the wine, or techniques used in making the wine.
Alcohol: Warmth. You’ll feel it in your mouth and as it goes down your throat. You may notice a lot of warmth in a big red from a warm climate like California or Southern Italy, or relatively less warmth, with less sensation, often from a cooler climate wine like Moscato D’Asti or Kabinett Riesling.
Length: How long the flavor lingers after you’ve swallowed. Actually timing the duration is unnecessary. But a complex, well-made wine will unfold like a story. Provided that it’s delicious, longer is better.
Balance: The feng shui of wine. Good balance signifies that everything is in proportion. Sometimes, for instance, wines are described as “fruit bombs,” which may signify a ripe, fruity, opulent style, but could also be a criticism that those qualities are overbearing. Ideally, you want the greatest variety harmoniously combined.
Now, if you’ve been spitting it all out, pour a glass of your favorite, swallow and savor the story.
—John Midkiff for Total Wine
John Midkiff has worked as a sommelier, restaurant beverage director, bartender and server. He's studying for the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 2 certification.