How to Taste Wine Like a Sommelier
Anish Patel @ 2022-05-11 23:50:00 -0700
If you’ve ever been to a wine tasting with a sommelier, you may have heard some pretty bizarre-sounding terms. Are they really tasting all that in a glass of wine? Cedar, cranberries, cheese, roses? Or are they just making this up?
Science shows us that it’s true—a single glass of wine contains more aroma compounds than you have time to count. And when you give your wine a swirl, it releases them and you’re able to pick up on fruit, herbs, flowers, spices, and even savory notes like leather and mushroom.
But it takes a little practice to sensitize your nose to the subtleties of what wine has to offer. Don’t be discouraged—you can do it, and the fun is in the practice! So in the name of research, grab yourself a glass of wine, and let’s learn how to taste wine like a sommelier.
Wine Aromas 101
Before you taste your wine, there are a few things you need to know. In a grape, the aroma compounds are bound up in the sugar. When the grapes go through fermentation, that sugar gets broken down and converted into alcohol, and the aroma compounds are set free. So that’s one reason why your wine smells and tastes the way it does.
Second, the fermentation and aging process also imparts specific flavors to the wine. The science of wine breaks these aromas into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
These are the aromas that come from the grape itself. You’ll smell them as fruit, flowers, and sometimes herbs.
These are aromas that are a result of processes that take place during fermentation. Yeast, bread, butter, and biscuit are all secondary aromas.
These aromas develop during the aging process. Oak aging imparts all kinds of aromas on a wine like vanilla, caramel, wood, cedar, smoke, and chocolate. But even more interesting is that when the wine ages in the bottle, it develops new aromas as well. Walnut, petrol, honey, or mushroom can all be found in certain aged wines.
The last thing to understand about wine aromas is that there are many and they can be interpreted differently by different people. Part of the tasting process involves your brain, and you’re wired uniquely. So trust what you’re tasting even if it isn’t what the person next to you tastes.
7 Tips For Tasting Wine Like A Sommelier
There are many things you can do to set yourself up for success when tasting the nuances of wine. Use these tips to start tasting the interesting flavors that your glass has to offer.
#1 Choose a quality wine to taste.
We hate to break it to you, but that 2 Buck Chuck just isn’t going to cut it. Conventional wine that you find in the grocery store isn’t nearly as nuanced as the wine you’re going to find in your local wine store. Local shops prioritize winemakers that take the necessary steps to preserve the complexity of their wine, while conventional winemakers tend to make choices that prioritize profit at the expense of aromatics.
So to save yourself some frustration, choose wine from your local wine shop and ask about natural and organic wine.
So what kind of wine should you choose? Our best advice is to start with what you love. Do you love Sauvignon Blanc? That’s perfect. Grab a bottle of that and get started.
#2 Compare two wines to each other.
The fastest way to start picking up on the subtleties in wine is to taste two different wines together. If you grabbed a Sauvignon Blanc, choose another white wine like Chardonnay or Viognier. Or choose two Sauvignon Blancs from different regions and follow the steps outlined below to start noticing the differences.
#3 Find a neutral place to taste your wines.
The aromas in wine are subtle and will be easily lost if you’re in the kitchen while someone is cooking. Make sure the room you’re in doesn’t smell like candles, incense, smoke, or dinner being prepared. Even strong perfume can take over what your nose picks up, so try to find a space that is as scent-free as possible.
#4 Use the right glass.
Did you know that the shape of your wine glass influences how well you can pick up on aromas? The right glass for tasting doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it should have a few qualities.
First, it should have a stem. When you’re tasting wine, you don’t want to hold the glass by the bowl. When you do this, your hand warms the wine up and that changes the flavor profile. So make sure your wine glass has a stem and hold it correctly.
Second, it should have a round bowl—a flute or a coupe isn't ideal for tasting. This is because when you swirl your wine, you release the aromas. The bowl shape will catch those aromas and hold them for a moment so that you can get your nose in there and take a whiff.
#5 Let it breathe a bit.
If you know you’re doing a wine tasting at 5 pm, pour your glass at 4:45 so it has a little time to open up. This is called decanting the wine. When the wine touches oxygen, it will “open up” and will release its flavors and aromas, making it easier for you to detect them.
#6 Take a look at your wine.
Before you taste your wine, hold it over a white sheet of paper at an angle. Take a look at its color. You’ll find that wines made from different grapes as well as wines that vary in age also vary in color. Start to get acquainted with the common colors of wine:
- White wine: lemon, gold, amber
- Red wine: purple, ruby, garnet, tawny
- Other colors: orange, magenta, pink, salmon
#7 Swirl and smell your wine.
Give your wine a swirl or two to encourage it to release the aromas and bring it to your nose. Give it a quick sniff. What do you smell? It can be a little hard to identify what you smell at first, even if you know you smell something but you don’t know what it is. Here are a few categories to keep in mind as you’re smelling:
If your wine is red, do you smell red or black fruit? If it’s white, do you smell citrus, stone fruit, or tropical fruit? Is the fruit underripe, ripe, juicy, jammy, stewed, or even dried fruit?
Are you picking up on any floral notes? The wine may smell perfumed or like fresh or dried flowers. What kind of flowers do you smell?
Herbs and Spices
Do you smell anything herbal or spicy in your wine? If so, is it fresh or dried? What kind of spices are you picking up on?
Do you smell chocolate, vanilla, espresso, caramel, coconut, or vanilla? Or wood notes like bark, cedar, or spiced wood? If so, your wine has likely been in contact with oak.
#7 Now take a sip.
Let the wine linger in your mouth a little. Swirl it in your mouth. Then go through your categories in your mind again. What flavors are there? Are they subtle or bold? Is the wine savory or fruit-driven?
At this point, you can also assess the structure of the wine, which is made up of several components: acidity, tannins, alcohol, and body. Here’s how to do this.
All grapes are acidic, and you can tell just how much acidity is in your wine by judging how much your mouth waters when you drink it. Acidity balances the sugar in your wine and keeps it from tasting “flabby.” White wine will always be quite acidic, while red wine ranges from low to high.
Ask yourself: is the acidity low, medium, or high? Don’t get too hung up on getting it “right.” Instead, compare what you’re experiencing to your past experiences, and judge the level based on other wines that you’ve tasted.
Tannins are found in red and orange wine and they impart bitter, drying, and astringent notes to the wine. Tannins also have a “rough” quality to them and can soften over time. Older wines will have more integrated tannins, while younger ones will have tannins that “stick out” a little more.
Again, the only way to really start to understand this is to start tasting wine and comparing it to other wines.
The level of alcohol in wine can also range from low to medium to high. Alcohol adds body to the wine but you can also start to judge the alcohol before you taste it. When you swirl your wine, notice how slowly or quickly the “legs” of the wine fall down the glass. In order to do this, give your wine a swirl and then hold your glass up to the light. Watch the legs, also called tears, slowly make their way down. The slower they move, the higher the alcohol.
But you also might smell the alcohol before you taste it. Wines with high levels of alcohol will burn a little, clearing up your nose.
The body of the wine is the weight of it. How full, round, or lightweight does it feel in your mouth? As you practice tasting wine, begin to categorize the body by light, medium, or full.
More Pro-tips For Tasting Wine As A Beginner
Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Whatever you smell or taste is what you smell or taste. There are so many aroma compounds in wine that you may pick up on something that someone else doesn’t. Or you may just interpret it slightly differently.
Tasting wine is a learning process and it takes time to answer the question, “what is that smell?” It’s easy to get stumped. But that’s the fun! Over time, your brain will start to work out where you know that smell and you will have many, very exciting “aha” moments.
This is the practice of sensitizing your nose to the very complex beverage in your glass.
Looking for a great wine to practice on? Natural wines are made carefully so that the aromas are preserved and ready for you to taste. Shop our natural wines today to start smelling wine like a pro.