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How to Taste Wine: Wine Tasting for Beginners

Enjoying a serving of sparkling wine at a wine tasting event.
A man getting ready to taste some sparkling wine at a wine tasting event.

When it comes to wine tasting as a beginner one of the most important things to remember is that wine is there to be both experienced and enjoyed. The best way to enjoy wine to its full potential is to understand how to taste wine and appreciate the special drink that sits in your glass. It can seem extremely intimidating, to begin with, but once you have a handle on the basics of knowledge, you can start to relax and enjoy yourself a little more.

tasting wine for beginners
Person holding a glass of rose wine into the light.

Wine is one of the oldest drinks in the world with a history spanning the globe from the Mediterranean to East Asia and has been regularly consumed in Europe for millennia. While wine these days is produced in many countries (some of the most famous being Italy, France, Argentina, Chile, and more), you can broadly categorize these into two. Old World Wine is a wine that is produced in its traditional areas of cultivation throughout Europe and the Middle East, while New World Wine is a wine that is produced anywhere else.

Past this distinction, there are over 6000 varieties of wine (think Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and so on in terms of varieties). These varieties fall into 9 categories. The categories include light-bodied and full-bodied whites and reds, rose, medium-bodied reds, sparkling wine, aromatic wine, and dessert wine. Each category possesses unique aspects of flavor, body, and method of fermentation. Once you identify a category of wine that you like, you can begin to explore further within that boundary.

What Comes Before Knowing How to Taste Wine?

So you’ve invited a group of your friends over, and everyone is bringing a bottle of wine, ready for some wine tasting. What’s the very first thing you do? You grab the glasses. While wine tasting can have many different facets and there are few concrete wrongs, a very concrete right is ensuring that you have the correct glasses for your wine. After all, there’s a reason why so many wine glasses are of a similar shape.

The reason why wine glasses are a similar shape is that they have been optimized to ensure your wine tasting experience is the best it can be. We will get into exactly why a little later in this guide, but everything from the stem, created so that your hand doesn’t warm the wine as you hold the glass, to the iconic tulip shape is crucial in the art and the process of wine tasting.

This special way that the right wine glass can enhance a wine’s flavor is why we at Royal Glass have spent 15 years researching to create an innovative design that is perfectly suited to all types of wine. That means there are no more switching glasses when you want to change from a Syrah to a Bordeaux, and even your sparkling has found its true home in our glasses. It’s not just a space saver, it’s a taste innovation, allowing you to fully appreciate each note of the wine.

You will find Royal Glass being used both in professional vineyard tastings and in top restaurants with a sommelier on staff. Now, you can find them at home as well, whether you are a keen wine taster or a casual drinker who wants to impress and get a little more out of each experience.

Wine Tasting Steps

Wine tasting is a little more than just sipping along with dinner. To a beginner, it may seem daunting- but to properly appreciate the wine you’re drinking, you need to know what to look for. You may be relieved to hear that not only does wine tasting not need to be a serious affair but also that you will get increasingly better at each step of the tasting process as time goes along and you get more practice.

Luckily, while the process is more than just a glass in the bath, it’s relatively easy to get a foothold on. It just requires a little thought and a certain level of mindfulness to how and what you are drinking. Follow the 5 step guide below to get the most out of your tasting experience.

Step By Step How to Taste Wine: The Basics

One of the best ways to make the most of the glass of wine in front of you is to engage each of your senses, inviting them along for the journey. You can consider this as a five-step process to truly understand your glass and the liquid within it.

Sound

Whether you have opted for a cork or a cap, listen to the pop or the crack, and then the sound of the wine pouring. While this step may not seem very important, it’s actually a crucial reminder for you to slow down and take your time through the process and just to enjoy the pour- whether it is into a decanter or a glass.

This is something you should keep in mind throughout the wine tasting. There is no rush between each step. Take your time and enjoy it. Listen as the liquid flows from the bottle and appreciate the sound as it hits the glass. Life is not a rush and neither is wine, so don’t make it one. You will find much more appreciation in the smaller aspects of what you are enjoying.

Holding a glass of wine up in order to visually survey the wine before drinking it.
Holding a glass of wine up to see its visual characteristics before drinking.

Sight

You may not think it, but your sight is a key player when it comes to wine tasting. Once you have your glass of wine, you can tell a lot about it just by looking at it. Just from observing the color and the intensity of the liquid, you will be able to tell the body of the wine- that is whether it is full-bodied, light-bodied, or anything in between. The body of the wine is a wine tasting term used to describe the density of the liquid.

The body of the wine is a key feature when it comes to many things, including pairings, texture, and intensity of flavor. Because of this, just one good look is all that is needed for a trained eye to be able to pick up more information about the glass than an untrained tongue would be able to identify. Knowing the way a wine looks when it’s in its glass will change a lot of your perceptions of wine.

A full-bodied red, such as a Cabernet, will draw you in with its deep, rich color, which will be completely opaque. Whereas in contrast, a light-bodied red (such as a Pinot Noir) will still hold the rich red color but will hold seemingly less density, so much so that it will be almost transparent.
When it comes to whites, a full-bodied white will have a strong golden, straw-like color, whereas a lighter-bodied white might look almost like water. In sparkling wine, you will be able to identify the quality by the size of the bubbles in the glass and the way the mousse looks (the bubbles on top).

Once you have properly appreciated the color of the wine, give the glass a swirl. Swirling the glass is another way to aid you in seeing how much body the wine has, and in the case of corked wine, you can check and see if the cork has broken down and left remnants in the glass.

A glass of wine being swirled to activate the aromas.
A glass of wine being swirled to activate the aromas.

As you swirl you will notice a residue on the side of the glass. This residue is caused by glycerine. Glycerine is non-alcoholic and contributes to the sensory impacts of the wine, so it’s an important feature, and it’s also found in higher quantities in fuller-bodied wine. So what does this mean?

More Residue on the Glass = Fuller Body of Wine

However, these are not the only reasons a wine taster has for swilling a glass. There is in fact a much more practical reason for swirling the glass. This reason leads us perfectly to our next step.

Smell

The swirl of the glass is also key to expanding the surface area of wine touching the oxygen in the air. This increased surface area allows the particles of the wine to attach to the oxygen in the glass, which releases the aromas (or the notes of the wine- another wine tasting term used to describe the smells of the drink), primed for smelling.

This smell will help you to understand what you’re about to taste. After all, research suggests that up to 80% of taste is based on smell, so smelling the wine gives you the perfect opportunity to get a preview of what’s to come without the taste of the alcohol interfering and overpowering other components in the wine.

The notes and aromas that you are smelling are also known as the nose of the wine.

The smell, or nose, of the wine is a huge part of the taste sensation which makes it one of the most important aspects of the act of wine tasting. Once you’ve had a bit of practice you’ll be able to identify a lot more than you might expect from just smelling the wine. You’ve probably heard wine experts saying there are notes of spices, orange, blueberry, and so on. Since (most) wine is only ever made from grapes, how are these notes possible?

Some of the flavor notes are imparted through the type of grape, some as a byproduct of when (and how) the grapes are fermented, and some of these aromas come from the method of aging. These different aspects of the wine-making process create different chemical compounds in the wine. These compounds can be found in other foods, spices, and flavorings which is what lends the notes you smell.

Since different aspects of the aromas come from different parts of the wine-making process and present themselves in different intensities, broadly speaking, when wine tasting you should try and work from big to small. Focus on the largest first, and work your way down. As you’re beginning, you could try starting out by just trying to identify the first aroma.

  • Primary Aromas: These smells come from the grapes themselves, and it’ll be the most overwhelming smell. Look out for florals, herbs, and other fruits. Primary aromas are mainly found in young wines, and they very much stem from the terroir (a wine tasting term used to describe where the grapes of the wine were grown).Wines from specific regions have very characteristic flavors which present themselves in the primary aromas of the drink. For example, Champagne grapes (which as we know is a sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France), are grown in chalky soil with dual oceanic and continental influences. The grapes that are grown here will present different characteristics to the same type of grape that is grown in inland California, which has sandy loam soil and hot dry summers.Another thing that will affect the primary aromas of a wine is the varietal (a wine tasting term used to describe the type of grape used). This may not surprise you, but of the 10,000 odd different grape varieties, those chosen for your wine will play one of the biggest influences on the way the primary aromas reach you. You can get a wine that is a single variety (such as a Pinot Grigio, or a Cabernet Sauvignon), or you can get a blend. Neither is technically better, but a single varietal will help you on your way to understanding wine better, as you will know exactly what you are drinking and be able to apply it to your choices next time.
  • Secondary Aromas: these come from how the wine is made and are easiest to identify while drinking white wine. Commonly these are yeast-based notes but can span to things such as nuts, cheeses, and so on. Secondary Aromas, much like primary aromas are most noticeable in younger wine- or wine that has not been aged.
  • Tertiary Aromas: tertiary aromas come from the way that the wine was aged, and so will be much more apparent in vintage wines. This will open up flavors such as vanilla, leather, tobacco, and natural flavors that if you weren’t looking for them, you might not be able to identify. Practice makes perfect! Tertiary aromas are most prevalent in wines that have been aged for a longer period of time.
Smelling the nose of a glass of wine.
Smelling the nose of the wine.

Differences in grapes, processes of fermentation, and barrel choices can affect the fermentation process and create different compounds called textures, also known as the body, and aromas, otherwise known as flavor notes of the wine.

Once you have smelled the wine, absorbing the aromas, and appreciating the nose to your heart’s content it’s time to move on to step four.

Taste

Taste, the step so essential that it’s right in the name of ‘wine tasting’, is step four. This should remind you of step one, where we told you to take your time and enjoy the process. There’s no rush and the more thoroughly you cater to each step, the more you will understand and enjoy the wine tasting process next time.

When you take your first sip, it should be just that- a sip. Short and sweet, so that you can analyze what you have in your mouth without getting overwhelmed. Once you have it in your mouth, hold it there for a few seconds to allow the wine to heat up and let the aromas disperse into your mouth.
You can move the wine around in your mouth gently so it covers your tongue and you enjoy a full range of flavor (after all, your tongue has many different flavor points on it) but it’s not mouthwash so don’t treat it as such.

Let the wine sit in your mouth and on your tongue for a few seconds before swallowing. This will allow the wine to release all of its notes and aromas, and for you to appreciate the full story of the wine before you swallow.

Touch

Touch is what people are talking about when they talk about the ‘body’ of the wine. The body of the wine refers to the texture of the wine and how it feels in the mouth.

A light-bodied wine will feel light in your mouth, with a more watery texture and a more delicate flavor. It will also be less sweet and have a lower alcohol content than its full-bodied counterpart. This is because the grapes used to make light-bodied wine have less natural sugar in them, and the sugar in the grapes is what is used to ferment into alcohol. The lower sugar content can make a wine more acidic, or crisp.

In contrast, full-bodied wine has a much thicker texture and a bolder flavor, as well as feeling heavier on the tongue. Depending on the wine and the way it’s been aged, it could also have a much different texture than its light-bodied counterpart. Typically full-bodied wine is higher in both texture and alcohol.

You will already have a pretty good idea about the body of the wine from step two, but this will either reconfirm what you suspected, or it will be a valuable moment for you as you learn to anticipate what to expect next time.

A man drinking from a Royal Glass wine glass
A man drinking from a Royal Glass.

Components of the Wine to Look Out For

An important thing to remember when you’re learning how to taste wine is that the taste of wine hits three of the five primary taste points- sweet, sour, and bitter (missing just salt and umami). However, as you may have already guessed, most of these words are not used to describe the wine.

Sweet is kept the same, but instead of sour, think instead of using wine descriptors such as acidic, tangy, crisp, or fresh. The sourness of wine is used to bring it to life, and it’s a key aspect of the flavor. You can play around with different adjectives, and you’ll notice that different types of wine have different tangs of sourness. For example, the words you will use to describe a full-bodied red will not be the same as a white or even a sparkling. That being said, there are no right or wrong answers- just what feels right for you.

The bitterness of wine is called the tannin, or tannic. Tannin is a naturally occurring flavor, found in fruit skins, tree bark, dark chocolate, and even in your cup of tea (if you’ve ever left a cup of tea brewing for too long then you already know what tannin tastes like). This is why your wine may have earthy notes, notes of spice, or even notes of chocolate. It’s also an integral player in ‘dry’ wines (as opposed to sweet). Tannin makes a wine ‘dry’ because it literally makes your tongue feel dry.

If you have ever had a glass of wine that makes you purse your lips, it means that there’s a lot of tannins in it. If you find that this is too much for your tastes, then you can placate the bitterness by having a small bite of something fatty with it, like cheese or cured meats. This helps you to override the bitter taste and focus on the other flavors in the wine. This is because the grease from these foods will coat your mouth and protect it from the tannins, leaving you to enjoy the other notes of the wine without being put off by the bitterness.

If you are planning on having a wine tasting party, it can be a good idea to make some snacks to pair with each wine. A good wine pairing will help to display the best of both the wine and the bite to eat, just ensure that the flavors compliment each other well.

Three different types of wine in different sized glasses.
Three different types of wine.

Wine Tasting Advice for Beginners- The DO’s of Tasting

  • If you are throwing your own wine tasting party and are tasting a variety of wines it’s important to start at the lightest colored wine and work your way up the color chart to the deepest red. It’s a general rule of thumb (but not always completely accurate) that the deeper and more intense the color, the richer and more full-bodied the wine is, and it’s important to start with a lighter body.This is important to know because if you start at a full-bodied red and move onto a light-bodied white you won’t be able to pick up the notes of the later wines in your repertoire, as everything after the heavy red will taste and feel like water.Think about when you clean your teeth; your mouth is overtaken by a mint flavor. If you then try to taste something else, the secondary flavor is overpowered by the intense residual mint. It works the same way for wine. If you start with an intense wine and move to a lighter flavor, all complexities of notes and body will be lost to the first wine.
  • Spit or Swallow? This comes down to whether you want to get a little drunk as you taste or if you want to be able to taste the final wine as well as the first. It’s entirely your choice- but remember: if you are drinking 6 full glasses of wine, by the end of the tasting session you are much less likely to remember what the first wine tasted like, and you probably won’t really care what the last one tastes like. If you want to come out of the tasting knowing a little more- maybe don’t finish every glass.That being said- it’s entirely up to you how you want to taste the wines. If you like one, you can drink it all. If you don’t like the next, pour the whole thing away. There are no rules!
  • Remember to hydrate. Drinking water is very important while you are wine tasting. It will help you to clear your palate so that you can continue to try each wine in all its glory, without leftover residue clouding your judgment. If you are at a vineyard then it will also ensure that you stay hydrated as you spend the day under the hot sun. A win-win.
  • Ask about the wines. If you’re at a vineyard tasting, take advantage of the expertise at your fingertips and ask about things that you’re unsure of. It’s a free source of information in front of you and it will definitely help you as you grow from a beginner wine taster to a seasoned professional.
  • If you really want to get ahead then you could even bring a notepad and take notes on the wines so that you don’t forget the smaller details (after all, you are drinking a lot of wine, you would be forgiven for forgetting).
  • Use a proper wine glass. If you’re throwing your own wine tasting, then it’s extremely important for you to use the correct glassware. Wine glasses were created in order to maximize the wine-drinking experience. The tulip shape allows the aromas to be exposed to the oxygen that helps to activate them. You can swirl the glass without concern of spilling, and the smaller rim allows the aromas to concentrate so that you can smell them in much higher concentration than you could without a proper glass.
  • There is a lot of discussion about different types of wine glasses for different types of wine, but in reality, there is one wine glass that works perfectly for every type of wine. Royal Glass has dedicated over 15 years of research to create more than just a glass, but a wine tasting experience.

Wine Tasting Advice for Beginners- The DON’Ts of Tasting

  • Don’t be afraid to go back for more. If you have to take a few sips or a larger sip in order to properly understand the flavor profiles, don’t fret. It’s normal and helps you to get a more comprehensive understanding of the wine in your hand.
  • Don’t smell the cork. There’s no point. It doesn’t hold extra scent, and in reality, you’re just huffing wet wood. Rumors say that this will tell you if the wine is good, but it won’t. To tell if the wine is off you need to smell the liquid itself.
  • Don’t hold the wine to the light. This can cause refractions of light or alter the color, especially if the lighting is yellow or dim, as is reasonably common in restaurants. Consider that if you were trying to read something, you wouldn’t normally hold it up to the light, but rather hold it so the light can hit it. To look at the wine properly, look down on it over a white background at a 45-degree angle. This could be the tablecloth, a napkin, or a menu–whatever is convenient.
  • Don’t over swirl. If you go crazy with a wine swirl, you might lose aromas from an overly vigorous swish, or spill it. Just gently swish the glass as it’s on the table to release the aromas as they should be.
  • Don’t hold the bowl. We mentioned this earlier, but if you hold the bowl of the glass then it will warm up the wine unnecessarily and may leave fingerprints on the glass which will make it more difficult to accurately visually assess the wine.
  • Don’t use ice cubes. This will ensure that you lose aromas, and also ensures that the wine will not be served at its optimum temperature. It will also water down the wine as you drink, and ruin delicate flavor profiles and the texture of the wine.
  • Make sure that the wine glass is empty before you refill. While it may be your instinct as a good host to refill an almost empty glass, you shouldn’t mix (or marry is the correct terminology) your wines. This is because by marrying two different wines together, you are losing the finer notes of both to the mix. Even if the two wines are seemingly the same–the same brand and the same vintage–there are small nuances between each bottle that you will not be able to appreciate if you marry the two.
  • Don’t rest the bottle on the glass. This is bad practice because it’s unhygienic. Resting the bottle against the glass can transfer bacteria from one glass to the next, and may even lead to a splashback inside the bottle. It’s bad practice and should be avoided. To correctly pour the wine, hold it 2-3 inches above the glass.
Tilting a wine glass in order to see the wine's true color.
Tilting a glass to see its true color.

To Finish…

Wine tasting, even as a beginner, is a multi-sensory experience. Once you learn how to truly appreciate wine for its notes, its aromatics, its nose, and its body you can begin to explore further into different vintages, different vineyards, and the different sensory experiences that wine can provide you.

While wine tasting as a beginner can seem like a daunting, difficult task only fit for experts, there is certainly space for beginners to find their footing and enjoy what is being offered to them. While there certainly are people who are true experts in the world of wine, the act of wine tasting itself is accessible and easy once you know what you are looking for.

You don’t even need to break the bank to get your feet in the door of wine tasting- in fact as a beginner wine taster, it’s perfectly fine to start wherever your budget allows. Start small, start with something inexpensive, and grow your abilities and your palate along with your confidence. So when someone asks you how to taste wine, tell them that it’s a whole world inside a glass, waiting to be discovered.

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