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Wine 101 Cheatsheet: Everything you need to know about tasting wine

By Ching Yuen 18 February 2020

Now that you’re familiar with different types of wine and what distinguishes them, we’ll get down to business and talk about the most important thing regarding wine: how to drink like a pro! But before we go any further—no, we are not talking who can chug the most wine. Similar to the time and effort that winemakers invest in a good bottle, we should also learn how to fully appreciate them and find what is the best ‘taste’ for each of us.

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Step 1: With your eyes

While everyone has their own preferences as to what sort of wine is ‘good’ for them, there are some general guidelines to help you come to that conclusion. The first step to assessing a wine is to use your eyes and observe its appearance. 

Tilt a no-more-than-half-full glass away from you and look at the true colour of the wine against a white background, such as a tablecloth or a piece of paper. Pay attention to how dark or how pale the wine is. Eventually, you’ll begin to notice patterns, such as deeper colour in younger red wines and older white wines.

Step 2: With your nose

After your eyes have had their fill, now you get to share the joy with your nose! Keep your glass on the table and rotate it three or four times so that the wine swills around inside the glass and aerates.

As you swirl, the aromas in the wine vaporise, so hurry and bring the glass to your nose. Don’t be afraid to stick your nose right into the glass and smell the wine. Now it’s time for your imagination to run free because there’s really no saying what you can or cannot smell. You can repeat the process several times while listening to your friends’ comments and try to find the same things they find in the smell.

Wine has so many aromatic compounds that whatever you find in the smell of a wine is probably not merely a figment of your imagination. Some of the more common aromas you can find in wine include fruits, herbs, flowers, earth, grass, tobacco, butterscotch, toast, vanilla, coffee, and much more!

Wine tasters rarely use the word ‘smell’ to describe how a wine smells—they refer to it as the wine’s nose, which means aroma. If someone says that a glass of wine has ‘a huge nose,’ what they mean that the wine has a very strong aroma. If they say that they can detect lemon ‘in the nose’ or ‘on the nose,’ they mean that the wine smells something like lemons.

Step 3: With your taste buds

Now it’s the time to treat your taste buds to a flavour journey. Take a medium-sized sip of wine, hold the wine in your mouth, purse your lips, and draw in some air across your tongue, over the wine. Now swish the wine around in your mouth as if you’re chewing it, be careful not to dribble though!

If you are in a tasting session, we would suggest that you spit out the wine so you don’t get too drunk before you can finish the tasting. If you’re at a gathering just for fun, go ahead and swallow the wine.

We mentioned that professional wine tasters will use the term ‘nose’ for the smell of a wine, and they will also use the word ‘palate’ to refer to the taste of a wine. A wine’s palate is the overall impression that wine gives in your mouth, or any isolated aspect of the wine’s taste—as in, “This wine has a harmonious palate,” or “The palate of this wine is a bit acidic.” When a wine taster says that he finds raspberries on the palate, they mean that the wine has the flavour of raspberries.

By swirling the wine around your mouth, you give all of your tastebuds a chance at the wine. This is how you won’t miss any sweetness, sourness, or bitterness. In another way, you are also buying time for yourself since your brain needs time to figure out what the tongue is tasting. While your brain is trying to work through all the flavours, you can also be thinking about how the wine feels in your mouth—whether it’s heavy, light, smooth, rough, and so on.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Step 4: With your words

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the final and perhaps most important step: the eloquence of describing the taste of wine. The terminology for wine can be quite complicated, but here are some basics to keep in mind:

Balance: Major components of wine include sweetness, acidity, and tannin. A wine is balanced when not one element sticks out over another, such as harsh tannin or too much sweetness when you are tasting the wine.

Length: Used to describe a wine with a long aftertaste. Length in the mouth can more precisely be called palate length to avoid confusion. In general, long palate length is a sure sign of high quality.

Depth: Another subjective and unmeasurable attribute of high-quality wine is its depth. We say a wine has depth when it doesn’t taste flat and one-dimensional in your mouth. A ‘flat’ wine can never be great.

Complexity: Experts use this term specifically to indicate that a wine has a multiplicity of aromas and flavours.

Finish: The impression that a wine leaves in the back of your mouth and in your throat after you swallow it is its finish or aftertaste. In a good wine, you can still perceive the wine’s flavours, such as fruitiness or spiciness, at that point. The longer you still taste the flavours, the longer the finish is.

Sweetness: As soon as you put the wine into your mouth, you can usually notice sweetness or the lack of it. In the language of wine, ‘dry’ is the opposite of sweet. Classify the wine you’re tasting as either dry, off-dry (in other words, slightly sweet), or sweet. If a wine is really sweet, you will be able to taste the sweetness even without smelling the fruitiness. Try holding your nose and have a taste if you want to be sure of its sweetness.

Acidity: It is a key taste factor in white wines more than in reds. White wines with a high amount of acidity feel crisp, and those without enough acidity feel flabby. How much you salivate after tasting wine can give you a clue as to its acidity level, because high acidity triggers saliva production. Classify the wine you’re tasting as crisp or soft.

Tannin: When you take a sip of red wine and rapidly experience a drying-out feeling in your mouth as if something had blotted up your saliva, that means your mouth recognises tannin. A key factor to tasting reds, tannin is best described as bitterness or as firmness or richness of texture, mainly in the rear of your mouth, on the inside of your cheeks, and on your gums. Depending on the amount and nature of its tannin, you can describe a red wine as astringent, firm, or soft.

Wine’s body: Used to describe the impression of the weight and size of the wine in your mouth, which is usually attributable mainly to a wine’s alcohol. But some wines seem fuller, bigger, or heavier in the mouth than others—it’s an abstract concept but trust us on this. Depending on how much the wine is weighing your tongue down, you can classify the wine as light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied.

Final tips on how to talk about wine

When describing the flavour of a wine, it is best to refer to the family of flavour rather than a particular flavour. You have your fruity wines, your earthy wines (these flavours will make you think of minerals and rocks, walks in the forest, turning the earth in your garden, dry leaves, and so on), your spicy wines (with notes of cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, or Indian spices, for example), and your herbal wines (like mint, grass, hay, and rosemary).

Most importantly, remember that there is no perfect wine. No one in the world knows everything there is to know about wine, and because everyone’s palate is unique, your experience of the wine will be too. Expensive doesn’t always mean better so don’t be afraid to try anything and everything!

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Having lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, and London sure is a fun fact whenever people try to guess Ching’s accent. She loves switching between all these language channels and her ‘mother tongue’ is just determined by how many drinks she’s had for the night! She loves movies, travelling, and exploring cities, from hidden alleys to gourmet dining, so feel free to hit her up if you need any suggestions for dinner!

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