When it comes to drinking wine, you can take the process as seriously as you want to—or not seriously at all. "The benefit of tasting 'properly' versus just drinking for fun is that it can be used as a tool to help you express what you do and don't enjoy in wine," says Maryse Chevriere, sommelier and author of Grasping the Grape ($11.75, amazon.com). "Once you're able to identify key characteristics—light body versus full body, levels of acidity, does this actually taste sweet and have residual sugar or does it just smell very fruity?—then you're able to better communicate your preferences and make more informed selections for yourself." To help get you started, here Chevriere demystifies "the five S's" of tasting wine—see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savor—and offers her pointers on how to get the most out of every glass.
"This step is designed to have you observe the color and intensity of the wine," says Chevriere. "Is it a light, pale white wine, or is deeply gold-colored? Is it a bright cherry red, or more of a purple-y red?" Next, you'll want to consider the opacity. "Is the wine translucent enough for you to read through it, or is it super concentrated? These visual cues can help you deduce things like grape variety, age, and provenance of the wine. For example, a Burgundy pinot noir is going to be much less opaque and more red-hued than an Argentinian malbec, which is going to be more dark purple and difficult to see through," our expert explains.
Chevriere calls this "the most parodied step in the process"—but if you're serious about wine tasting, it's an essential one. "The point here is to expose the wine to oxygen and kick-start the process of it 'opening up' and expressing its full range of aromas and flavors," she says. "When it comes to technique, find what feels most comfortable to you. It's often easiest to start out by keeping the base of the glass on the table and then gently swirling in a clockwise motion. Also take note of how quickly the 'tears' or 'legs' slide down the side of the glass. That's an indicator of viscosity; the slower the roll, the higher the alcohol content."
Chevriere recommends smelling immediately after swirling, with your mouth slightly open as you breathe in. "Go on and really stick your nose in there—don't be shy!" she says. "And please, don't be shy about calling out a 'wrong answer' smell. This is very much a subjective game…With whites, for example, try calling out what citruses you smell—there's always at least one in there—and then ask yourself if you smell orchard fruits or tropical fruits. Once you feel comfortable with that, try to break it down a little more: Does it smell like freshly squeezed lemon juice, or kind of bitter, like lemon rind? Does it smell like biting into a crisp green apple, or like sweet baked apples? And what about non-fruit flavors? Does it smell like potting soil? Herbs? Flowers? You get the idea. I'm also a big fan of drawing on flavor memories when describing wine aromas and flavors: Does it smell like that time you had lemonade and oysters at the beach? (Citrusy, briny, salty.)"
And now, the moment you've been waiting for: actually tasting the wine. "Here, you try to identify and analyze the flavors," says Chevriere. "Start by trying to see if you can taste the same flavors you smelled. Are they there, or do you taste something new and different? In whites, you'll be determining things like how highly the acidity is (how much does it make your mouth water? If it's a lot, it's a high acid wine). In reds, you'll be look for the amount of tannins (how much astringency is there, and if it's really drying out your mouth). You'll also be evaluating fruit level: Is it super fruit-forward but dry, or does it actually taste sweet? Or is it not fruity at all? And what is the texture like? Does it go down your tongue like a laser beam, straight and direct, or does it have a fat, round, mouth-coating texture?" Don't be afraid to draw on memory here as well: "I like to [describe] taste in terms of a vibe. For example, I might say that a luxurious, rich white Burgundy tastes like pure opulence—what you want to drink when you're rocking your fur and pearls."
For high-quality wines, the tasting process doesn't stop at the swallow. "The best of them just go on and on," Chevriere says. "When you're at the savor stage, you're trying to assess how long taste lasts: Does it have a short finish (not ideal) or a long finish (yes, please)? Also think about whether the wine tastes balanced, or whether any characteristics like acidity or alcohol overshadowed others. And most importantly, did you like it or not overall, and why?"
Improving Your Tasting Skills
For Chevriere, the sniff and the sip are the most important stages, as well as the most practical for the everyday drinker looking to get more serious about tasting wine. "You have to practice identifying and isolating flavors and build up the confidence to make an assertion about what you're smelling and tasting," she says. If you really want to practice your tasting technique, she recommends visiting a vineyard or winery: "That's what they're there for, to teach you about the wines they make and get you to appreciate them—and unlike a restaurant or bar setting, they don't have to deal with other factors like taking orders from other people or running food." A good wine bar or a restaurant with a strong wine program can be a fine place to experiment with the steps of tasting, though you may not get to try as many varieties. "I never want someone to end up drinking something they don't like because they don't feel comfortable telling me no, but if I'm asked to go back to the table three or four different times with different tastes, it can be a bit much," Chevriere says. "Try not to be too much of a Goldilocks—stand up for what you want, but understand there just might not be that one perfect fit for you on the list."
Above all, remember to enjoy the process! "Try not to get too heavy and strict with it," Chevriere advises. "You don't want to put too much pressure on yourself to analyze a wine perfectly to the point where you take the fun out of the experience." After all, most of us look to a drink to help us relax and enjoy ourselves—both at the table and after we leave.