Sight, swirl, smell, sip, savor and swallow. Mastering the art of wine
tasting requires an understanding of the basics of wine tasting
including the six S's -- sight, swirl, smell, sip, savor and swallow.
Sighting the wine reveals the intensity of the grape, darker
"oxidized" or "weathered" red colors or golden whites may indicate that
the wine is older and has some age.
Swirling allows more exposure to air and oxidation of the wine and in
turn opens up the wine's flavors. This is the same idea as those
scratch and sniff labels we all had as a kid. You might have heard
someone say the wine need to "open up" or "needs to breath" what they
were saying is that the wine needs to oxidize a little to awaken some
of the scents and flavors of the wine and will release the volatile
chemicals of the wine into the air. Generally if a wine needs to "open
up" for an extended period, then it is likely that the wine requires
Smelling the wine is the most important aspect of tasting wine. You
sense of smell is 90% more sensitive than your sense of taste therefore
most of "tasting" something is experiencing its aroma.
Sipping is actually a two step process of taking a drink as normal and
allowing the wine to roll over and under your pallet for a few seconds.
The second sip is more of a slurp where roughly equal amounts of air
and wine are drawn in. This process allows the wine to releases
additional nuances onto your pallet which normal sipping would not
reveal. It is not polite to swish you wine in your mouth like
Savoring the flavor of the wine for a few seconds while it is in your
mouth allows you to fully taste and enjoy the flavors of the wine.
Swallowing the wine not only hit any additional taste buds at the rear
of your tongue but will allow you to evaluate the finish that remains
in the mouth.
PHG's Wine Evaluation Suggestions
Inspect the wine bottle before opening. Potential problems may include:
the bottle appears to be less full that it should be = leaky bottle,
the foil is sticky = wine seepage, the foil is missing = potentially
Remove the cork and inspect the cork. Potential problems may include:
A dry and crumbly cork indicating a bad cork, improper storage, or
simple a really old cork. Wine which has leaked through the cork. A
noticeable off or musty smell from the wine even before it has been
poured indicating a very "corked" or "cork tainted" bottle.
Pour a small amount of wine in your glass and briefly sample the wine
to determine if the wine is in good condition and ok to drink. Initial
observations should include whether the wine is fit to drink, i.e. is
it corked (cork tainted - musty/moldy smelling and/or tasting), has an
off vinegary smell, or has simply over aged to the point of
nothingness. Note the below points on evaluating the wine. If the
wine is cork tainted or has gone bad, the wine is probably not
something you want to drink.
Evaluating the wine and determining whether it needs a decanter is a
critical pre-tasting task that cannot be omitted. Remember wine is a
living and breathing thing, treat it as such when evaluating it. You
probably are not that impressive at 5 in the morning after being jolted
awake after a sound night's sleep, it's the same thing for wine - give
the wine time to wake up and show you what it has to offer.
Bottle Dumb - For aged wines, there is a term called "bottle dumb"
which means the wine has gone to sleep, so to speak. In this state the
wine is in a type of hibernation and will have very little if any aroma
and/or taste. It can take several hours of the wine being in a
decanter with exposure to air to "awaken the beast". It is generally
suggested that if a wine displays little if any flavor or aroma, the
assumptions can be made that the wine either needs time to wake up
because it is "bottle dumb" or "asleep", or that it has been over aged
to a point of no return. Only patience, time in the decanter or glass,
and intermittent tasting will reveal the truth. A learning experience
for me involved recently opening a 1998 Napa Cabernet, which on initial
tasting indicated that it had been over aged, however 4 hours later it
was rich with aroma and flavor. The older the wine, the longer it can
take to fully awaken. Patience can pay big dividends with wine.
Harnessed with this new knowledge you may think twice before making a
snap judgment about pouring out a wine you think is over aged based on
the initial taste.
Tight Wine - You may have heard some of your wine nerd friends mention
that a wine is "tight" and needs time to "open up". This wine slang
means either that the other un-opened bottles in the cellar need
further time to develop/age or the wine you are tasting needs some time
to oxidize in the glass or a decanter. This decanting/aeration
process, synthesizes long-term aging of the wine and allows all of us
to have an rough idea of what a wine will taste like with further
aging. Generally if the wine is tight it will taste very tannic with
not much fruit, flavors, or aromas. Again patience is the key as this
process can take hours. A good learning experience is to sample a wine
over a period of 6-8 hours and note how it changes as the hours goes
by, this is where the real enjoyment of what a wine can offer is
revealed. We recently opened a well known 2001 Oakville Cabernet on
vacation which did not fully open until the next morning and was
incredible for breakfast. If you are opening some younger wines for
guests plan to open those bolder reds at least one hour ahead of
serving. Even inexpensive wines can benefit from a little time to open
up. Most younger heavier red wines take at least 30 minutes and more
likely an hour, aged or age worthy red wines can take several hours.
PHG's Wine Tasting Suggestions
Download and print the Wine Evaluation Chart and Aroma Wheel - Wine
evaluation kit from the American Enology and Viticulture Society at
Tilt the wine glass so that the wine moves to the edge of the lip and
look at the color of the wine against a white background. Noting the
color and clarity of the wine. Is the wine bright and gem like, in
color, or does it reflect some age with a less transparent and more
oxidized or weathered color indicating a older aged wine. Is the wine
lighter or darker in color than normal for this particular varietal.
Check for clarity of the wine. Notice if the wine is clear and free of
suspended material - this is termed a brilliant wine. Some descriptions
to use include brilliant, clear, dull, and cloudy. Dull indicates
haziness, and cloudy indicates heavy amounts of suspended material.
Bring the glass down to a normal level and swirl the wine in the glass
quickly. This will increase the surface area of the wine by allowing it
to move up the sides of the glass and release additional subtleties of
Stop swirling. Insert your nose into the glass fully (without getting
your nose wet) and inhale by taking quick full sniffs. Really getting
your nose into the glass will greatly aid in evaluating the wine when
smelling. Are there any off-odors, does the alcohol balance well with
the fruit, or is there an overpowering alcohol aroma. Is there one
overpowering aroma, or does the wine smell very balanced. Identify any
grape aromas and rank the strength of the aroma. As a beginner, focus
on unwanted smells such as yeast, wood, mold, sulfur dioxide, oxidation
(brackishness), acetic acid (vinegar) and hydrogen sulfide (rotten
Analyze the aroma further. Try to detect the smell of fruity or floral
notes. Decide what they remind you of if possible. Next, note the
presence of spices, such as pepper, anise, cinnamon, vanilla, tea or
possibly nuts. Finally, note the presence of other aromas, such as
cedar, oak, dust, moist earth, herbs, chocolate, tobacco, toastiness,
smoke, tar, mushrooms, red meat, grass, hay, or asparagus.
Sip a small amount of wine as noted above and move it over and around
your entire tongue so that all your taste buds around your tongue come
in contact with the wine. The trick to tasting wine is to allow the
aromas of the wine to enter your nasal passageway at the back of your
throat. Inhale by sucking in air over the wine and exhale through the
nose. Although it looks weird, you can also chew the wine as if it were
food. Both of these methods will force the aromas of the wine through
the nasal passage and more the wine around in your mouth and will
increase your experience of the wine.
Note how long the flavors remain in your mouth after you've swallowed
the wine. This is called length or more typically referred to as the
length of finish. Wines that linger for a long time have a long
finish, those which disappear from the pallet after a few seconds are
referred as having a short finish. Some wines can "finish" for several
minutes. Also be aware of any overbearing presence of alcohol. A wine
should have enough balance that you're barely aware of the alcohol in
it. Taste for sweetness or dryness. An acid bite indicates the vitality
of the wine and typically indicates that it will handle age well and
may need to be decanted. Taste for excessive tannins (bitter and rough)
and for vinegar flavor, which is usually not desirable. Note boldness,
fullness and richness while tasting. The preceding points tend to
indicate a wine with good body.
At this point you can either continue to enjoy the bottle one sip at a
time and enjoy how the wine changes over several hours or your can chug
the wine down knowing that you have a good idea of what the wine has to
offer and is fit for your thirsty guests.
If you've snickered at people who swirl their wine incessantly, you
won't any longer. This is the best way to allow wine to have its
intended effect on your senses.
Strong aromas of mold, wet cardboard, vinegar, Madeira, sulfur,
fermented kitchen trash, or nail polish indicate a problem with a table
wine. The general rule is, if the wine doesn't smell good don't drink
it. Even when wines have gone bad, they have only gone to vinegar and
are still consumable. Cork tainted wines may taste and smell bad but
they are just fine to drink and will still get the job done.
There are few things in life that compare to good food, good wine, and
great company. Eat, drink, entertain, and enjoy! - Tony Arnold 2005
*This Article Copyright Tony Arnold PHG 2006 -
PHG - is a Wine Retailer and Shipper in Omaha, NE
Respond to nils dot lindgren at drchips dot se
I prefer to not be a pro in tasting wines myself! If I like it, I buy
it. When visiting a winery I do want enough knowledge to explain what
it is I like so they can properly recommend something to me. Other than
that, I prefer being the amateur and not taking things so seriously
which to me kills the enjoyment.