Whether it's your first wine tasting trip or you want a refresher, this wine tasting guide will help you get the most out of tasting wine. Relax, it's all less intimidating than it seems.
Okay, you know how to drink wine. That's easy. Tasting wine requires a little know-how. Of course, you don't want to be sniffing and slurping at a dinner party -- but at wine tastings, it's a perfectly appropriate way to help you decide what you like to drink. This wine tasting guide will get you off on the right foot -- er, palate. Here are the standard steps to follow:
Take a look. You're judging the wine's color here. Hold your glass by the stem and raise it up to the light. You can tell how old a wine is by looking at its color and clarity. White wines start off clear and pale, becoming a straw color over time. Young reds are nearly purple, then become more red, heading toward brown. Any tinge of brown shows that a wine is past its prime or has gone bad.
Density of color is easiest to judge when you look at the wine in front a white background, such as a tablecloth or a sheet of white paper. (Your wine-tasting list will do nicely.) Tilt your glass at a 45° angle, creating a wider surface of wine against the side of the glass. (You don't want your glass more than a quarter full for this, or it'll spill out.) You'll see the depth of color, indicating heavy, rich or fruity qualities.
Swirl the wine. Giving the glass a good swirl drives the wine up the sides of the glass bowl. The streams of wine that slowly run down the side of the bowl are called legs. Lighter-bodied wines have fast-streaming legs and fuller-bodied wines have slow-streaming legs. Legs are not a sign of quality -- there are no such things as good legs or bad legs (at least on wine). They merely show you whether a wine is light-, medium- or full-bodied. Generally, the darker the color, the fuller-bodied the wine.
Smell the aromas. Swirling exposes the wine to more oxygen and creates an updraft of aromas. Stick your nose all the way into your glass and take a deep breath. Your nose has the most powerful sensory perception, hands down, and can detect literally thousands of scents. Fuller-bodied wines have complex aromas, so it will take you a while before you will trust your nose. If you're new to this, it may be easiest to think of aromas in general categories such as floral or fruity instead of rose or pear.
Taste it. Aaahh...finally. After building up anticipation, now you can pour wine into your mouth. Although I sometimes refer to this as a sip, you actually want enough wine to cover all your tastebuds. Swish the wine over your tongue so you can distinguish the tastes: sweet, sour and bitter. You'll recognize high levels of acidity in the wine as crisp or vibrant and less acidity as smooth.
You'll hear words like "lively," "velvety," "bold," "oaky," "crisp" and other descriptions at wine tastings. Don't worry if these wine tasting terms aren't familiar to you. It takes time to understand how more experienced tasters describe a wine. But if you listen as you're tasting the same wine, after a while you'll be able to relate your own taste experience to what they're talking about.
Take along a pen and make handwritten notes on your wine tasting sheet. Try to describe color, aromas and tastes for each wine. Most importantly, write down whether or not you like a particular wine. Believe me, after tasting several -- at different wineries -- you won't remember at the end of the day (or weeks later when you want to buy a bottle or two).
This wine tasting guide is just that -- a guide to help you to understand wine. Keep in mind that wine tasting is not a test. There are no right answers to what you see, smell and taste. And don't be intimidated by wine servers, sommeliers, or well-meaning friends who try to steer you to which wines are trendy or best.
Wine that tastes good to you is good wine. That's the bottom line.