A Beginners Guide to Tasting Wine

By Joan Lesko | Food and Wine

Nov 05

As a mother of two school-aged children, I have just enough time to take mini-vacations now and then. Recently, I and some girlfriends had the luxury of a spa weekend that included an afternoon at a local winery where we learned some of the finer points of wine tasting.

wine-tasting-2The wine tasting took place in one of the bottle cellars, which was cool but brightly lit. The bottles for sampling were arranged on long, lawn-covered tables and every few feet was a silver spittoon.

The host started by telling us that most people don’t know how to appreciate wine. They can’t tell the difference between a $150 Grand Cru or that serviceable stuff one buys at the supermarket for $3.00. That’s because they emphasize the wrong sense to taste the wine.

wine-tastingThe main sense to use in wine-tasting is not the sense of taste, but the sense of smell in the upper part of the nasal cavity. This area doesn’t really respond to smells that come from the outside, but when you have a mouthful of wine it will dissolve the wine’s volatile gases and take them to the olfactory bulb in the brain. In professional wine tasters, who’ve drunk lots of wine, this stimulates the memories of wines they have sampled. The reason why the wine is spat out after the taster evaluates it is to keep the new wine from becoming overwhelming.

But since I and my girlfriends were novices, I can only guess the new wine would return all those memories of that good, cheap stuff we had at our dinner parties.

pouring-wineThen, the wine was poured for us. In our case, we were sampling reds. The thing about reds is that they’re served at room temperature, in large-bowled stem glasses that are filled only a third of the way. This allows you to swirl them safely and allows their volatile gases to collect.

You start by tilting the glass against the pale cellar wall and evaluating the color. A blackish, purplish wine means that the wine is young and will take a long time to mature. If it’s brick red, it’s mature. Brown wine, with the exception of sherry, is too old. My first glass was ruby colored. It was young, but good.

Then, you stick your nose into the glass, close your eyes and inhale deeply, as you would a bouquet of roses. The wine should not smell “funny,” musty or vinegary. The best wines have a complex bouquet that comes from the grape, the barrel and the bottle. Some experts can even identify what type of grape is in the wine. I wasn’t there yet! I would say that the smell of the first wine I had was “lively.” This means the fresh smell of a good, young wine. It also had a nice, grapey scent, which is also a good sign.

wine-tastingThen, I took a mouthful. Our host warned us to not sip but take a mouthful so the wine could reach every area of the mouth. I and my girlfriends looked like hamsters, but that was fine. Then, we had to pucker our lips and draw in air. This helps volatize the wine and help it rise into the nasal cavity. The words I thought of as the wine was in my mouth were “raspberries,” and “violets,” which are good appellations.

Then, while everybody spat their wine out, I swallowed mine. It was too good and too expensive to spit out! Plus, spitting it out was gross.

I’m not sure if this ruined my experience with the other wines, which I also swallowed, but one day, I hope to be experienced enough, or blasé enough, to use the spittoon. I will always remember the lessons I learned at the winery!

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About the Author

Joan is a 40 year old wife and mom of 2. She is a foodie and is a bit of an amateur sommelier.