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Wine Tasting 101

Don't be intimidated by sommeliers who toss around esoteric adjectives as they swirl their glasses. At its core, wine tasting is simply about determining which wines you like best. However, knowing a few basic tasting steps and a few key quality guidelines can make your winery visit much more enjoyable and help you remember which wines you liked, and why, long after you return home. Above all, follow your instincts at the tasting bar: there is no right or wrong way to describe wine.

If you watch the pros, you'll probably notice that they take time to inspect, swirl, and sniff the wine before they get around to sipping it. Follow their lead and take your time, going through each of the following steps for each wine. Starting with the pop of the cork and the splashing of wine into a glass, all of your senses play a part in wine tasting.

Use Your Eyes

Before you taste it, take a good look at the wine in your glass. Holding the glass by the stem, raise it to the light. Whether it's white, rosé, or red, your wine should be clear, without cloudiness or sediments, when you drink it. Some unfiltered wines may seem cloudy at first, but they will clear as the sediments settle.

In the natural light, place the glass in front of a white background such as a blank sheet of paper or a tablecloth. Check the color. Is it right for the wine? A California white should be golden: straw, medium, or deep, depending on the type. Rich, sweet, dessert wine will have more intense color, but Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc will be paler. A Rosé should be a clear pink, from pale to deep, without too much red or any orange. Reds may lean toward ruby or garnet coloring; some have a purple tinge. They shouldn't be pale (the exception is Pinot Noir, which can be quite pale yet still have character). In any color of wine, a brownish tinge is a flaw that indicates the wine is too old, has been incorrectly stored, or has gone bad. If you see brown, try another bottle.

Breathe Deep

You might notice that experienced wine tasters spend more time sniffing the wine than drinking it. This is because this step is where the magic happens: aroma plays a huge role in wine's flavor. After you have looked at the wine's color, sniff the wine once or twice to see if you can identify any aromas. Then gently move your glass in a circular motion to swirl the wine around. Aerating the wine this way releases more of its aromas. (It's called "volatilizing the esters," if you're trying to impress someone.) Stick your nose into the glass and take another long sniff.

Wine should smell good to you. You might pick up the scent of apricots, peaches, ripe melon, honey, and wildflowers in a white wine; black pepper, cherry, violets, and cedar in a red. Rosés (which are made from red-wine grapes) smell something like red wine, but in a scaled-back way, with hints of raspberry, strawberry, and sometimes a touch of rose petal. You might encounter surprising smells, such as tar—which some people actually appreciate in certain (generally expensive, red) wines.

For the most part, a wine's aroma should be clean and pleasing to you, not "off." If you find a wine's odor odd or unpleasant, there's probably something wrong. Watch out for hints of wet dog or skunk, or for moldy, horsey, mousy, or sweaty smells. Sniff for chemical faults such as sulfur, or excessive vanilla scents (picked up from oak barrels) that overwhelm the other aromas. A vinegar smell indicates that the wine has started to spoil. A rotten wood or soggy cardboard smell usually means that the cork has gone bad, ruining the wine. It's extremely rare to find these faults in wines poured in the tasting rooms, however, because staffers usually taste each bottle before pouring from it.

Just a Sip

Once you've checked its appearance and aroma, take a sip —not a swig or a gulp—of the wine. As you sip a wine, gently swish it around in your mouth —this releases more aromas for your nose to explore. Do the aroma and the flavor complement each other, improve each other? While moving the wine around in your mouth, also think about the way it feels: silky or crisp? Does it coat your tongue or is it thinner? Does it seem to fill your mouth with flavor or is it weak? This combination of weight and intensity is referred to as body: a good wine may be light-, medium-, or full-bodied.

Do you like it? If not, don't drink it. Even if there is nothing actually wrong with a wine, what's the point of drinking it if you don't like it? A wine can be technically perfect but nevertheless taste strange, unpleasant, or just boring to you. It's possible to learn to appreciate wine that doesn't appeal to your tastes, but unless you like a wine right off the bat, it probably won't become a favorite. In the tasting room, dump what you don't like and move on to the next sample.

The more complex a wine, the more flavors you will detect in the course of tasting. You might experience different things when you first take a sip (up front), when you swish (in the middle or at mid-palate), and just before you swallow (at the end or on the back-palate). A good table wine should be neither too sweet nor too tart, and never bitter. Fruitiness, a subtle near-sweetness, should be balanced by acidity, but not to the point that the wine tastes sour or makes your mouth pucker. An astringent or drying quality is the mark of tannins, a somewhat mysterious wine element that comes from grape skins and oak barrels. In young reds this can taste almost bitter—but not quite. All these qualities, together with the wine's aroma, blend to evoke the flavors—not only of fruit but also of unlikely things such as leather, tobacco, or almonds.

Spit or Swallow?

You may choose to spit out the wine (into the dump bucket or a plastic cup) or swallow it. The pros typically spit, because they want to preserve their palates (and sobriety!) for the wines to come, but you'll find that swallowers far outnumber spitters in the winery tasting rooms. Either way, pay attention to what happens after the wine leaves your mouth —this is the finish, and it can be spectacular. What sensations stay behind or appear? Does the flavor fade away quickly or linger pleasantly? A long finish is a sign of quality; wine with no perceptible finish is inferior.

Updated: 07-2013

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