How to Taste Fine Wine: The Ultimate Guide to Improving Your Palate for Wine

How to Taste Fine Wine

Part of tasting wine properly is taking a close look at the color of the wine, and its opacity.
Photo Credit: Flickr CC user Kumweni

 A single wine can dramatically change in flavor and bouquet as the years wear on and you develop your palate. The first time you try 2010 Lafite, you might only taste and smell wine. But as your palate matures, you’ll learn to find more notes, like the scent of oyster that made this estate famous, or the strong black tea flavor hidden in the wine’s layers. If you train your palate well enough, you might even spot the elusive violet top note that the most experienced enthusiasts struggle to find. Learning how to taste fine wine requires patience and consistent practice, but it will ultimately make your collection more refined and your experiences with wine more enjoyable.

Refine Your Method for Tasting Wine

Holding your glass properly and drinking your wine correctly will put you in the best possible position to find complex flavors that are hard to spot.

Here’s how you should approach every glass of fine wine you taste:

How to Taste Fine Wine

  1. Holding your glass by the stem prevents your warm hands from touching the wine, which keeps the glass at the ideal serving temperature. If the wine is too warm, it will taste flabby and dull.
  2. Looking at the color tells you the age and health of the wine. Older wines turn more transparent as they age, and their color becomes slightly faded.
  3. Your first deep sniff will tell you whether the wine smells healthy (like fruit) or corked (like wet newspaper). It also gives you a first impression of the wine’s primary aromas.
  4. Swirling your wine and smelling it again will help you identify scents that you couldn’t find in the first sniff. The swirling mixes up chemical compounds in the wine, making it more aromatic.
  5. Your taste buds can only detect sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, sourness, and umami–your nose does most of the work in a tasting. Use your first sips of wine to detect the six qualities above, and identify whether the wine is full-bodied, medium-bodied, or light-bodied. You can also detect how much tannin is in a wine by looking for a bitter, mouth-drying feeling.
  6. Finally, the finish is how long the wine’s flavors and aromas linger on your tongue. Fine wine, especially bold varietals, can have a finish of at least one full minute, often longer. Usually, the longer the finish is, the finer the wine.

Train Your Palate to Find Aromas and Flavors

When you’re first learning how to taste fine wine, it’s easy to confuse the wine’s bouquet with its aromas or taste. However, these three terms have very different meanings in the wine world.

Taste is the overall sweetness, bitterness, body, or texture of the wine (its mouthfeel). Aromas are the specific smells or flavors you find that come from the grape varietal itself (like lemon curd or pencil shavings). Bouquet is a scent or group of scents that come from fermentation or aging.

Here’s how to identify all of these qualities when you taste fine wine:

Body and Mouthfeel

A wine’s body and how it feels in the mouth come directly from the wine’s alcohol content and your taste buds. A light, low-alcohol wine (like Louis Roederer Cristal) might have a velvety mouthfeel, whereas an acidic, high-alcohol wine (like Dominus) will have a rough mouthfeel.

Generally, the higher the alcohol by volume, the stronger and fuller-bodied the wine will taste. You can use the following chart to help you identify your wine’s body.

How to Taste Fine Wine

Once you have an idea of the wine’s body, ask yourself whether it tastes sweet or bitter, and whether this makes the wine feel “smooth” or “tannic.”

Primary Aromas

The primary notes in the wine come from your sense of smell and the olfactory receptors in the back of your mouth. Chemicals in the grape varietal cause these aromas, and the smells and flavors are usually present to some extent in every wine of the same type. For instance, Merlot usually has notes of plum, chocolate, and black cherry. Even though 2013 Ornellaia is from Tuscany and 2010 Kapcsandy Family is from California, both share strong black cherry notes. Consult this list of common primary notes that you’ll find in different fine wine varietals:

How to Taste Fine Wine

Secondary Aromas

Unlike primary aromas, secondary aromas are part of the wine’s bouquet, and they come from fermentation, rather than chemicals in the grape itself. Secondary notes are usually related to bread or yeast, and are very producer-specific—the longer the producer ferments the juice in yeast, the breadier the wine will taste.

For instance, reviewers say Champagne like Krug, made from Chardonnay, smells and tastes “bready,” whereas a less-fermented Chardonnay like Leflaive doesn’t have this quality. Here are a few secondary aromas and flavors that you might spot in your wine:

How to Taste Fine Wine

Tertiary Aromas

Tertiary aromas are the other half of the wine’s bouquet, and they come from either natural aging or oak aging. If you’ve ever had California Chardonnay, you might taste a woodiness in the wine that comes from letting the wine sit in an oak barrel. In older wines, you might taste a nutty flavor. Take a look at the examples below to identify the tertiary aroma that best fits the wine sitting in front of you:

How to Taste Fine Wine

How to Detect Wine Faults

Not all aromas and flavors are supposed to be there. You might expect to see bubbles and taste sourdough bread in a fine glass of Champagne, but if you find that in a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s the sign of a wine gone bad.

That’s why, as you look for subtle flavors and aromas in your wine, you’ll also want to be on the lookout for faults and flaws. Wine faults are serious problems with the wine that go beyond a preference of taste. Wine flaws are far less serious and are often a matter of preference. Knowing the difference will help you pick the right wines for your cellar.

Faults

When a winemaker improperly ferments wine, or the retailer stores bottles under poor conditions for an extended period of time, the wine might develop a serious fault. If you taste or smell any of the following qualities in your wine, you should throw the bottle away, since all of the wine’s flavors and aromas will be negatively impacted.

  • Cork Taint: High levels of a compound called Trichloroanisole (TCA) causes cork taint, which smells like mold, wet newspaper, or wet dog.
  • Oxidation: This is caused by too much oxygen leaking into the bottle, resulting in a brown-colored wine that tastes dull.
  • Heat Damage: When a bottle sits in the heat for too long, the wine inside will ‘cook’ and start to taste like burnt sugar and cooked fruit. Heat can also damage a wine’s seal and cause oxidation.
  • Secondary Fermentation: If a wine has bubbles when it shouldn’t, that means that it has accidentally fermented for a second time in the bottle.

Flaws

Unlike faults, wine flaws are a matter of opinion; one critic’s flaw is another critic’s favorite part of a wine. Try wines that are notorious for the following qualities to decide whether you like or dislike them, and to learn how to identify them.

  • High Sulfur: Wines high in sulfur will smell like egg, skunk, or matchsticks. It’s common in JJ Prum wines when you first open the bottle. If you don’t like the aroma, you can usually decant the wine to dissipate it.
  • Brett: This is a yeast that causes wines to smell either like barnyard or like game meat. It can add an earthy, savory component to a wine when it’s balanced. However, some drinkers can’t get past that heavy chicken coop smell. Try Southern Rhone wines to find out how much Brett you prefer in your glass.
  • Diacetyl: If a winemaker uses malolactic fermentation (adding bacteria to the wine to start the fermentation process), the wine might have an excess of a chemical called diacetyl. This makes it taste strongly of butter. You’ll frequently find this in California Chardonnay.

Many serious wine lovers and collectors dislike some or all of these flaws, so don’t feel ashamed for liking or disliking wines with these characteristics; simply choose the wines that match your preference.

Set Up a Wine Tasting

Your ability to identify flavors and aromas in a wine depends on how well you’ve trained your palate, and even what you ate for lunch. To ensure that you’re tasting a fine wine at its best you should:

  • Avoid wearing perfume or cologne (this can trick your nose)
  • Avoid eating artichokes before or during a tasting (one of the vegetable’s chemicals alters wine flavors)
  • Avoid heavily-spiced or seasoned foods during a tasting
  • Never try wine when you have a cold or allergies (your sinuses will likely be clogged and your sense of smell affected)
  • Try not to smoke the day of a tasting
  • Use a spittoon so you don’t get intoxicated
  • Cleanse your palate in between different wines (sniff your forearm to clear your olfactory receptors between tastes, and swish with a glass of water to clear your tongue)

Wine tasting order also matters. If you drink a bold, spicy Malbec directly before a delicate glass of Pinot Grigio, it will be much more difficult to taste subtle notes in the white wine.

Here’s the best serving order for your vintages:

How to Taste Fine Wine

Sparkling wine comes first because it’s usually light, and the bubbles excite your palate, which prepares you for the rest of the wine on the list. You should serve your sparkling rose after your sparkling white wines because the rose is slightly more bold.

Continue ordering your wines according to how bold they are, serving your whites first (with the exception of dessert wines) followed by your reds. Finally, save your dessert and fortified wines for last, since these will have intense flavors that can make an impression on your palate even after you’ve tasted bold red wines. An ultra-sweet dessert wine like Sauternes is also the only varietal that can compete with a dessert dish; most other wines will taste too acidic when paired with dessert.

Vintages That Can Train Your Wine Palate

Champagne Tasting Goals

 

Copy of Champagne Tasting Goals

 

Copy of Copy of Champagne Tasting Goals

Your Training Never Ends

Even the most renowned sommeliers in the world continue to train their palates and try new vintages. When it comes to learning how to taste fine wine, there’s no such thing as perfection. You might have an “off” day, which will make a wine taste subpar. That’s why it’s so important to give every wine you taste a second chance, and test your palate at least once a week. You never know—that wine that you wrote off five years ago could become your most treasured bottle after just a single life-changing tasting.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.

At Vinfolio, we help our clients buy, sell, store, and manage their most treasured bottles of wine. But in our spare time, we’re just a group of passionate and slightly obsessed oenophiles--we love sharing a great glass of vintage Champagne, followed by a Burgundy, and then a Bordeaux, to get things started. We’re always obsessing over the latest (and oldest) vintages, and we want to share that knowledge and passion with our readers.