The 5 S's Of Tasting Wine
Updated: Apr 1, 2019
How To Taste Like A Pro At Your Next Wine Event
You’re going to a wine tasting!
You’re looking forward to sampling many types of wine, maybe paired with some gourmet bites of food, but perhaps you are a bit intimidated about the event as well.
You may have seen movies where wine tasters swirl their glasses and hold them up to the light or against a table linen, stick their nose into the glass, and eventually spit it out into a bucket. Maybe you want to understand these techniques and why they are doing all that. Maybe you want to show off your wine skills in front of your friends, or maybe you just don’t want to feel embarrassed in front of the winemaker.
Well, fear not, fellow wine adventurer. By simply following these five steps, you’ll look like a seasoned wine taster, achieve a greater appreciation for wine, and maybe have fun along the way.
Let’s get started with the 5 S’s of Wine Tasting...
Once a wine has been poured into your glass, the first thing you should do is look at it. I know this sounds obvious, but I mean look down into the glass, hold the glass up to a window or light fixture, rest the side of the glass on a white tablecloth to really see the wine. You are looking for many things which can tell you a lot about the wine you will soon taste.
For example, look for color. Not just red, white or rosé, but depth of color. What does it remind you of? Is it straw yellow or buttercup? Is it brick red, garnet or purple?
Is there any cloudiness or is it crystal clear? Are there bubbles? Does the color go all the way to the edge of the wine, or does it fade away around the edges?
After you have tasted a lot of wine, you will learn to recognize different varietals just by looking at them and you’ll know what to expect in your mouth, even before you try it.
Tip: Write down your thoughts and observations starting at this step to help you remember your impressions and to remind you later which wines you enjoyed.
The purpose of swirling a wine is to aerate a wine that has been cooped up in a bottle for several years. By moving the wine around inside the glass, you are increasing the surface area now that it’s exposed to air, which rejuvenates the aromas and flavors of the wine. The goal is to give the wine a good wake-up, without sloshing it over the sides of the glass.
Some people talk about the “legs” which appear when the wine slides down the sides of the glass. This can indicate the wine’s glycerin sugar content and/or alcohol content. Some wines with higher alcohol or sugar content form more obvious legs on the glass, but this doesn’t tell you much about the quality of a wine otherwise.
Tip: Don’t try to swirl the glass in your hand alone. Place the base of your glass on a smooth table or other surface and move the base in a circular motion on the table while keeping the entire base on the table. I’ve seen lots of people wearing their wine (or someone else’s) when they try to swirl their glass in mid-air.
Once you have a good swirl going, bring the glass up to your face and literally stick your entire nose into your glass as far as you can. This does a few things. First, it intensifies the aromas of the wine which are still dancing around in your glass and second, it helps block out other odors which may be in the room. Take a deep sniff.
Here’s just a few things you may smell: fruit, earth/dirt, flowers, perfume, spices, pepper, leather, gunpowder, and maybe even a barnyard-like odor. Most experts agree that humans can only taste four basic flavors (sweet, sour, salt, and bitter - although many argue for a fifth “flavor” called umami, but that’s a topic for another article). However, we can smell more than one trillion different aromas.
So you can see why smelling your wine is so important, especially before you taste, because it sets your palate for what’s coming. It adds so much to the complexity of the wine and your enjoyment, assuming the aromas are pleasant. Also look out for unpleasant, or “off” aromas such as wet cardboard, soggy newspapers, vinegar, grain alcohol and other odors which you should not find in a quality bottle of wine.
Tip: Open your mouth a little and take another deep sniff. You may find additional or different aromas now that you have opened your soft palate to the process.
Ok, you’ve been very patient and thorough in your evaluation so far. It’s time to take a sip. Notice I said “sip” not drink, gulp, or chug. And I didn’t say swallow... yet. You want to bring a small amount of wine into your mouth and move it all around. Thoroughly coat your mouth and tongue and even breathe a little more air into your mouth, if you can do so without spitting or choking, of course.
Notice how the wine feels on your tongue, does it tingle, or dry it out? What kind of texture do you sense? Is the mouth feel similar to whole cream or 2% milk? Analyze the flavors you now taste. Do you taste fruits like plums and blackberries in red wine, or maybe lemongrass or butter in a white wine?
Tip: See if the wine arouses any sensory memories for you. For example, are you reminded of Grandma’s apple tart or a smokey BBQ rack of ribs you enjoyed at a backyard party? Play with it and try to find different layers of flavor as you keep the wine in your mouth.
Finally, you’ll be ready to...
Some people spit at wine tastings. In my opinion, unless you are a professional taster, or you face a large tasting of 20+ wines, you are safe to swallow and enjoy your tastes.
As you swallow, pay attention to the sensation and flavors left behind. How long do you still taste the wine? Does the flavor change from the front of your tongue to the back? Does your mouth feel dry, like a cotton ball was swiped through? Is your mouth watering and are you anticipating another taste? Is your palate cleansed so you can change to another wine?
Tip: Don’t rush to another taste too quickly. Especially if you have tried a wine with a long finish, you may miss out on some enjoyment if you follow up with a different wine right way.
6. Savor (A Bonus S!)
I threw in this extra S as a gentle reminder that wine tasting is all about enjoying the experience and sharing it with others. A true wine tasting event is not a quick drunk or a chugging contest. Use this opportunity to jot down your final notes about the entire taste of each wine. Trust me, you won’t remember the details if you try to wait until the end of the event.
To truly appreciate good wine, you need to take your time and think about what you are experiencing. Then you’ll learn which wines you like, and those you don’t.
Don’t expect to like every wine you taste. Over time, you will probably find certain varietals (types of grapes) that you prefer, along with specific wine regions that cater to your personal preferences. There is no right or wrong opinion in wine tasting.
Of the more than 10,000 types of wine grapes in the world, you’re bound to find a few you really enjoy. With so many wine types produced and sold every day—from sweet to dry, white to red and rosé in between—there’s bound to be a wine out there for you.