How to taste wine like you know what you're doing

A bluffer's guide to mastering the grape.

Meryl D'Souza August 30, 2016

You’re at the best restaurant in town and have ordered the most expensive wine they have to offer. Now here’s the tricky part, the garçon asks you to taste said wine but you have no clue what to do. Like every normal human being thrust in an awkward situation, you simply sip, smile and nod, hoping to get done with the formalities before anyone calls your bluff.

Wine tasting tends to emanate a holier-than-thou impression, but it’s actually just a means to appreciate the craft of winemaking. Drinking wine is not unlike listening to music. You have loud and soft notes, lots of information to absorb and everyone has certain tastes. This makes wines subjective; what is a stellar wine for one could be vomit-inducing for another.

We here at EDGAR would like to save you the awkward interaction with your waiter because even though if you think you have him fooled, he isn’t. He can tell you’re woefully oblivious and would have agreed to anything. So here, we got JA Manafaru’s sommelier Sampath Kalpage to help you with your wine tasting conundrums.

Step 1: The glass

The glass should be clear so that you can look through it to study the wine’s colour. Red wines typically come in taller glasses with a wide mouth and bowl to let the flavours and smell entice you. White wines come in narrower mouths and bowls to restrict air from getting in. While holding the glass, it’s imperative to ensure that you hold the stem so you don’t warm up the wine by cupping the glass with your hand. 

Step 2: Look

The three main observations before tasting wine are: colour, intensity and clarity. To do it right, you’ll have to look at your wine in three different angles:

  • Straight down: You should be able to see through it. If the wine is cloudy or hazy or you find any particles in the wine, it may indicate a fault in the wine.
  • Side view: The shade of the colour is in direct dependence on the grape variety, and the wines with intense colours tend to be bolder and have higher tannins, because the skins have been longer in contact with the juice. Intensity can also indicate the age of a wine, for example an aged red wine would gradually fade, or show hints of brownish-red.
  • Tilted view: If the colour looks quite pale and watery near its edge, it suggests a rather thin, possibly insipid wine. If the colour looks tawny or brown (for a white wine) or orange or rusty brick (for a red wine) it is either an older wine or a wine that has been oxidized and may be past its prime.

Step 3: Swirl

When swirling a glass of wine there will be tears on the glass. Long and slow tears usually indicate a wine that is higher in alcohol and has a heavier body. In sweeter wines such as the sauternes, or fortified wines it indicates the sugar level, as the wine becomes almost syrupy. 

Step 4: Sniff

Sniff for a fault in the wine. The smell of wet newspaper or mould could indicate cork taint in the wine. If there’s nothing off about the smell, sniff for fruity, herbal, vegetal, floral, earthy or spicy aromas. Any secondary aroma your beak finds comes from the fermentation process and any tertiary aromas come from ageing the wine: for example vanilla and wood aromas are associated with oak-ageing. 

Step 5: Taste

Take a small sip and swirl it around in your mouth to coat your tongue so that you can taste all its flavours. If you’re tasting a series of wines, you should spit out the wine after this step to keep your taste buds in top form.