A Guide To Wine Tasting

Harry Lambourne
26th April 2023

Tasting wine is fun. That’s a pretty uncontroversial thing to say. Yet, your everyday tasting and appreciation of wine could be much more than just fun. Let this be a guide to wine tasting.

Wine-tasting with a systematic approach can really allow you to expand your palate. You’ll begin noticing more nuanced notes. You’ll be able to decipher structural elements of the wine.

Not only will this enhance your appreciation for the good grape juice, it’ll also enable you to drill down into the specificities of different grape varieties and regions. It’ll show you characteristics that you find desirable. It’ll help you to pinpoint regional differences.

Without a doubt, enjoying an easy going glass of vino is one of life’s great joys. But, dig deeper into the depths and your enjoyment will only increase. This can be through visiting wine schools or doing courses. Or, it can be through looking at wine tasting in a new way.

So, we’re going to take you through all the structural elements, as well as the varied tasting notes that you can expect to find in your glass of wine. Be sure to have them with you the next time you enjoy a wine from Savage Vines and see what you can find! Let’s start our guide to wine tasting.

A Guide TO Wine Tasting – Appearance

Tasting starts with the eyes, believe it or not. So, the first part of a guide to wine tasting is to inspect the glass visually and that doesn’t just mean the colour of the drink. Let’s take a look.

Intensity

The intensity of the colour is the first part of the guide to wine tasting. Broadly speaking, intensity refers to how much colour the wine has. You tip the glass at a 45 degrees angle and look at it from above. The aim to to see how far the colour of the wine extends from the deepest part of the glass to the rim. For red wines, you can also look down through an upright glass and assess how easily the stem can be seen.

White wine will generally appear colourless at the rim. A broad watery rim would be described as pale, but if the colour reaches to the rim it should be described as deep. For red wines, if the wine is lightly pigmented at the rim at 45 degrees, or you can easily see the stem of the glass, it is also pale. Yet, if the rim holds colour at 45 degrees and you can’t see the stem from above it is deep.

Colour

Colour is the next aspect in a guide to wine tasting. As we’ve noted with intensity, colour in the glass can vary. So, when assessing the colour of a wine you should always try and look at the deepest point of the wine. It is also key to make sure there is a sufficient amount of liquid. So, make sure you check the colour before you drink it.

White wines are assessed on a colour scheme that runs from lightest to deepest, by the following descriptions; lemon, lemon-green, gold, amber, brown. Generally, most wines will display a lemon, lemon-green colour, with some being gold. Amber and brown will generally be reserved to fortified and dessert wines, or wines which have gone through some extended ageing. For example, 10 year old Chablis could begin to turn amber.

In a guide to wine tasting, red wines run on the following scale; ruby, purple, garnet, tawny and brown. It is the same idea that most will be ruby to garnet. Yet, dessert and aged wines could be tawny and brown. Tawny Port, anyone?

Other Observations

In a structured guide to wine tasting, there are some other nuanced elements. Perhaps, the most well known is ‘legs‘. All wines, to varying degrees, show legs. The more persistent or viscous the legs then the higher sugar and alcohol content in the wine.

Wine Appreciation - A Guide to Wine Tasting
Checking out the legs on this wine.

A Guide TO Wine Tasting – Faults

Fingers crossed, you’ll never have to deal with one of these. However, an important aspect of a guide to wine tasting is detecting faults in the wine. Generally speaking, you’ll know when you know. Many of these faults will make the wine outright undrinkable, but low levels of some characteristics like oxidation or brett can be considered desirable.

TCA (Trichloroanisole)

This gives the wine aromas of damp cardboard. Often, it is very hard to identify but it will make the wine appear far less fresh. You’ll also see this fault in wine described as ‘being corked’.

Reduction

It no other terms, this makes the wine stink. Rotten eggs, boiled cabbage and blocked drains. However, very low levels of this can actually add a fruity aspects to the wine.

Sulfur Dioxide

Sulfur dioxide is added to nearly all wines. It acts as both an antioxidant and a way of preventing biological spoilage. At lower levels, it can make fruity characteristics of wines. At higher levels, it can create an acrid smell.

Oxidation

This can be seen as the opposite of reduction. It is often described as ‘failure to closure’ implying unwanted oxygen gets trapped in the bottle. The wine will have a browner colour, as well as lacking freshness and fruitiness.

Out of Condition

This can be due to oxidation, but broadly speaking it means a wine is past its best, either due to age or bad storage. It will leave a dull, stale taste.

Volatile Acidity

All wines have this, but when volatile acidity levels are too high, the wines will display a particularly vinegary or acetone taste, similar to nail polish remover.

Brettanomyces (‘Brett’)

Perhaps the most controversial of the faults. This type of yeast can give a whole host of aromas. Some of them are desirable. These can include bacon or wild game. However, on the bad side are sweaty, rancid cheese and even cow poo. Many true wine lovers will seek out this taint. If you’re one of those who likes taking risks, wine regions which can display this are the Rhône Valley and Napa.

Brett Taint - Something to look out for in our guide to wine tasting
Anyone for Brett?

A Guide TO Wine Tasting – Structural Elements

The next aspect in a guide to wine tasting are the structural elements to wine. This can includes things like body, acidity, sweetness. Let’s take a look at how you detect them in our guide to wine tasting.

Sweetness

In a guide to wine tasting, this is simply put, the taste of the sugar present in the wine. A ‘dry‘ wine has no sugar levels, or levels so low that they cannot be detected. The vast majority of wines which we consume will be dry. Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay or Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon. However, not all wines.

Acidity

Some still wines may display an off-dry character, exhibiting small amounts of sugar. These could be Californian Zinfandel, Alsatian Gewurztraminer, or New Zealand Pinot Gris. Beyond off-dry, we have medium-dry, medium-sweet and then sweet and luscious. These will generally move through the sweet wines of this world, with luscious wines notably more viscous and leaving the lips with a sticky sweet sensation.

Acid in wine comes in three key forms. They are tartaric and malic acid which both come from the grapes themselves, but also lactic acid which comes through the conversion of malic acid in the winemaking process. We categorise acidity from low to high and delineate acidity by how much it makes your mouth water.

When considering acidity, there are two finer points to consider. The first is the sweetness will mask acidity. So, a Sautérnes from Bordeaux will have very high levels of acidity, but they don’t appear as evident due to the intense sweetness. It is also worth noting the alcohol can create a mouth-burning sensation, as does acidity. Though mouth-watering is the most reliable guide in spite of these factors.

Tannin

Tannins are a key feature of red wine that are extracted from the skins of the grape during the fermentation process of wine-making. They bind to your saliva, causing your mouth to dry up and feel rough. The front teeth and the gums will really get the brunt of this feeling, but it is also notable through a bitterness in the back of your mouth.

A really interesting experiment in a guide to wine tasting, when considering tannins, is comparing youthful wines against ageing wines. For example, the King of PiedmontBarolo. If it’s only 1 or 2 years will possess aggressive, astringent qualities. Yet, over years these will soften and display much smoother qualities. Indeed, this development is one of the key factors in people opting for trying aged wines.

Alcohol

Next on the list is the alcohol content, (seen on bottles as ABV). Alcohol content can contribute to the texture and body of the wine. Lower levels will seem lighter. Higher alcohol content will also contribute to a burning sensation in the mouth and throat.

For still and sparkling wines there are low, regular and high levels of alcohol. The vast majority of wines will fall in the regular level, which is between 11 and 13.9%. Anything above or below that will be categorised as high or low respectively.

Body

The last standard structural element in a guide to wine tasting is body. You’ll often here wines described as full or light in body. Body is a general impression of all the structural elements working together and how they make your mouth feel. Sugar, tannin and alcohol increase the perception of body, whereas acidity makes wines feel lighter. So, Pinot Noir is low in tannin and high in acidity, which contributes to it being light in body.

A Guide TO Wine Tasting – Aromas and Flavours

The last, and most fun, part of a guide to wine tasting is the perception of different and unique flavours. This begins with the perception of their intensity. Through smelling and tasting wine you’ll be introduced to a whole host of unique and nuanced tasting notes. Wine is so much more than grapes. The varieties, the terroir, the climate of the year and the winemaking choices can all greatly impact the final product.

The aromas and flavours can be described as having light intensity, all the way to pronounced. The blackcurrant notes of Cabernet Sauvignon will often be pronounced, as an example. Yet, if it has only spent minimal time in old oak, subtle notes of cedar may be light.

Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes
Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes – Famous For Pronounced Blackcurrant Notes

However, it can be hard to discern individual flavours if you’re approaching it broadly. This is why a systematic approach can be valuable. The idea is that you break down aromas and flavours into clusters. By walking through these clusters step by step, you can more easily identify these flavours. Specific clusters will also apply to styles of wine. For example, green and citrus fruits, such as apple, pear, lemon and lime will be found within white wine.

Then, we split these clusters further. Into primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. Simply put, primary notes come from the grapes themselves. Secondary aromas stem from winemaking choice, such as ageing in oak. Then, tertiary aromas develop through extended periods of maturation.

Let’s take a look at these clusters now, with a few examples that can be found within them. This is in some respects the crux of the guide to wine tasting.

Primary Aromas and Flavours

These are the aromas that come from the grapes themselves and some other that are created during the fermentation process. Every wine will display primary aromas and flavours. The below table will give you a look into the key clusters to aid you in your guide to wine tasting.

ClusterExample 1Example 2Example 3
FloralChamomileRoseViolet
Green FruitApplePearGooseberry
Citrus FruitLemonLimeGrapefruit
Stone FruitPeachApricotNectarine
Tropical FruitMangoPassion FruitPineapple
Red FruitCranberryRaspberryStrawberry
Black FruitBlackcurrantBlackberryBlueberry
Dried/Cooked FruitFigKirschPreserved Fruit
HerbaceousAsparagusBell PepperGrass
HerbalMintLavenderFennel
SpiceBaking SpicePepperLiquorice
Primary Aromas and Flavour Clusters
Secondary Aromas

As secondary aromas relate to wine-making options, it’s important we identify what these are in relation to this guide to wine tasting. They’ll be below another handy table breaking up these clusters.

ClusterExample 1Example 2Example 3
Yeast/LeesBiscuitBriocheToast
MLFButterCreamCheese
OakCedarVanilaCoconut
Secondary Aromas and Flavour Clusters
Yeast/Lees Ageing

This often displays notes of biscuit, brioche or toast. Lees are dead yeast cells. Wines can be aged on lees and the lees can be regularly stirred through wine to add these flavours, as well as body and texture. It is practised in white and sparkling wine.

MAloLactic Fermentation (MLF)

This gives cream, butter and cheese notes. It stands for Malolactic Fermentation. Essentially, this is a process whereby tart malic acid is converted into lactic acid. The lactic acid then gives these dairy flavours and reduces acidity. This is used in white wine production.

Oak Ageing

Broadly speaking, french oak tends to impart notes of cedar and charred wood. Whereas American oak delivers flavours of chocolate and vanilla. However, this can vary. Oak-ageing is the most well-known of these practices. It simply refers to wines which have spent time in oak. These flavours can be extremely pronounced or very subtle. This will depend on both the size of the barrel and whether it is new oak, or has been used before. Small, new oak barrels impart the most flavour.

Tertiary Aromas

As we touched upon, these come from maturation. Increased oxygen exposure, development of the fruit, or extended bottle ageing. Here, is where you can really get some unique and savoury qualities. Let’s round of this section of our guide to wine tasting with another table breaking down these clusters.

ClusterExample 1Example 2Example 3
OxidationAlmondCoffeeCaramel
Fruit Development (White Wine)Dried ApricotDried AppleMarmalade
Fruit Development (Red Wine)PruneTarCooked Plums
Bottle Age (White Wine)PetrolGingerMushroom
Bottle Age (Red Wine)LeatherTobaccoForest Floor
Tertiary Aromas and Flavour Clusters

Wine Folly Tasting Wheel
Wine Folly Tasting Wheel – A Help in a Guide to Wine Tasting

Wine Folly have provided a wonderful colour chart displaying these clusters and more, which you can see above. It helps to provide wonderful guide to wine tasting and we’d recommend checking it out as well as their book which is chock full of more great graphics. It’s a great accompanying guide to wine tasting. A link to that product is also left below.


That’s a quick dip into a guide to wine tasting. Keep this article on you while you crack into this month’s subscription goodies. Follow each cluster along while you take a big whiff of that wine! Think you can spot some delicate floral notes. Maybe you suspect a wine went through MLF. Or, could it be that a bottle from 2019 is beginning to show some tertiary notes?

Get sipping and see – Cheers!


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