Beginner’s Guide: What Does Wine Taste Like?

When a sommelier describes a glass of wine, a beginner can find the whole thing baffling. This humble drink has a potential for a rich depth of flavor, but it can’t be properly enjoyed if you simply swig it back.

Properly understanding the taste of wine is a long process. It can take years for a sommelier, an expert in fine wine, to earn the title and recognition. Wine is a drink that requires thought and experience if you want to truly enjoy the complexity of flavor.

Although most of us will never be able to train as a sommelier, that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate wine properly. With this guide, we can help you to understand the process of drinking wine, and what you need to be aware of.

If it all sounds like a lot, don’t worry. Drinking wine correctly is a pleasure, and one that fully enhances the experience.

Beginner’s Guide What Does Wine Taste Like

Tasting And Enjoying Wine

Understanding a good wine is about experiencing the drink, from how it sits in the glass to how it lingers on the tongue. How you drink the wine has an important role in enhancing the flavor.

When you drink wine the wrong way it might still be enjoyable, but it lacks the complexity that makes this drink so special.

A truly fantastic wine isn’t an accident – it’s the result of years of careful work. The soil the grapes are grown in, the temperatures they ripen under, and the time they’re picked can change that taste in the glass.

And this is only the beginning of the process. Fermentation, aging, and even bottling will all impart a different flavor.

The first step of tasting wine comes before you even have a chance to open the bottle. The temperature wine is served at can alter the flavor. Temperature rules are often considered set in stone – chill a white, room temperature for a red – but this isn’t always true.

Light white wines should be kept cool, and heavier reds should be warmer but not warm. A heavy white and a light red will be served at the same temperature.

Now, you may choose to let the wine breathe. Giving the wine some air time is always important, but you don’t necessarily have to go overboard. Decanting a wine can help to open a flavor, but in most cases you can aerate the wine in the glass instead.

Before you start drinking, it’s time to choose a glass. Although you can drink wine out of whatever container is closest to hand, the right wine glass helps with aeration and aroma. Red wines are best in larger bowls with slightly tapered openings.

This lets in oxygen, and concentrates the aroma. White wine glasses typically have a smaller bowl with a narrowed opening. This keeps the wine cool.

A wine glass with a stem is best, as it keeps your warm hands away from the wine. Fill the glass roughly ⅓ full.

Swirl

With the wine in the glass, you’re ready for the next most important step – the swirl. When you see someone swirling wine, you might think it’s just an opportunity to show off. Actually, the swirl is a vital part of enjoying wine properly. 

To swirl, hold the glass on the table between your middle and ring finger. Move your hand in a circular motion. Now your wine is swirled. For a heavy red, a vigorous swirl helps flavors to bloom. A light white needs only a slight swirl.

Swirling helps introduce oxygen to the wine, evaporating the initial sulfur tastes and unleashing the deeper flavors. Swirling also shows the body of the wine. The more the wine sticks to the side of the glass, the more alcohol there is.

Swirling red wine
Swirling helps introduce oxygen to the wine. The more the wine sticks to the side of the glass the higher the alcohol content.

Sniff

Taste is enhanced by smell, which is why you need to get a noseful of wine before you start drinking. A good tip is to take a sniff before and after swirling. Done right, you should notice how the aromas have opened, and the initial alcohol scent has faded.

The first scent you’re greeted with will generally be fruit forward, or floral. These aromas come from the grape. Beneath this are the scents from the aging and wine making. These are deeper scents, sometimes savory, potentially nutty.

After all that, you’re now ready to drink it.

Beautiful Woman sniffing wine
Your sense of taste is enhanced by smell. Take a sniff before and after swirling, you should notice subtle differences.

Sip

That first sip of wine is the initial introduction of flavor to the tongue. Half fill your mouth, and then move the wine around and across the palate. It should touch all the tongue, and coat the inside of the cheeks. Hold it in your mouth for a little while, to let the flavors expand.

Woman sipping wine
Sip the wine and hold it in your mouth to let the flavor expand.

Savor

Now you begin to really experience the flavor. Try chewing the wine. Chewing helps to access the tannins. Let a little air into your mouth to subtly oxygenate, and see if the flavor changes.

Once you’ve swallowed the wine, feel how it sits on the tongue. Don’t rush the process. Think about the different flavors, those that are obvious and those that are subtle. 

What To Look For When Drinking Wine

If you read the label on the bottle, winemakers love to explain the sorts of flavors that can be found in the glass. When you don’t savor the wine, many of these flavors go missing. 

The initial taste on the tongue will reveal the notes that comprise the wine, with more developing as you drink. Sour and sweetness are common flavors in wine. Sour will always be present, because of the grapes.

Sweetness can be subtle or booming. Some wines are also bitter. This might be a light, tonic bitterness, a sharp citrus bitterness, or a deep chocolate bitterness. Very few wines are salty, but there are some rare examples.

These flavors will also comprise how dry a wine is. An acidic wine will feel dry on the tongue, while sweeter wines are more refreshing. 

How dry a wine is also relates to the texture. We can often feel wine on the tongue, particularly heavy reds. These tend to have a higher tannin level. More tannins give the wine a bigger body, but they can also dry the mouth out.

Tasting wine isn’t about just experiencing a single flavor. Consider the length of the wine as well. Length refers to the initial taste, flavors that develop mid-palate, and those that linger. 

Think about the flavors that appear across the mouth. A good wine will hold the tastes in balance, allowing the complexities to come through. Master winemakers use subtlety to give depth to the wine.

Younger wines might be bolder, with one note much stronger than the others.

The final thing to consider is how much you enjoyed the wine. Did it make an impression on you? Were you able to distinguish the flavors? How did it feel in your mouth? 

Red, White, Or Rosé?

With your eyes open, it’s incredibly easy to tell the difference between a red and a white. However, with your eyes closed, you might find it a little trickier. However, tasting carefully, the mouth will soon learn to feel how different a red is from a white.

White wine is made using the flesh of the white grapes. The skin is not used. This removes tannins, leading to a wine with a lighter body, and often a sweeter taste. White wines can be crisp and citric, gentle and floral, or deep with minerality.

There is a great variety between white wines. A Pinot Grigio is zesty with fruit flavors, while a Chardonnay might have a buttery base and savory top notes.

Red wines use red grapes, and they use the entire grape. The skin is what gives red wine its gorgeous ruby coloring, and it also contributes tannins and bitterness.

Reds are wines that tend to linger more, and need aeration for the flavors to develop completely. A red wine can be floral or fruity, with herbs and spices common notes as well.

Rosé is only slightly different. Made with whole grapes, the skins are only left to ferment for a short time, before being removed. This gives that distinct pink coloring. Rosé has a surprising amount of variety, with some of the best being sharply sweet, or dry and sophisticated.

The differences between these wines are immense, but you often only really start to notice when you drink it properly. Although we’ve all probably had an experience with a bad wine, learning what sets apart good from great isn’t quite so simple.

Becoming A Better Wine Taster

If you really want to know what wine tastes like, you have to experience how it sits on the tongue. Even the best sommelier can’t accurately capture the real experience of drinking wine. 

It takes practice to get good at wine tasting – not that it’s a hardship. Trying wines from a variety of grapes and growers will introduce you to some surprising tasting notes.

Don’t be afraid to open a bottle of something different, and you might find a new favorite. Take note of where it’s produced as well. The conditions the grapes were grown in are important to the final flavor.

Once you have some practice, a whole world of flavors opens up. Those hidden butter notes of a heavy Chardonnay become dazzling. The delicate strawberry of a quality Pinot Noir dances to the forefront.

Spices and herbs you’d never expect to experience in a wine suddenly become clear. 

Don’t rush each sip. Instead, giving it time to change on the tongue. And drink the glass slowly, so you can notice how oxygen causes new flavors to open. And most importantly, keep drinking good wine.

Emma Miller
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