Question: “Is there a proper method for casual wine tasting that works for amateurs? We’re weekend sippers who want to understand more about what we’re enjoying without diving too deep into the technical details.” L.W., Palo Alto, CA
Answer: Yes! Casual wine tasting for personal enjoyment doesn’t have to be complicated. Most of us who are not in the wine business and are not wine collectors or investors taste wine for one of two simple reasons: To understand why we like a wine (or not) or to support a decision to buy a wine (or not). Understanding the basic characteristics of wine and how to detect them can help us make better decisions in both regards.
The art of tasting approaches wine from three directions: Appearance, nose and palate. For a simple list of what to see, smell and taste, refer to the WSET Level 2 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine®. On page two, there is an extensive list of aroma and flavor characteristics. Wineries and professional wine critics can be very creative when describing wine, so we may see wine reviews that reference characteristics not found on this page (one of my favorites is wet dog, usually caused by a bad cork). For some funny wine terms, see my post – Truly Ludicrous Wine Descriptors.
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t detect every characteristic on the WSET list – most people can’t. Pick up what you can and decide which are most important to you. As you develop an understanding of your preferences, those characteristics will help you make better decisions regarding what to taste and what to buy. For example, I prefer Chardonnay that is not buttery or oaky. When I go to a tasting room, I’ll skip wines on the tasting list with those characteristics and avoid buying wines that use those words on the label.
Here is my quick and easy method for tasting wine at home, in wine shops or at tasting rooms:
- Appearance – Hold the wine glass by the stem at eye level in front of a white background to see just the color of the wine (tasting room menus are often handy for this). Look first for general characteristics such as clarity (no floating sediment or pieces of cork that could effect the aroma or taste). The color will vary based on the type of wine and varietal.
- Nose – Most white wines don’t need exposure to air to open up and release their aroma and flavor characteristics. If red wines have not been decanted, swirl them gently in the glass for about five seconds to aerate (this is not just a wine snob habit, it really helps). See the WSET list for likely characteristics.
- Palate – Sip slowly. The front, middle and back of the tongue pick up different taste components, so make sure the wine covers all of it. See the WSET list for likely characteristics.
- Your Opinion Is All That Matters – Everyone has their own unique preferences and the only person you have to answer to regarding your opinion of a wine is …. you! Enjoy what you like, avoid what you don’t.
Luckily for Wine Adventurers, our tasting skills improve with practice. Start by trying to detect the aromas and tastes described by the wine maker in tasting room notes or on the label. If you have a bottle at home with limited information on the label, go online to see if wine notes are provided on the winery’s web site. As your skills develop, read tasting notes published by professionals in wine publications and see if you can detect what they describe. Remember that your objective is to understand why you like a wine (or not) – you don’t need professional skills to do that.
Do you want to dig deeper?
Many food stores and wine shops offer tasting classes and events. In my area, Whole Foods in Napa and the original BevMo! store in Walnut Creek each have formal wine bars and host tastings regularly. Don’t limit your tasting experiences to winery tasting rooms where you test the wares of just one winery, try wine shop tastings where you can compare several producers from the same area.
WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) provides the most internationally recognized wine education standards and certifications. Napa Valley Wine Academy (Napa, CA) conducts training at several U.S. locations and recently won WSET Educator Of The Year 2016. They offer level 1, 2 and 3 WSET certification courses, plus specialty courses covering various spirits and American, French and Italian wine. Many of these courses are specifically designed for those who simply want to develop their appreciation for wine (Disclosure: I’ve attended NVWA, but am not affiliated with the business and receive no compensation for recommending their services).
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