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Wine Tasting 101

Posted by on December 27th

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Tasting wine is fundamentally different from drinking wine: The goal of tasting is to form an appreciation for the wine and its components. This intrinsically precludes overindulging. If you do, you’ll never remember what you tasted. And developing your memory is kind of key to the whole undertaking.

Young girl with a glass indoors

Wines for Beginners

Before you start, you need to buy the right wines. The most common mistake is spending the wrong amount. As a novice, it’s important not to dip into the discount bin. Those low-cost wines are designed to be fruity and simple: They can’t teach you anything about the varietal, let alone more advanced concepts like structure or balance. Even worse, you may decide you dislike a wine simply because of a bad first impression.

Bottle of red wine in a winery near Bordeaux, France

But don’t overcorrect either: Expensive wines are a poor choice, too. They tend to be massive in flavor, oak, and texture. Don’t presume you can buy your way to wine savviness! Starting with these wines will make learning basic concepts even harder.

The middle ground is the best place to start. For wine, the sweet spot is often between $15-$25 per bottle. For more in-depth information, check out our Wines for Beginners Guide.

Flavors in Wine

The most common reason for taking a wine class is to learn how to describe what you are smelling and tasting. There’s no other area where people feel paralyzed by their own senses quite like they do with wine.

The truth is it’s quite easy once you know the basics. The primary flavor in wine is fruit. White wines tend to veer toward apples and citrus, and reds often taste like berries. From there, flavors in wine can be broken down into two categories: earthy (or non-fruit) and oaky.

The spice flavors in wine are mostly from aging in oak. Vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg are the most common oak aromas. You may find that, while you love those notes in red wine, they become repellent in white wine. This has led to a rise in “unoaked” wines, especially white wines like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

Focusing on unoaked wines, in the beginning, can be helpful because it allows you to suss out earthy elements more easily. Do you smell flowers? What about honey? Even the smell of salty air can radiate off of a coastal white wine. All fine wine will be a mix of delicious fruit and some form of earthiness.

And what if you smell beef jerky or wet wool? Don’t be scared! These are common “funky” aromas that appear in some of the best wines in the world. The good news: Rarely will you actually taste those qualities once you start sipping.

Wine Decanters

Most people are tempted to overspend on wine accessories in the beginning. The truth is you should allocate most of your wine budget to what you drink. Save buying fancy accouterments for a later date (if at all).

cropped shot of sommelier pouring wine from decanter at wine store

Decanting is a great example. While it is helpful to decant red wines or older wines before tasting, you don’t need a crystal decanter with elaborate fluting. Appearance does not matter here. As long as it has a wide mouth, you can use almost any vessel. At the Wine School, we usually grab a glass beaker from our lab. It’s efficient and easy to clean.

We decant wine before tasting to introduce air to the wine. This interaction between oxygen and wine sets off a chain reaction that makes the wine taste better than when it was first opened. If you don’t have a decanter, you can always pour off a glass of wine, reseal the bottle, and give it a good shake. The oxygen molecules will take care of softening the wine inside the bottle. (But never use this method with aged wines.)

White wines, because they do not have tannins, won’t benefit from decanting. However, older wines (red or white) should be decanted to remove the sediment that accumulates at the bottom over time. To do this, simply pour the wine into the decanter and stop when the sediment reaches the neck.

Wine Glasses

For wine tasting as a beginner, consistency is key. For that reason, you may use the same glasses no matter what you are tasting. (Champagne flutes used to be the exception, but more producers are foregoing them these days.)

Wine glass. Selection of red wines on wine tasting. Dry, semi-dry, sweet red wine on old wooden table background. Copy space

At the Wine School, we designed our own wine glasses. You can buy them as part of a wine tasting kit from us. However, that is far from necessary: As long as your wine glass has a stem and a tapered bowl, you’ll be fine. Again, resist the temptation to buy your way into wine savviness. Using a high-priced glass might impress others, but it can make learning about wine unnecessarily complicated in the beginning. For more, check out our Guide to Wine Glasses.

Flights of Wine

To do a proper wine tasting, you should organize your tasting into flights. Our brains are fantastic when it comes to pattern recognition. If you taste two wines side-by-side, your brain will retain far more information than sampling wine on its own.

Wine tasting event with people degustating wines

Here’s an example of wine tasting organized into flights of wine. Wines with complementary flavors are paired together, beginning with light white wines and moving into full-bodied reds.

Italian Wine Tasting

Northern Whites

  1. Giovanni Almondo 2015 “Vigne Sparse” Roero Arneis
  2. Bastianich 2015 “Vigne Orsone” Friulano, Friuli Colli Orientali

Northern Reds

  1. Muri-Gries 2014 Lagrein, Sudtirol
  2. Zenato 2013 “Alanera” Rosso, Verona

Super Centrals

  1. Umani Ronchi 2011 ”Cùmaro” Conero Riserva
  2. Tommasi 2014 “Poggio al Tufo” Cabernet Sauvignon, Tuscany

Southern Charm

  1. Valle Dell’Acate 2013 Cerasuolo di Vittoria
  2. Feudi di San Gregorio 2010 Lacryma Christi Rosso

Wine Cellaring

Don’t get caught up in wine storage. It’s not nearly as important as many wine blogs claim. If you can manage to drink your wines within five years of purchase, you really don’t need a wine cellar or a wine fridge.

Waitress choosing a good wine from the wine cellar

Wines are not fragile. If you have a closet that doesn’t get too hot or cold, store your wines there. As long as your wines never get hotter than 75°F or colder than 38°F, they will be fine. Just keep them out of the kitchen where light and fluctuating temperatures can cause damage.

You don’t even need wine racks for storing bottles horizontally: In most areas, humidity is high enough that it would take years for a cork to dry out. Plus, many producers are using screwcaps and other alternative closures (like glass caps) that will never lose their effectiveness. Want more info on storing wine? We have an in-depth article about cellaring wines at home.

Food and Wine Paring

This is a topic everyone wants to know about. At the Wine School, an entire semester of the Advanced Sommelier program is devoted to food and wine pairing.

Many sommeliers are victims of the Dunning-Kruger Effect when it comes to pairing. The truth is that chemistry and biology play a big role in what works and what doesn’t. Adages such as “if it grows together, it goes together” can be helpful, but they are not foolproof.

Female hand with glass of wine and food in the background

For novices, we make a simple recommendation: Accept that you cannot rely solely on your own palate to make a great pairing. Once you learn more about the hard science behind what works, you’ll be able create delicious combinations even if a wine is unfamiliar to you. Dive deeper with our articles on food and wine pairing.

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