Wine Tasting 101

Posted by Keith Wallace

Tasting wine fundamentally differs from drinking wine: Wine tasting aims 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 vital 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 fruity and straightforward: They can’t teach you anything about the varietal, let alone more advanced concepts like structure or balance. Even worse, you may dislike a wine simply because of a poor first impression.

But don’t overcorrect either: Expensive wines are a poor choice. 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. The sweet spot is often between $15-$25 per bottle of wine. 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 to describe what you smell and taste. There’s no other area where people feel paralyzed by their senses entirely like they do with wine.

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

One of the original Wine 101 videos from 2008!

The spice flavors in wine are mostly from aging in oak. The most common oak aromas are vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. While you love those notes in red wine, you may find that 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 initially can be helpful because it allows you to understand earthy elements more easily. Do you smell flowers? What about honey? Even the smell of salty air can radiate off 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 typical “funky” aromas that appear in some of the best wines in the world. The excellent news: Rarely will you taste those qualities once you start sipping. When tasting, lean into the unknown. That’s where things get interesting.

Wine Decanters

Most people are tempted to overspend on wine accessories in the beginning. Instead, it would be best if you allocated most of your wine budget to what you drink. Save buying fancy accouterments for a later date (if at all). Tasting wine does not require fancy decanters!

cropped shot of sommelier pouring wine from decanter at wine store

Decanting is a great example. While it is helpful to decant red 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. We usually grab a glass beaker from our lab at the Wine School. It’s efficient and easy to clean.

We decant wine before tasting to introduce air to the wine. This interaction between oxygen and wine creates a chain reaction that makes the wine taste better than when it was first opened. But, of course, 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 won’t benefit from decanting because they do not have tannins. However, older wines (red or white) should be decanted to remove the sediment accumulated at the bottom over time. Pour the wine into the decanter and stop when the sediment reaches the neck.

Wine Glasses

For wine tasting as a beginner, consistency is vital. Therefore, you may use the same glasses no matter what you taste. (Champagne flutes used to be the exception, but more producers are foregoing them these days.) If you host an in-home wine tasting, ensure everyone gets the same glassware.

Wine School Glass 5 scaled

At the Wine School, we designed our wine glasses. We used to sell them as part of a wine-tasting kit. However, they sold out quickly. Don’t worry; you’ll be fine if your wine glass has a stem and a tapered bowl. But, again, resist the temptation to buy your way into wine savviness. Using a high-priced glass might impress others, but it can initially make learning about wine unnecessarily complicated. For more, check out our Guide to Wine Glasses.

Flights of Wine

You should organize your tasting into flights to do a proper wine tasting. 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.

Here’s an example of a tasting organized into flights of wine. Wines with complementary flavors are paired, beginning with light white wines and moving into full-bodied reds. While the Italian theme is trendy, so is a Napa Valley wine tasting. Another popular theme is to feature local wine regions.


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 crucial as many wine blogs claim. If you can drink your wines within five years of purchase, you don’t need a wine cellar or fridge.

Waitress choosing a good wine from the wine cellar

Wines are not fragile. Store your wines there if you have a closet that doesn’t get too hot or cold. If your wines never get hotter than 75°F or cooler than 38°F, they will be fine. 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 use 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. Just remember that sommeliers don’t try to turn wine cellars into wine tasting rooms.

Food and Wine Pairing

This is a topic everyone wants to know about. Therefore, an entire semester of the Advanced Sommelier program at the Wine School 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 significant 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.

We make a simple recommendation for novices: Accept that you cannot rely solely on your palate to make a great pairing. Once you learn more about the hard science behind what works, you can create delicious combinations even if a wine is unfamiliar to you.

In Home Wine Tasting

The wine school has a deep roster of talented sommeliers and wine educators who are happy to offer their services to you. You can submit your wine event request here.

A few questions from our readers.

What is the word for tasting wine?
In the trade, we refer to it as tasting
How do you do a Wine tasting?
Tastings require decent glasses and small pours, typically one to two ounces of wine.
Why do we taste wine?
Wine tasting is different than drinking. The goal is to observe the flavor and mouthfeel of the wine.
Can you get drunk during a tasting?
Newbies often get drunk at tastings. Professionals typically spit or at least have the tolerance not to appear intoxicated.

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