Tasting is a full contact sport and it requires (almost) all of your senses.
The first thing I take note of is the color and how the wine behaves in the glass, you can usually get a sense of how heavy or light it will feel by looking at its depth and viscosity.
THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!! Too many people just pour and drink. Stop and smell the wine and try to find something unique that you can identify with. Your notes don’t have to be complicated or technical. Anything that will help you distinguish one wine from another in your mind will work.
My Sniffing Method: When tasting a wine most professionals will pour, spin, sniff, and analyze but I have found a way that works better for me and may also help you get more out of your wine’s aromatic character.
Start by pouring about an ounce or so of wine into your glass. Now instead of immediately spinning the wine as most people usually do, give it a sniff. I like to take a whiff just above the rim of the glass at this point. It may also help to take small mini-sniffs back and forth instead of one massive draw. This allows you to pick up on the most fleeting, softest elements of a wine’s aroma.
Next, really get your nose into the glass and take a bigger sniff, but still do not spin the wine. This will give you an impression of the wine’s uniqueness surrounding its core aromas. Here is where the subtleties start to emerge and things start to get interesting. You may also want to paint the side of the glass with the wine by tilting the glass at an angle and gently turning it, so that more of the wine’s surface area is exposed to the air.
And finally, the spin. Vigorously spin the glass and really get a good whiff. The exposure to the air will cause the wine to open up and show the full bouquet. I always look for a distinct difference in aroma on all three sniffs, if a wine smells the same after it’s been spun vigorously, this could mean that it is showing “closed” aromatics (not revealing much). This can happen for a variety of reasons, it may be too cold if it’s been chilled, it may be too young and would have benefited from more time in the cellar, or it may simply not be an aromatically complex wine, etc.
Surprisingly there really is no secret method to tasting a wine. My only advice would be to stay aware of how a wine develops on the palate. A good wine will begin one way and slowly unfold into something unique and different. Also be sure to take note of how it feels in the mouth, pay attention to the thickness, it’s acidity, it’s tannins, etc. and make sure that you get the whole picture.
Still need help? Here’s 3 fool-proof tips to get you started:
1. Taste two different wines side by side.
Even if your descriptive abilities currently consist only of ”red” or “white,” you would be amazed at how creative you can become when you have to tell the difference between two wines. Smelling and tasting one wine next to another gives you a better comparative context. You might detect that one of the wines smells softer and more delicate than the other, or one might remind you of fruit while the other smells more earthy. Try this in different ways too, compare two red wines, compare one white and one red, compare two wines made from the same grape or from the same region, even if you don’t see crazy things like “white truffles” appearing in your tasting notes, you are still building a mental database of all the wines you’ve compared.
2. Start with the basics and move to specifics.
If you’ve ever flipped through a wine magazine or read a wine review you are probably well aware that tasting notes can go from the easily relatable to the absolutely bizarre. Wine reviews are just riddled with “wet moss,” “decomposing granite,” “sweaty socks,” “loam,” etc. And the average consumer is just left sitting there wondering how anyone got to know what wet moss and granite taste like, what “loam” is, and why anyone in their right mind would even think of drinking something that smells like sweaty socks. And frankly, I don’t have the answer and for that I apologize. What I do have is an explanation as to why such descriptors come in to being. The answer is imagination. Wine reviewers do not have a special sixth sense that allows them to scientifically and precisely dissect every aspect of a wine’s character. What they do have is the imagination and ability to communicate what they experience in a wine in terms that people may be able to relate to. The theory being that you may never have had a Falanghina (one of my favorite grape varieties, from Campania in Southern Italy) but if I tell you that is tastes like ripe pears and peaches with a good amount of crushed seashell thrown into the mix, you are supposed to be able to get a feeling for what I’m talking about because you’ve eaten pears and peaches before and you can imagine (unless you’re really in to expanding your tasting knowledge and have actually tried one) what a seashell might taste like.
The idea is just to capture fleeting experiences in a way that is relatable. Your tasting notes do not have to be elaborate and precise, but if you would like them to be and you need some help getting there, try starting with the basics and moving to specifics. Begin by tasting or smelling a wine and just think, “what does this wine remind me of?” Is it fruity, is it like vegetables, is it earthy in some way, is it like flowers, or something more like chemicals, what is it? Let’s just say you detect fruit, what kind of fruit is it, citrus, melons, apples, stone fruits (peaches, plums, etc.)? Let’s say its citrus, is it lime, lemon, grapefruit, orange? Now you can even get more specific than that. Suppose you detect oranges, are they ripe or still kind of sour and green around the edges? Is it the fruit you detect or just the peel? So see, it doesn’t take much to end up with some very specific descriptions.
Give this a try, and do it with a wine buddy, you can make a game out of it. See how specific you can get and who can get the most creative descriptors. Never lose sight of the fact that no matter how serious you get about wine, it should always be fun.
3. Make it your own.
This really is the most important hint of all. Keep in mind that the whole reason that you are doing a tasting at all is for you and your own personal growth. Don’t let anyone else’s opinions or suggestions sway you and do not be afraid to speak confidently about your own opinions. You may not use the standard tasting descriptions or detect the same things that everyone else does but if a wine reminds you of “Christmas at Grandma’s” or the fresh clean smell of “new Nike tennis shoes” than write that down if you’re taking notes, lock it away in your mental vault if your not, and when your friends call you crazy, just think of it as an initiation into the world of wine fans, from the bottom of my heart, welcome.