Learning to taste wine is no different than learning to really appreciate music or art—the pleasure you receive is proportionate to the effort you make. The more you fine-tune your sensory abilities, the better you are able to understand and enjoy the nuances and details that great wines express. The time and effort invested in palate training is very rewarding. It’s also a whole lot of fun!
Many people feel a bit clueless when it comes to wine. It’s a vast and complicated subject, and much of its pleasure comes from identifying the various scents and flavors that combine to create each wine’s unique personality. But how much attention do we pay to developing our senses of smell and taste?
The ability to sniff out and untangle the subtle threads that weave into complex wine aromas is essential for tasting. Try holding your nose while you swallow a mouthful of wine; you will find that most of the flavor is muted. Your nose is the key to your palate. Once you learn how to give wine a good sniff, you’ll begin to develop the ability to isolate flavors—to notice the way they unfold and interact—and (to some degree) to assign language to describe them.
This is exactly what wine professional—those who make, sell, buy, and write about win—are able to do. For any wine enthusiast, it is the pay-off for all the effort.
This section is designed to get you started and give you some guidelines for your ongoing exploration of wine. We have tried to keep it simple, logical, and smart. It’s a map to discover your own palate. There is no one right or wrong way to learn to taste, but some “rules” do apply.
First and foremost, you need to be methodical and focused. You need to find a consistent approach that you can follow regularly. Not every single glass or bottle of wine must be analyzed in this way, of course. But if you really want to learn about wine, then a certain amount of dedicated, ongoing effort is required. Make it a habit to take just a minute, whenever you have a glass of wine in your hand, to stop all conversation and shut out all distraction and focus your attention on the appearance, the scents, the flavors and the finish of the wine.
You can run through this mental checklist in a minute or less, and it will quickly help you to plot out the compass points of your palate. Of course, sipping a chilled rosé from a paper cup at a garden party does not require the same effort as diving into a well-aged Bordeaux served from a Riedel Sommelier Series glass. But those are the extreme ends of the spectrum. Just about everything you are likely to encounter falls somewhere in between.
You have probably heard many times, from both friends and experts, that any wine you like is a good wine. This is true if simply enjoying wine is your goal. Then, you don’t have to do more than take a sip, give it a swallow, and let your inner geek say “yes” or “no”. End of job.
But quickly passing judgment is not the same as truly understanding and evaluating wine. Learning to taste properly means that you can identify the main flavor and scent components in every wine you try. It means that you know the basic characteristics for all of the most important varietal grapes, and beyond that, for the blended wines from the world’s best wine-producing regions. And you can also quickly point out specific flaws in bad wines.
Rest assured, there are some truly bad wines out there, and not all of them are inexpensive. Some flaws are the result of bad winemaking; others are caused by bad corks or poor storage. If you are ordering a nice bottle of wine in a restaurant, you want to be certain that the wine you receive tastes the way it was intended to taste. Not every server in every restaurant can be relied upon to notice and replace a wine that is corked, for example. You are ultimately the one who will be asked to approve the bottle. Being able to sniff out common faults such as TCA (a damp, musty smell from a tainted cork) will certainly make it easier to send a wine back.