Becoming a Heavyweight of Wine Tasting

How do you taste wine and learn about flavour?

Many scribes have covered the basic See Sniff Swirl Spit scenario for tasting wine. So let's take another approach. How do you get the most out of your wine tasting experience. How do you become an avid wine taster and can you train for the event.

Ding Ding

Round 1

Get the SSSS info and put it into practice. Buy two wines of the same variety and even the same region or producer. Buy the cheap and cheerful $10-15 bottle (below ten at your own risk) and a $20-30 bottle ( more if your feeling indulgent). Now try them side by side. In theory the cheaper bottle should be fresh light simple and easy to drink, generally better slightly chilled (even red). The more expensive bottle should have more flavour mouth feel and richness and may change and develop in the glass. One is for quaffing the other for taking your time to enjoy.

Quaffers are fit for purpose and are not really there to reflect on so just enjoy the wine at your Sunday lunch barbie or like minded occasion. Other wines however can be tasted with more patience. If you prefer the quaffer all power to you.

Round 2

Anyone can learn how to taste. It's about using all your senses and paying attention. If you have Attention Deficit Disorder then maybe not ( I am surprised you have read this far), but otherwise you can learn the skill.


Take the time to notice the flavours in your everyday eating and drinking. The acidity in your lemon or grapefruit juice, the firm drying bitterness in your mouth when you drink a strong cup of tea, the sweetness and viscosity of a spoonful of honey around your tongue, the smokiness and saltiness of some well cured ham, the heat in your mouth when you try a strong whiskey/vodka/gin etc, the creaminess of that vanilla yoghurt. All these tastes are relevant to wine tasting.

Round 3

Different people have different strengths in tasting the five basic building blocks of taste.

Sweetness: Easy enough for most people but don't confuse this with fruitiness. This confusion is probably due to many aromatic lifted fruity whites having some level of sweetness but they are not exclusive to each other. Mainly from sugar levels but a sweet perception can come from the alcohol and glycerol.This is usually an immediate sensation that subdues over a short time.

Area: the front tip of the tongue.

Sourness: Is due to the acidity of the wine. Too high and the taste will be tart (bite into a lemon), too low and the taste may be soapy ( don't bite into the soap). Just right and the taste will be refreshing. Acids can also taste a little different , try lemons versus granny smith apples (citric(fresh) versus malic acid (green)). Usually acidity is an immediate sensation that stays longer than sweetness.

Area: The sides and just underneath the tongue.

Bitterness: Certain compounds found mainly in the skins and seeds of the grapes and absorbed into the wine depending on the level of time the skins and seeds have been in contact with the juice/wine. So generally speaking red wines will have higher levels of bitterness.

Try the tea trick, or lemon lime and bitters,tonic water or the skins of some fruits will have elements of these compounds. Strongly hopped beer like an IPA is another option.The sensation is usually slow to develop but persists longer after spitting out.

Area: usually at the back of the tongue.

Salty: self explanatory. Usually an immediate sensation that also stays longer than sweetness.

Area: Also the edges of the tongue

Umami: A savoury flavour common in asian cusine, try fish or soy sauce dishes, cured meats, soft cheeses even Vegemite (any fermented products) .Usually an after taste that lingers can give an impression of furriness on the tongue.

Area: Mainly the back of the mouth and roof.

These building blocks are usually playing together in your mouth and are not an island. Similar to the visual flow across the colour spectrum. Where different sensations star at different times and in combination.

Some people are more sensitive to one and less to another. Based on how your taste bud receptors interpret the taste. So when someone tells you they can't taste that bitterness you can taste it may mean they are not sensitive to bitterness but you are. So individually you are both correct just perceiving differently. Totally Subjective.

Find out your strengths and weaknesses by playing around with levels of sugar, acidity,saltiness,bitterness and savoury flavours in your foods.

Round 4

Get into the language of wine by taking what you have learnt in the previous rounds and building upon it. Get a copy of an aroma wheel from a wine site or reference book on wine. Now cover the outside descriptors and just work with the very inside of the wheel with the basic descriptors.

As an example using the UC Davis aroma wheel (see Oxford wine companion), the basic descriptors are as follows: Chemical, Earthy, Woody, Caramelised, Nutty, Vegetative, Fruity , Spicy, Floral, Microbiological, Oxidized and Pungent. Now smell and taste the wine and based on your perception try to class the wines major character into one of these descriptors. Once you are able to do this move on to the next layer of descriptors and then the third layer. As you do this more often you will be able to describe the wine with much more confidence and it can also be fun.

If for instance I was tasting an unwooded Chardonnay I might start as Fruity as the first descriptor and then perceive Tree Fruits and Tropical Fruits and Citrus in the second layer. Looking at the third layer I can then better describe the wine as peach (tree fruits), melon (tropical fruits) and grapefruit (citrus).

As you get better there are terms and descriptors related to balance , structure and mouth feel that you can tackle. But for the moment concentrate on the more aromatic and basic flavour descriptors.

Round 5

Now come out swinging and get together with friends and organise your own wine options night.

Everyone brings a wine to the event but no one else knows what you have taken along. Each person gives the others three options about the wine they are tasting and everyone hazards a guess. Do this on several levels and the winner has bragging rights.

Even the best wine judges in the world can get this wrong so don't worry about the result the fun is in the tasting. Use questions like grape variety, country of origin, region, vintage and producer.

Talk about the wines descriptors and the more you do this the better you will become. The beauty of doing this with friends is you all have a good time learning how to taste wine.

Cheers Happy tasting!!!

For further research in tasting; 

Beginner-Intermediate taster try 'HOW TO TASTE WINE'  by Jancis Robinson (no relation)

Food and Wine matching I love 'THE SIMPLE ART OF MARRYING FOOD AND WINE ' by Malcolm Gluck , Mark Hix

For the winemaker/wine judge or seasoned taster 'THE TASTE OF WINE the art and science of wine appreciation' by Emile Peynaud. A invaluable resource on the subject.