How to Taste Wine – See, Smell, Swirl, Sip, Swish, & Swallow

OK, have you ever been to a winery or gone wine tasting and looked around at what people were doing and why?  I know when I first started many years ago, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and how to taste wine.  Looking around, some people were in the same boat, some people knew what they were doing, and some people were simply there to get drunk and drink as fast as possible.  Well, there’s a number of ways to “taste” wine, but here’s what I like to do and why.


Ok, first off, as you can tell from the title, I’m totally going for the alliteration.  What I am talking about here is to take a good look at the wine. See what the general appearance is telling you.  I like to look at the wine from three different views:

  • Top-Down – Literally stare straight into the wine from the top of your glass.  Look for the depth in color.  This helps you understand the density and saturation.  You can also tilt your glass ever so slightly to get an idea of its color range.
  • Side-View – Hold your glass at eye-level and take a gander.  Hopefully, there’s no murkiness/cloudiness.  If so, insistent on a replacement.  The wine either has “problems” or simply not filtered well.  You may also see sediment (aka Dregs in the wine world).  The cause of sediment is most often yeast cells, leftover grape seeds, stems, or skins, and sometime tartaric acid crystals.  If I see a wine full of dregs, I’ll insist on another pour as it’s most often found at the bottom of a bottle.
  • Angled View – Take your glass and tilt it to the side so that the wine approaches the rim of the glass.  This helps you learn about the age and weight of the wine.  A clear and water edge indicates a thin wine.  If you see tawny, rusted, or brownish colors, it’s most often indicative of an aged wine.


Swirl the wine around in the glass.  There are two ways to do this.  The safe way and the way you should only do in public after some practice.  The safe way is to put the foot of the glass on the table while swirling the wine.  A tried and true method.  With some practice, you’ll be able to do this in the air, but as I have in the past, learning this can sometimes lose you some wine or stain a shirt.

After swirling, you may notice tears in the wine running down the sides of the glass.  This is known as “Legs.”  Wines with good legs are indicative of higher alcohol and glycerin content and usually means a bigger, richer, and denser wine.


Next, sniff the wine.  After a swirl, take light whiffs repeatedly.  If you get off-smells (aka it smells like feet, cheese, or veggies), it’s probably going to taste bad.  Off smells like musty, wet paper, strong vegetables, etc are indicate something is wrong with the wine – discard it.  

You may also smell various fruits. This is a good thing!  So many fruits can be present and different people get notes of different fruit.  Look for berries, citrus, apple, peach, tropical, apricot, pineapple and more.  Certain styles of wine have more prevalent notes than others.  For example, Sauvignon Blancs to me yell citrus.

Subtle notes can also surface…such as herbs, flowers, vegetables.  Yes, I know I mentioned vegetables as a flaw above, but sometimes it’s actually part of the wine’s characteristics.  Green Pepper, for example, is something a wine may present.  If it’s overpowering, that’s bad.  Some people may not even pick up on it.  Kelly and a nose for Green Pepper…though sometimes I swear she’s saying that to annoy me 🙂  Floral notes often indicate colder climate grapes (which in white wines, I love).  Earthy wine, like a Malbec, can present grass, mushrooms, or dirt (but in a good way…I swear)

Lastly, different oak from different parts of the world provides different notes.  French, American, Hungarian to name a few.  Look for vanilla, caramel, toast, chocolate, coffee, nuts, and more


I know… you’re probably saying something like, “FINALLY…He’s letting me drink the stuff.”  Here’s what I do.  Take a small sip.  Suck in some air with the wine in your mouth.  My dad does this and I thought him ridiculous. Guess what. I do it too.  It helps aerate the wine and bring our its characteristics.  Some people may look at you funny, but what do they know.  Plus, they may just be drunk people looking at everyone funny.  


Swishing the wine in your mouth helps pick up flavors on your tongue, similar to that from your nose.  Try to find a lot of the same flavors that your nose told you existed.  The cool thing is that sometimes the nose and mouth match, but I have tried a number of wines that will totally fool you.  Try swishing the wine and letting it hit different parts of your tongue as different parts are better at picking up different flavors.


OK…so let’s talk about this one as there are two options here.  If you are at a festival with TONS and TONS of wineries, Swallowing is probably not the best idea as you will be stumbling back to your ride (Public Service Announcement – make sure you have a DD) or maybe even carried by your friend at the end of the day.  If you are hitting a winery or two or three, go ahead and enjoy the wine if you like it and swallow away.

So what’s the other option?  Spitting it out.  Most Virginia Wineries don’t really have a place for you to spit, so find a cup and bring it with you.  Wineries will often have a container to pour out excess wine if you don’t want the rest of your pour, but the community spit containers…well…are pretty gross.  Having your own private little cup saves the day.  Be careful…especially if the cup/glass looks similar to one someone else is using or drinking out of.  Mixing up the good juice with the bad doesn’t lend itself to a pleasurable moment.

So, this concludes another episode of Wine-ucation.  If there are any subject ideas for future installments, comment away!  Until then, Cheers!