Tasting Wine, Describing Wine and the Basics of Food & Wine Pairing

Other parts in the series: 

Part 2: The Essential Bartender’s Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert

One of the things my sommelier friend used to constantly emphasize was that ‘In order to learn about wine, you must drink wine.

I used to love it when he told me that. Because I loved drinking wine… And whenever he reminded me of it, I had a great excuse to run to the bottle shop, purchase a few bottles of wine, and then take them home to the Mrs. without her getting too annoyed.

I was no longer just drinking wine for the sake of drinking. I was doing ‘research.’ And there was nothing she could do to stop me!

Although that excuse didn’t work for long, it’s true. If you want to learn about wine, you need to drink it. You can’t just read books and expect to understand it.

Look at it like this, if you wanted to learn about chocolate and you had never tasted it before, what would you do first? Would you go out, buy some chocolate and taste it? Or would you spend your time reading everything you could find on the subject?

Of course, the first thing you would do is taste it. Because it doesn’t matter how much you read or know about chocolate, you won’t be able to truly appreciate how delicious it is, until you’ve actually tried it.

The same goes for wine. We learn about wine by tasting it.

That being said, if you want to be able to talk about wine in more detail other thanit’s delicious.’ There are a few things you need to understand about your senses and what you can actually taste in a glass of wine first.

So let’s get to it.

What we Taste is What we Smell

In the realm of our senses, we can only ‘taste’ sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and a savoury thing the Japanese call umami. Everything else that we think we’re tasting, are actually just aromas that we’re smelling. When you think you’re tasting the flavors of blueberries, chocolate, and tobacco, you’re actually picking up the sensations with your sense of smell.

So when you taste wine, your nose is very important. That’s why you’ll often see people shoving their noses into their wine glasses sniffing away.

Thinking is just as Important as Tasting

I know that’s the last thing you want to hear! But unfortunately, you don’t learn about wine by mindlessly drinking it, waking up with a hangover, and then magically being able to understand its complexities. If you want to learn about it, you have to actually think about what you can taste and smell.

When it comes to tasting wine, it’s your ability to recognize what you can taste and smell that counts. That’s what people commonly refer to as your palette. And the better your palette is, the more finely tuned your senses of taste and smell are at recognizing different scents and flavors.

Developing your palette takes time and it’s very similar to learning a language. In the beginning, everything just sounds like noise and it’s difficult to distinguish between the individual words. Or in our case, it’s difficult to distinguish between the different scents and flavors. It just smells and tastes like wine!

But the more you’re exposed to those words (or scents and flavors), the clearer they become. Until you can eventually recognize them individually and give them a name.

That’s the goal of developing your palette and it just comes down to practice.

The 5 Principle Characteristics of Wine

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The 5 principle characteristics of wine are essentially what we can taste and smell in a glass of wine. They’re the characteristics that you need to be aware of when you’re tasting wine. And they’re the characteristics that you need to talk about when you’re describing wine.

Just as an orchestra can be broken down into its individual instruments, a glass of wine can be broken down into its individual characteristics. And by looking at these characteristics individually, you’re able to better understand what the wine is like and how to describe it so that a customer can understand what it’s like.

So as a bartender, it’s very important that you know them. Because you won’t be able to describe a wine to customers if you don’t know what to describe in the first place!

The 5 principle characteristics of wine are:

  • Body
  • Sweetness/dryness
  • Acidity
  • Tannin
  • Flavour Profile (fruit, oak, earth, other)

Body

The first element you need to be aware of is the ‘body’ of the wine. The ‘body’ is simply a way of categorizing different styles of wine from lightest to boldest. In general, knowing the body of a wine is as simple as knowing the grape variety. Because most of the time, grape varieties share the same ‘body’ regardless of how or where the wine was made.

Red wines are categorized into light-bodied, medium-bodied, and full-bodied wines. Whereas white wines are categorized into light-bodied, full-bodied, and aromatic wines.

The difference between these styles of wine will be obvious once you’ve tasted them side by side. But a great way to think about them is to compare the difference between skim and full cream milk. Full cream milk is much richer and fuller in flavor than skim milk. The same can be said for full-bodied wine in comparison to light-bodied wine. With medium-bodied wine landing somewhere in the middle.

The aromatic white wines category simply means that the wine will have highly perfumed and sweet fruit aromas. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine itself will be sweet.

Sweetness/Dryness

The sweetness/dryness of a wine is referring to how much residual sugar is left in the wine (i.e. how sweet the wine is). If there’s a lot, you’ll describe the wine as ‘very sweet’. If there’s hardly any, you’ll describe the wine as ‘very dry’.

This is a characteristic you’ll need to describe with all white, sparkling, and rosé wines. But you won’t need to worry about describing the sweetness levels of red wines as they all have some element of sweetness.

Customers will commonly ask you for dry white wines. Even though the majority of white wines are dry, it generally means that they’re looking for the driest wine possible.

Acidity

Acids are what gives a wine its sour/tart flavor. When you taste citrus (lemon, lime, orange) in a wine, it’s because the wine has some element of acidity. You can also feel a wine’s level of acidity because it will make your mouth water. This is an important characteristic to describe with all styles of wine.

All white wines have some element of citrus which makes tasting the acidity obvious. But red wines can have high levels of acids too. But because red wines have higher amounts of sugar, the sweetness balances out the acids so they’re not as obvious (think about balancing simple syrup with lemon/lime juice in cocktails).

The sauvignon blanc white wine is a great example of what a wine with high acidity tastes like. It tastes sour, there are strong elements of citrus, and it makes your mouth water.

Tannin

Tannins are unique to red wines. So you don’t need to worry about describing them when you’re dealing with white wines.

Tannins are what cause the grippy/drying feeling on your tongue and that’s how you’ll recognize them. A high tannin wine will almost make your tongue feel numb. This is an important characteristic to cover when you’re describing red wines.

If you’re looking for an example of tannin, you only need to taste a young vintage Cabernet Sauvignon red wine and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Flavour Profile

This is when a glass of wine starts to get interesting. When I mentioned in part 1 that the astute wine drinker can pick up tobacco, mint, vanilla, citrus, cherry, and even sweaty socks in a glass of wine, this is what I was talking about.

The flavor profile of a wine is essential every flavor/scent that we can smell in the wine. There are a lot of different flavors in this world, even within wine. So to make understanding them easier, they can be broken down into 4 major categories: fruit, oak, earth, and the catchall ‘other.’

When you taste & smell wine you should try and identify any flavors (or lack thereof) from each of these categories.

Fruit

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Every wine has some element of fruit in it. Some of these fruits are out there and more exotic, whilst others are a lot more familiar and closer to home.

If you’re dealing with red wines, they’ll generally fall into the red fruit camp (strawberry, raspberry, cherry). Or they’ll fall into the black fruit camp (blueberry, blackberry, plum). And sometimes both.

If you’re dealing with white wines, there will always be some element of citrus (lemon, lime, orange) involved. And from there, they can take on more exotic/tropical fruit flavors (pineapple, lychee, passion fruit). Or they can take on more subtle fruit flavors (apple, pear, melon).

Oak

The way the wine was stored before it was bottled has a huge impact on the flavor profile of a wine. And one of the more common ways wine is stored (or aged) in is in oak barrels. The wood of these barrels gives the wine certain flavors and textures that wouldn’t exist if they were stored in different containers.

For example, if the wine was made and stored in steel tanks, you won’t be able to taste much of the container’s influence. 

There are certain flavors that are commonly associated with oak, like vanilla, cinnamon, tobacco, chocolate, cloves and even coconut. And the oak barrels will change the texture of the wine as well, giving it a thicker and more ‘creamy’ feel.

So if you can pick up these flavors & textures, you can deduce that the wine has spent some time in oak. It’s important to be able to describe that to customers because some people love it, whilst others hate it.

Earth

The earth where the grapes were grown also influence the flavor profile of a wine. This is what the French commonly refer to as terroir and it basically means that the earth imparts some of its characteristics into the grapes.

This is one of the reasons why regions are so important in the world of wine. Every region’s earth has different characteristics and will therefore, impart different flavors. And some regions’ earthly characteristics are considered to be better than others.

The impact the earth has on the wine is also one of the reasons why the same grape variety can taste completely different depending on where it was grown.

When you think about earth, look for smells like stones, minerals, wild herbs, or fallen leaves.

Other

Everything else that you can smell in the wine that doesn’t fall into one of the other categories, goes here. Flavors like flowers, butter, bacon, and pepper all fall into this category.

Putting it all Together

The 5 principle characteristics essentially give you a system of what you need to think about when you taste and describe wine. They’re almost like a checklist that you can go through to make sure that you’ve covered the most important characteristics.

You start by looking at the body of the wine, which is as simple as knowing the grape variety. Then you figure out how sweet and acidic the wine is by tasting it. And if it’s a red wine, you’ll be on the look out for any tannins. Then finally, you’ll try and figure out what the wine’s flavor profile is like primarily by smelling it.

Going through and describing these characteristics to a customer should give them everything they need to know to make an educated decision about the wine.

As with everything in wine, the best way to learn about these characteristics is by tasting them. So as much as I can describe them to you in words, you’ll know what I really mean once you’ve experienced them yourself.

Now, let’s get to the fun stuff and start drinking this shit!

How to Taste Wine

Woman tasting wine

As much as I wish you could, you don’t learn about wine by mindlessly drinking it. There is a process that you go through in order to learn as much as possible. This process has become somewhat of a dance and it starts with pouring yourself a small glass of wine.

So before you do anything else (and if you want to get the most out of this section), stop reading, grab yourself a bottle, and pour yourself a small glass. Because remember… This is research!

Look at the Wine

After you’ve poured yourself a glass, the first thing you should do is look at the wine against a white surface. Most of the reasons you look at the wine are advanced and you don’t need to concern yourself with them.

But for the moment, when you’re looking at the wine take notice of its color. The color will give you some indication as to how light or bold the wine is. In other words, you’ll be given some indication as to what the ‘body’ of the wine is like.

But since we can figure that out by just knowing the grape variety, you should be looking at the wine more to familiarize yourself with the different types of colors you see in different wines. And also, to get into good habits.

Smell the Wine

The second thing you should do is smell the wine. Remember, that what we taste is what we smell. So your sense of smell is going to be picking up all of the flavors that you think you’re tasting later on. So this is a crucial step in the tasting process.

Swirl the wine around in the glass. The reason why you swirl the wine around is to release more of the wine’s aromas. If you just smell the wine without swirling it around, you’ll only be able to smell the aromas from the top layer of the wine. However, if you give it a swirl, it means that you’re able to access the aromas of the wine particles that were at the bottom of the glass as well.

The particles at the bottom of the glass are essentially allowed to ‘breathe’ and release their aromas into the air. That means that there will be more aromas in the air, so when you smell them, the scent will be more powerful. And that will make it a lot easier to figure out what you can smell.

After you’ve given the wine a good swirl, shove your nose into the glass and give it a good whiff!

Now, start thinking about what you can smell. What fruits can you detect? Black fruits? Red fruits? Any citrus? Can you detect any oak characteristics? Or maybe something earthy or unique?

Whatever it is, remember it. And if you can, give it a name. Then give the wine another swirl, another good whiff, and think about it again.

Taste the Wine

Tasting Wine, Describing Wine and the Basics of Food & Wine Pairing 3

After you’ve smelled the wine, we get to the good part. Drinking it!

So take a sip of the wine and swirl it around your mouth so that it coats your entire tongue. The reason we do this is because we taste different things on different parts of our tongue.

For example, we taste sweetness at the front of our tongue, acidity on the sides, and bitterness at the back. So in order to get a full sensual picture of the wine, you need to make sure that you’re tasting everything you can.

Once you’ve coated your entire tongue, let the wine sit in your mouth, take your time and think about what you can taste. How sweet is the wine? What about its acidity? Can you taste any tannins? Are there any new flavors that you can pick up? Does the wine have a creamy texture?

Once again, remember what you can taste, and give it a name if you can. Then take another sip and do it all over again.

Make Your Conclusion & Describe the Wine

Now that you’ve looked at the wine, smelled it and tasted it, you’ve got all the information you need to make an educated conclusion and describe the wine.

But before we start going through the principle characteristics, first things first… Did you actually like the wine?! This is important. Because as you taste more and more wines, you’ll want to learn what styles of wine you like and why. Learning about wine shouldn’t just be about pleasing the customer. While you’re at it, you might as well figure out what you like too.

For the rest of the description, it’s as simple as going through the 5 principle characteristics we went through before and treating them like a checklist.

Start by describing the body of the wine. Was it a light-bodied white wine? Or a full-bodied red wine? You can figure this out simply by knowing the grape variety (if you’re not sure what the grape variety’s body is, google is your friend).

Secondly, how sweet was the wine? Thirdly, how acidic was the wine? Fourthly, were there any tannins in the wine? And if so, how strong were they?

And finally, what were the dominant flavors of the wine? Fruit, oak, earth, and other… What could you pick up?

You can either do it in your head or write it down. Whatever you prefer.

When you’re making your conclusion, it doesn’t matter how you label what you taste and smell. Everyone has a different relationship with their senses. So if you think you’re tasting a summer’s day, flowers, or whatever, that’s ok! Include it in your description.

Compare your Tasting Notes

Once you’ve made your conclusion, it’s always a good idea to compare what you thought of the wine with someone else’s tasting notes. You can get tasting notes by reading the label on the bottle, asking a friend who’s tasted the wine (preferably someone who knows more about wine than you), or look up the wine’s tasting notes online.

After you’ve compared your notes, go through the entire tasting process again and see if you can pick up anything new.

Ideally, you’ll be describing wines by relying on your own senses of taste and smell. But like I mentioned earlier, training your palette can take some time. And this is a new skill that you’re learning, so don’t worry if you’re hopeless at the moment. It took me ages before I could pick up anything specific in a glass of wine.

If that’s the case, tasting notes will help you immensely when you’re describing wine to customers.

Remember, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. And since practicing means drinking loads of wine, you can’t really complain about it…

Wine Faults

When you’re working with wine, every now and then you’ll come across a bottle that has something wrong with it. We refer to these problems as wine faults. It happens and you’ll need to learn how to deal with it when it does.

When there’s something wrong with a bottle or glass of wine, the customer is allowed to send it back without paying for it. And then either request a new one or change to something else. So it’s important that you learn how to recognize these faults so you can validate their complaints when they happen.

Sometimes, there won’t be anything wrong with the wine. And they won’t be allowed to send it back. If that’s the case, generally you’ll need to refer to management on how to deal with the situation. Different venues have different policies, so as much as I’d love you to tell the customer that they have no idea what they’re talking about!” If you’re not sure what to do, the best approach is to pass the situation onto management.

Sometimes, they’ll let the customer return the wine and exchange it for something different. Other times, they’ll be more firm and tell them that they still need to pay for it. In general, it’s a case by case basis.

There are two main wine faults that you need to be aware of.

‘Corked’ Wine

Tasting Wine, Describing Wine and the Basics of Food & Wine Pairing 4

The first wine fault that you need to aware is when the wine is ‘corked’. A wine becomes ‘corked’ when it reacts badly with the cork that’s sealing the wine. So you’ll only come across ‘corked’ wines when it’s sealed using a cork.

A corked wine tastes like wet cardboard or wet dog. Sometimes it’s really obvious whereas other times it can be a lot more subtle.

The best way to learn about ‘corked’ wine is to taste one for yourself. So let whoever is in charge of wine know that you want to taste a ‘corked’ wine. And they’ll save the bottle for you when they come across one.

Oxidised Wine

The second wine fault that you need to be aware of is when the wine becomes ‘oxidised’. A wine becomes oxidized when it’s been exposed to oxygen for too long. Basically, that means that the wine has gone off…

Just as fruit goes off when it’s been left for too long, so does wine.

It can happen when the wine hasn’t been sealed properly or it can happen when it’s been aged for too long. But more often than not, you’ll be dealing with ‘oxidised’ wines when they’ve been left open for too long behind the bar. I.e. the bottles of wine you sell by the glass.

It’s generally pretty obvious when a wine is oxidized (it smells & tastes like off fruit and turns brown in color). And as time goes by, it just get’s worse.

Once again, the best way to learn about it is by tasting it. So let whoever is in charge of wine know that you also want to taste an ‘oxidised’ wine. Another way you could taste it is by simply opening a bottle and leaving it for a week. Then tasting it to see what it’s like. 

The Basics of Food & Wine Pairings

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Food & wine go together like salt & pepper. And the majority of the time, when you’re serving wine, there will be some sort of food involved. So it’s important to know the basics of food & wine pairing.

Right now, there’s only one principle that you need to be aware of when you’re matching wine with food: The lighter the food, the lighter the wine. The richer the food, the richer the wine.

It’s as simple as that.

For example, red meats, like beef and lamb, are considered to be rich and heavy foods. According to the principle, that means that they would match very well with a rich and heavy wine. Like a full-bodied red wine.

On the other side of the spectrum, oysters are a very light and delicate food. So they wouldn’t match very well with a rich full-bodied red wine. But they would match extremely well with a lighter styled wine, like a sparkling wine or a light-bodied white wine.

If you only applied this principal, most of the time, you would nail your food & wine pairings. But what about the food & wine that land in the middle of the spectrum? For example, what type of food would go well with a light-bodied red wine or a full-bodied white wine?

Well, the answer isn’t a simple as ‘this food goes with that’ or ‘that wine goes with this’. Most foods go well with a few different styles of wine and vice-versa. And it takes a bit of experimentation and memorization to learn what types of food go well with what styles of wine. It also depends on what people like.

In part 4, we’ll give you some specific details of what types of wine go with what types of food. For now, it’s sufficient enough to know that light foods, go with light wines. And rich foods, go with rich wines.

Conclusion

We’ve just been through a lot there. So take your time with it. Once you have a solid understanding of how to taste wine, describe it, and pair wine with food, you’ll have developed all the tools you need to learn about wine and confidently talk about it with anyone.

In part 3 of this guide, you’ll be learning how to put those tools to practical use as a bartender. You’ll learn how to recommend wine you know the customer will enjoy. And then you’ll learn how to serve it like a pro.

Until then, remember my sommelier friend’s advice, In order to learn about wine, you must drink wine!’ So go out there, buy a few bottles, and start doing your ‘research’.

Click here to go to part 3: How to Recommend Wine & Serve it Like a Pro

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5 thoughts on “Tasting Wine, Describing Wine and the Basics of Food & Wine Pairing”

  1. Hi Tom
    I am really enjoying your wine articles. I have found that the type of glass you drink wine from makes a difference to the taste. The shape and size varies for each variety of wine. Perhaps you might consider enlightening your readers about this also.
    Have you considered getting your articles to some of the big wineries around australia?

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