Napa Valley, California


Wine Tasting

Ordering and drinking wine shouldn't be intimidating. But for many it is, largely because of all the hype and mystique that wine has endured in this country.

The simple method of wine tasting is:

  1. Pour a glass of wine.
  2. Drink it.
  3. Did you like it or not?

That's really sufficient. However, by adding a few more steps, you can make the process of wine tasting much more interesting. And you can learn to determine which kind of wines you like, so that in the future you know what to look for in a store or restaurant.

Step by Step

Here are our suggestions on how to go about tasting a wine.


  1. Hold your glass by the stem so that your hand doesn't warm the bowl.
  2. Hold the glass in front of your eyes, preferably against a white background, and look at the color and clarity of the wine.

Clarity—Wine should be clear and brilliant, unless the winemaker intentionally kept it unfiltered.

Color—With reds, the darker the color, the more intense the flavors and aromas are likely to be. Color can be red, ruby, purple, or brick red. Brown indicates oxidation. An older wine can be brick-brown. Too brown and it's probably over the hill. If a young wine is brown, it's likely oxidized. (If that is the case, let it sit in the glass for a while anyway. It's possible both taste and aroma will improve, possibly dramatically.)

With whites, the color can vary from almost clear to green to slightly yellow to straw colored to gold. Whites, too, should not be brown.

Blush wines, such as White Zinfandel or a Rose, are pink.


  1. Swirl the wine. Try to do it suavely without spilling, but if it flies out of the glass, you won't be the first. (If you pour a full glass for your dinner guests at home, they won't be able to enjoy swirling. Try not to fill the glass more than 1/3 to 1/2 full.)
  2. Notice if the wine has "legs"—little streams of wine that cling to the inside of the glass and slowly drip back down. "Good legs" indicate good body.
  3. Swirl it again. Swirling doesn't just look cool. If you do it right it also "volatizes the esters" releasing aroma molecules into the air, which are somewhat contained in the bowl by the lip of the wine glass.


  1. Put your nose down into the bowl (where the aroma molecules are lingering) and take a good sniff.
  2. See if you can match the various smells with smells from your past. Think of fruits, spices, herbs, and various plants.

Aroma—The smells that come from the characteristics of the grape itself, especially in a younger wine.

Bouquet—The smells that result over time, primarily from the winemaking process and aging.

Common off smells include:

You might also notice that you salivate, which indicates excessive acid.


  1. Take a medium-sized sip, sucking air in through your teeth.
  2. Swish the wine around in your mouth, "chew" it if you want, hold it in your mouth, and then swallow.

Flavors—Since the sense of taste is largely a result of the sense of smell, the nose of the wine will greatly affect the flavors you can taste.

Palate—Your tongue can notice sweetness, acid, alcohol, bitterness and astringency (tannin). They're sensed on different parts of the tongue and in the following order:


Pay attention to how it feels in your mouth.

Body—How is the "mouthfeel"? Is it light, medium or full? This is largely a function of alcohol content and any residual sugar, but there are other more subtle factors.

Finish—How long does the taste linger in your mouth after swallowing? What is the last taste you can sense? Fruit? Acid? Tannins?


Is it balanced? Do all the components—fruit, acid, alcohol, tannins and so on—work in harmony together?

Most importantly, did you like it? And why or why not?

The Triangular Test

Wine writer Dan Berger ( suggests the triangular test as a simple, but effective, way to see if you can tell the difference between two different bottles of wine.

Take three identical glasses and label them A, B and C (Okay, use 1, 2 and 3 if you prefer numbers to letters) in a way that the people taking the test can't see the labels. Pour from one bottle of wine into A and B, and from a different bottle into C. Mix up the glasses and then sample each of the three glasses. All you have to do is determine which two glasses contain the identical wine.

Easy, right? Well, maybe. But the more similar the two wines are, the more difficult it will be. Differentiating between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sirah might be easy. Tasting a light, fruity Chardonnay from one winery and comparing it to a heavily-oaked Chardonnay from another might still be relatively easy. But how about two Chardonnays from the same winery that differ only in the year in which they were picked, or the vineyards from which their grapes came?

It's a simple, enjoyable and very educational experiment. Try it. Over time you'll sharpen your ability to pick up those subtle nuances of flavors and aromas that might have escaped you before.

The Aroma Wheel

Wine Aroma Wheel

(Photo courtesy of A.C. Noble)

There is help for understanding the many possible flavors of wines. Wine scientists at the University of California, Davis—considered the top enology school in the country—designed the "aroma wheel." This is a simple device that categorizes 94 different descriptive terms for the smells of wine. You'll find it a big help in learning to identify wine aromas.

Here's what the Aroma Wheel's web page says (and thanks to U.C. Davis professor A.C. Noble for allowing us to reprint it):

The purpose of the wine aroma wheel initially was to facilitate communication about wine flavor by providing a standard terminology. The requirements for words included in the wheel were very simply that the terms had to be specific and analytical and not be hedonic or the result of an integrated or judgmental response. Floral is a general but analytical descriptive term, whereas "fragrant", "elegant" or "harmonious" are either imprecise and vague (fragrant) or hedonic, and judgmental.

The wheel has very general terms located in the center, going to the most specific terms in the outer tier. These terms are not the only terms that can be used to describe wines, but represent ones that are often encountered. Novice tasters often complain that they "cannot smell anything" or can't think of a way to describe the aroma of wine. Fortunately, it is very easy to train our noses and brains to connect and quickly link terms with odors.

The fastest way is to make physical standards to illustrate important and major notes in wine aroma. To do this, with few exceptions, materials available from the grocery store are all you need.

(One of the few standards that cannot be provided is the linalool aroma of Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Muscat wines. For this, get Handi Wipes: the distinct floral, citrus aroma is linalool. Put an opened Handi Wipe into an empty covered glass. Alternatively, bring some Froot Loops and put them dry into an empty wine glass. Sounds silly, but it makes a good linalool standard.)

White Wines

If you are just beginning, then it is easier to evaluate white wines, so start by selecting some wines with large differences in flavor.

For example, include an oaky, buttery Chardonnay (most Australian or California ones will do), For a "vegetative" Sauvignon Blanc, wines from Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or cool parts of California will suffice. A floral Riesling or Gewürztraminer from cooler parts of California (North or Central Coast), Oregon, Germany, Alsace or France will provide a further contrast.

If you wish to use a fourth wine, you can try an unoaked Chardonnay (if you can find it), non-vegetative Sauvignon Blanc or include another variety such as Viognier.

Then make some standards in a neutral white wine (usually a cheaper jug white will be adequate for this purpose). For each standard, the approximate recipes are provided below, but they all need to be tweaked. Add more "stuff" if the aroma is not identifiable; dilute with the base wine if it is too strong. The standards for the white wines would then most importantly include (per single 2-oz glass of wine standard).

Flavor Standards

I put the standards in labeled wine glasses, and cover them with disposable plastic petri dish lids, watch glasses or even Saran Wrap will do.

The reason for the lids is to increase the intensity of the aromas and to prevent contaminating the odor of the entire room.

From this point on, anything goes. Smell the wines first, smell the standards, start to see which terms describe which wine. Perhaps you all come up with new terms (lichee/lychee—so get some!). Smelling the Base Wine makes it really easy to identify the spiked aromas by contrast.

Red Wines

For beginning red wine tasting, using the same principle that you should include very different wines, include a Pinot Noir (Carneros or very cool central coast area of California, Oregon, or Burgundy), a Cabernet Sauvignon (for vegetative, get a wine from a cooler California region); for less vegetative, try Napa, Sonoma, Washington, a black peppery Zinfandel (Sonoma, Placer county, El Dorado county of California). Additional wines could be Italian varieties such as Sangiovese.

Flavor Standards

The standards for the above red wines would then most importantly include (per single 2-oz. glass in a neutral red wine).

Again, be sure to smell your creations to be sure that you can detect the desired aroma and that it is not too strong.

Sparkling Wines

Sparkling wines need different terms than those on the wine aroma wheel. In addition to citrus and berry standards, below are listed some of the terms most relevant to sparkling wines, especially those with long aging on the yeast lees before being disgorged.

Flavor Standards

Standards for sparkling wines: (In 2 oz. neutral white still wine)


For your own benefit, some of the commonly encountered wine defects can also be illustrated by making standards, although for some, such as a moldy cork, the best standard is the actual example of the defect.

Volatile acidity (VA)—resulting from oxidation or Acetobacter spoilage



Brettanomyces—a horsy, barnyard smell

Moldy Cork

How do I get an Aroma Wheel?

To purchase a full-color, laminated plastic version of the Wine Aroma Wheel or the Sparkling Wine Aroma Wheel, please make out a Check or Money Order (drawn on US bank) for $6.00 ($7.00 international).

For Wine Aroma Wheel T-shirts send $25.00 (2 for $40.00, 3 for $55.00). For international orders: $29.00 each. Please specify size: S, M, L, XL).

Price includes sales tax, handling, and postage. Please make checks payable to A.C. Noble.

Send to: A C Noble, Dept. Viticulture and Enology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616

We highly recommend you consider purchasing an Aroma Wheel. If you're serious about wine tasting, you'll find it invaluable.

Other Tools

Essential Wine Tasting Guide

This guide is another useful tool for wine tasting. It contains a huge amount of information and cleverly folds up into the size of a credit card.

The guide provides over 1000 descriptive terms for white, red, sparkling, dessert and fortified wines; a wine color guide; characteristics of major grape varieties; a wine scoring system; a comprehensive list of specific wine defects; and suggested wine serving temperatures.

Wine Jelly Beans

Wine X Magazine offers the Jelly Bean Wine Bar. The jelly beans offer a wide selection of varietal tastes and regional characteristics. You can even get Jelly Bean Wine Shooters. The idea is to experience the expected taste first, then taste the wine and detect that same taste.

Wine Prism

Wine Prism

PO Box 2771

Napa CA 94558


The Wine Prism is a fascinating wine-sipping gadget that enhances wine tasting, letting you more fully experience components of wine such as fruit, tannins, acidity, fermentation and barrel influence.

Wine Tasting Books

How to Taste : A Guide to Enjoying Wine by Jancis Robinson. Helpful tasting tips from an expert.

Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine: 108 Ingenious Shortcuts to Navigate the World of Wine with Confidence and Style

Wine Bible, The by Karen MacNeil. Highly recommended reference book.

Wine for Dummies Don't take the title personally. It just means it's easy to understand.

World Atlas of Wine. The classic book by British expert Hugh Johnson.

Wine Tasting Kits and Courses

Essential Winetasting : The Complete Practical Winetasting Course

Jancis Robinson's Wine Course (DVD). An entire wine course to watch at home.

John Cleese - Wine for the Confused (DVD). It's not just funny, it's useful. Learn about wine the Python way.

Wine Spectator's Ultimate Wine Tasting Kit. Put on a tasting at home.

Wine Tasting Party Kit, The : Everything You Need to Host a Fun & Easy Wine Tasting Party at Home. Enjoy a social wine tasting.

Wine Critics and the Global Wine Industry

Emperor of Wine, The Is Robert Parker a tyrant or invaluable advisor?

Mondovino (DVD) Should we take the global wine market, and those who control it, seriously? Many do.

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