Wine Tasting Demystified
Wine is essentially fermented grape juice. So let’s put aside all notions that it possesses some elusive, mysterious quality that only a few enlightened souls are able to decipher. The more you taste wine, the more you’ll develop your own mental library of aromas and flavors, and the vocabulary to describe it.
For those of you who are just getting into wine, remember that everyone has a different sense of taste and smell. So if you happen to be sharing a bottle of white wine and your friends say they are tasting white peach with a hint of Meyer lime, don’t panic if you aren’t getting those exact same flavors or aromas. Maybe you’ve never heard of a Meyer lime, or perhaps you don’t recall exactly what a white peach smells like.
But it’s possible you know exactly what pink grapefruit tastes and smells like, because you eat half of one for breakfast every morning. Or maybe the wine reminds you of some kind of fruit, but you can’t quite nail it. That’s totally fine! It’s okay to start out describing a wine as just plain old ‘fruity,’ or if you are smelling hints of citrus but can’t quite decide between lemon or lime, ‘citrus’ is a great starting point.
Remember, there’s no expectation out there that you have to be a wine expert to buy a bottle of wine, choose wine in a restaurant, or visit a winery. And anyone who makes you feel intimidated may have some other issues going on. So grab a set of wine glasses and let’s do ourselves a little tasting!
How to Build a Wine Tasting Vocabulary
A fun way to develop your own ‘scent lexicon’ is an activity I learned from the amazing Shelby Ledgerwood, a certified wine educator and an instructor at the UCLA Extension Wine Education and Management program. Begin by visiting a grocery store and buying a few fruits or vegetables you’ve never had before. The more exotic, the better. Try lychees, guava, boysenberries, and maybe even Meyer lime! When you get home, cut open the fruits and slice the veggies, and let them come to room temperature if they were refrigerated at the store. Now grab a pen and a notebook, and start by smelling one of the fruits or vegetables. Does it remind you of anything? It’s possible that the smell of a Meyer lime reminds you of lime-flavored yogurt. Cool! Write that down. Maybe the guava reminds you of a fruit salad you had while vacationing in Brazil. You could jot down ‘tropical fruit,’ or describe how it smells and tastes: crisp, tart, tangy, sweet.
You can do this same exercise with different spices, flowers, or even perfumes.
The important thing is to trust your gut (or your nose and tastebuds!) when you’re tasting wine. It may help to go online and download the tasting notes for a particular bottle of wine. When you see what the winemaker has to say about his or her wine, you can keep those qualities in the back of your mind as you taste the wine so that you begin to associate green bell pepper with a Sauvignon Blanc, for example, or ripe red cherries with a Cabernet Sauvignon. But again, don’t worry if you’re not tasting or smelling those exact characteristics. Wine tasting is meant to be a pleasant, social experience. Don’t feel overwhelmed by it or think you have to be an expert to enjoy it.
Wine Tasting Tools and Resources
Wine is all about building community and forging bonds. What better way to do this than to gather with like-minded people in your quest to learn more about wine. Here are some helpful resources to help you develop your wine tasting vocabulary:
Developed by a UC Davis professor, the Wine Wheel is a fantastic tool for wine newbies as well as more seasoned wine lovers. The center of the wheel describes very general, basic wine aromas (fruity, spicy, earthy, woody) and lists more specific words (cedar, oak, tobacco, smokey) on the outer edges of the wheel. It’s also available in Spanish, and the best part is that it’s under $10 (at press time).
Wine Appreciation Classes
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, UCLA Extension offers a fabulous class called “Introduction to Wine.” Full disclosure: I am a candidate in their Wine Education and Management certificate program, but I can objectively say that the intro class is an excellent way to acquire a basic understanding of how to taste wine. If you’re not in the LA area, the program can be taken online, as can a similar program at UC Davis.
Wine Tastings at Local Wine Stores
Some larger wine stores offer affordable classes designed to teach the basics of wine appreciation. Total Wine & More, a national wine retailer, offers weekly tastings, some of which are free, at most of its stores. They also offer wine classes focusing on specific wines for about $25. A less structured and informal approach is to visit a neighborhood wine bar and taste some of their featured wines. This one is a bit of a gamble; from personal experience some wine bar servers are excellent and well-versed in wine, and others less so.
Here are a couple of books I found extremely helpful in learning the basics of wine tasting:
Making Sense of Wine Tasting: Your Essential Guide to Enjoying Wine, Fifth Edition. Alan Young (2010, The Wine Appreciation Guild, San Francisco)
Essential Winetasting. Michael Schuster (2009, Mitchell Beazley, London)
Le Nez du Vin
For those of you who are willing to invest a little more to develop your scent vocabulary, Le Nez du Vin (French for “The Wine Nose”) is a kit of 12 to 54 vials of aromas that are commonly found in wines. Starting at $129 for 12 vials and going up to $399 for 54 vials, this is a renowned wine education tool that can help you pinpoint specific scents and train your sense of smell. My suggestion – gather a group of like-minded friends and share the cost of a kit. Then have regular wine tasting parties where you can “blind-smell” different vials and turn it into a game.