Wine 201: Four steps to mastering the art of wine tasting

The world of wine doesn’t need to be intimidating.

If you’re new to wine tasting, some of the terms that come up in pros’ notes to describe it can seem downright weird. When Lisa Giovanella was just starting to study wine a decade ago, she came across a few creative descriptors, like “aromas of horse saddle or crushed ants” and “flabby” or “woolly” that initially threw her for a loop.

“Descriptors like this all come from our own personal experience with the wide range of aromas, flavours and textures that can be applied to one’s wine vocabulary,” says Giovanella, assistant to the buyer at Everything Wine.

She has gone on to acquire the Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the world’s leading provider of wine knowledge courses. While she’s able to grasp wine tasting vocabulary, Giovanella understands how the world of wine can be intimidating to people just beginning to discover it. She has some tips for novices.

“When you’re just starting out tasting wine, you don’t have to identify every single flavour,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to start out with the bigger picture, with general terms. Instead of saying you like wine that tastes like plum, you might say: ‘I like something really light.’ The more practice you get, the easier it is to identify smaller details.”

 Wine tasting can be broken down into four steps: appearance, aroma, taste and conclusions

Ready to start tasting?

The WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine is a basic breakdown of the process, with four key steps:

    1. Appearance
      Look at the colour of the wine to get a sense of its style. For example, in red wines, “a bright, purply hue for red tends to indicate the wine is younger,” Giovanella explains. “A more bricky or reddish colour indicates that wine has had some age.”

    1. Aroma
      The reason you swirl the wine around in the glass before sniffing it is to “agitate” it — to bring oxygen into it. This will lift its aromatic compounds. “Start thinking of different components of aroma when you put your nose into the glass,” Giovanella suggests. “How intense is the aroma? Is it really light or faint, or do you immediately smell all kinds of flavours? Are those flavours fruity, spicy, floral, or savoury? From there, you can get more specific: if it’s fruity, what kind of fruit is it: citrus, stone, black, red, or tropical?”

    1. Taste
      You may have seen experts slurp their wine on first sip. It’s not that they’re lacking manners. The gesture is another way of aerating the wine. Increased oxygen helps release the flavour compounds in your mouth. When you swish the wine around, you hit all the different taste sensations on your tongue — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.From there you can start to think about things like sweetness, acidity, tannin and body, Giovanella says. Ask yourself: “Is this wine sweet or dry? Does it make your mouth water, or is it so dry that there’s no moisture left in your mouth? On the next sip, think about the weight: how does the wine feel in your mouth? Is it very light or is it rich and creamy?”This is when you think back to the aromas you noticed and whether, in fact, you can taste them. Can you identity any individual fruit flavours from the broad categories you noted? Finally, you want to consider what’s known as “length.”“If the flavour of the wine lasts for a long time, that can indicate a good quality wine,” Giovanella says.

    1. Conclusion
      Here’s when you put it all together and reflect. Then you can decide the most important aspect: Do you like it? Why or why not? “A professional would be using this time to decide if it’s a good quality wine or not, but for a novice, determine whether or not this is the wine for you,” Giovanella says.

If you’re still feeling unsure of how to describe a wine you like, don’t worry; all of the staff members at Everything Wine have WSET Level 1 qualification. While they have the knowledge to help you find something you’ll enjoy, they welcome questions from newbies, and they don’t judge.

“You don’t have to be worried about saying the wrong thing — we’ve all been there,” Giovanella says. “You’re talking to experts, but we’ve all had to learn to describe what we like and what we want in wine. Our job is to help you discover the things you like.”

A great red wine to start practising your wine-tasting skills on is Malbec. “It often has a good intensity of aromas and flavours, which helps novice tasters identify those characteristics,” Giovanella says. “It is often fuller-bodied and typically has medium to higher acidity and tannins, which makes it a good reference point.”


Still need to brush up on the basics? Check out our Wine 101, to help you savour while you sip.

This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Everything Wine and first published on Vancouver Sun.