Learning how to taste wine was one of the smartest things I ever did for my health. It seems counterintuitive, but the process will taught me to crave more sophisticated foods. It all starts with the simple concept that you are not drinking wine, you are tasting it. This slight change in behavior changes everything.
Improving Sense of Taste with Wine
Having an acute sense of taste is no longer as important as it was in other parts of our evolutionary history. In our modern-day lives, we encounter very little food that might be toxic or poisonous. At the worst, we might need to sniff out the carton of milk. Now, perhaps you could argue that double bacon cheeseburgers are toxic, but not in the same way. Still, what we consume does define some aspects of our health, and wine is no exception. By improving our sense of taste, we learn to discern what we like and why.
“Wine will change the way you think about food.”
Having a well-trained palate takes practice. I might be the proof enough that anyone can improve their palate with a little effort. All I did was change a few drinking habits, and once I did, I was able to accurately blind taste wine with about a year of practice. Here’s what I did:
Use Your Nose
The next time your about to eat or drink anything, take a second smell before you dive into a bite. Beginning to separate your taste (salty, sour, sweet, bitter) from aromas (the much more complicated world of smells). Stocking up on aromas from the real world is the best way to start building your library of tastes to then apply to wine. Paying attention to these real-world reference points will get you more comfortable with a language of taste.
When you’re eating food or drinking wine, just take a little more time: slow down, pay attention. Your sense of taste is in your mouth, so the more time the wine is in swirling around in your mouth, the more you’ll be able to taste it. Use more time in between sips too. Wines (especially good ones) change from the beginning to the end and even long after you’ve swallowed.
Close your eyes and try to forget that you are holding a glass of wine. What do you smell? I discover my craziest tasting notes while doing this process. Suddenly, a glass of wine becomes a pot of simmering cherry sauce on the stove or it is an uncanny aromatic equivalent to a musty basement. Give yourself permission to interpret and play in whatever way seems fit.
When you try the 3 habits mentioned above, you’re going to start tasting unusual or weird flavors. Writers often focus solely on aromas in wine i.e. “Redolent of autumn cherry blossom and coco flavors,” which is a kind of journalistic fluff. Wine will always key into our sour and bitter receptors with a sip, as it’s fundamentally tart and somewhat astringent (especially reds). Some people find these tastes unappealing, but pay attention to their intensity and you can start to paint pictures of how certain grapes generally present. When you start to recognize the plurality of harmonies between sweet, sour, bitter as well as the new aromas with every sip, you’re starting to understand the concept of balance in wine.
Taste Wine in Flights
Our brains have a much harder time identifying subtle nuances between wines in a vacuum. When you taste wines in comparative flights, you’ll quickly hone in on their differences (or similarities). Comparative tasting will build your mental repository of key indicators for each variety (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Syrah etc). Comparative tastings are key to forming your taste vocabulary. It might be very hard to tell Pinot is “red fruited” on it’s own, but when you put it next to a rich, “purple-fruited” Malbec, that perspective helps to discern the particularities of the two wines.
Getting Around Language
Language can be a kind of trap when you’re first tasting wine. Don’t worry about being 100% correct or comparing your language to anyone else’s. Instead, when you sniff a wine, start with a “big category” and then go into specifics. For example, is this red wine more fruity or more savory? Then you can start to describe the aromas you’re finding. You may call an aroma “bright red cherry”. I may call it “fresh raspberry”. Someone else may call it “crunchy red plum”. Each of these answers is correct.
A Few Wine Flights To Try
Given that taste comparisons are one of the best ways to learn how to blind taste here are a few tried-and-true flights you might like to do:
Beginner Wine Flights
These flights are designed to familiarize yourself with the basic traits of wine as well as open up the way you taste and perceive wine. Your palate will never be the same again. That’s not a bad thing!
- Dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Oaked Chardonnay
What to do: Start with the Riesling and end with the oaked Chardonnay tasting each one individually and then comparing them against each other.
What you’ll observe: Since each wine in this taste comparison is technically “dry”, the first thing you’ll notice how to start untangling fruit aromas from actual sweetness (residual grape sugar) in a wine. Any “sweetness” you perceive in this flight is just because the wines have aromas you associate with sweetness, not because there’s actually any sugar in the wine. Beyond this, pay close attention to how the acidity (tartness) decreases and the richness (texture) increases with each wine. Finally, the Chardonnay, will help you identify the taste of oak in wine, since it’s the only wine in this flight that’s undergone oak aging.
- Pinot Noir, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon
What to do: Start with the Pinot Noir and end with the Cabernet Sauvignon. If you can find them all sourced from the same country or even the same region, this would be ideal. Sonoma or Argentina would be great locations to source this flight from.
What you’ll observe: This tasting highlights three major components: body, length of taste and tannin. While Malbec can be similarly rich as Cabernet, you will typically find that the Cabernet Sauvignon has more astringent, aggressive tannin, whereas Malbec is generally a little softer texturally.
- Blind folded tasting of Dry Rosé, Oaked Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
What to do: Each wine should be served at room temperature and tasters should be blind folded before wines are poured. You could also use black glasses, if you have them for some reason.
What you’ll observe: You’ll learn how our sense of flavors in wine are often influenced by the color of the wine. Tasters often confuse the Rosé or Pinot Noir as the white wine and the Chardonnay as the red wine. This tasting is a lot of fun!
Plan your own wine flight tasting. Try out one of the ideas presented here or come up with your own! Feel free to use this tasting placemat download (pdf).
Intermediate Wine Flights
Intermediate level tastings step outside what’s in the bottle and focus on where (and when) a wine is from. You can also delve deeper into how different wine production method influence their final presentation.
- A Bordeaux from the Médoc, South African Cabernet, North Coast Cabernet (or Coonawarra Cabernet)
What to do: Taste the Bordeaux Cabernet first, and the California Cabernet last. Take your time with each wine righting out accurate tasting notes to identify their differences
What you’ll observe: The importance of both climate and terroir differences is revealed in this taste comparison. The climatic differences express themselves in body and fruit flavors when you compare the Bordeaux Cabernet with the California Cabernet. The South African and California Cabernet comparison will illustrate striking differences in how terroir affects wine. Other great single-varietal wine flights include:
- Pinot Noir from California, Oregon and France
- Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley of France, North Coast California (such as Sonoma), and Marlborough, New Zealand
- Rioja Joven or Crianza, Reserva Rioja, Gran Reserva Rioja
What to do: Ideally, you’ll want to find a single producer and taste their range of Rioja wines starting with the basic Rioja to Gran Reserva Rioja.
What you’ll observe: This taste comparison will very quickly identify the differences of how long-term oak aging affects the taste profile of red wine. You will quickly identify where your oak-level preference lies. With this comparison, you move from no to very little time in oak to really long-term oak aging.
- A 10 year-old red wine vs a 3 year-old red wine
What to do: Seek out 2 single-varietal wines from the same region with vintages differing by 7–15 years. Start with the old wine and end with the young wine.
What you’ll observe: This tasting will show you how a wine changes as it ages. You’ll notice differences in the color, body, tannin-level and fruit flavor. In fact, we explored this topic in depth recently with a 30-year comparison of Merlot.
Advanced Wine Flights
Advanced tastings focus primarily on fine wines and their subtle differences in terms of terroir. Often you’ll find that these tastings focus grape varieties and styles of wine that are easily to confuse with one another.
- Austrian Gruner Veltliner, Spanish Albariño, Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé (Sauvignon Blanc)
- Bordeaux Left Bank (Cabernet), Bordeaux Right Bank (Merlot), Reserva Rioja or Reserva Ribera del Deuro (Tempranillo)
- Tuscan Vermentino, Spanish Verdejo, North Coast Sauvignon Blanc
- Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino
- German VDP (dry) Riesling, Austrian Riesling, Alsatian Riesling
Learning how to taste wine was one of the smartest things I ever did for my health. It seems counterintuitive, but the process will taught me to understand what I find appealing in food and wine much more deeply. Cultivate the simple idea that you are not drinking wine, you are tasting it. This slight change in behavior can change your whole perspective on the beverage. That being said, the only way to develop your palate is to keep popping bottles, but do it in moderation!