Updated: Jan 8
Wine tasting can be intimidating. It almost seems like some people have the abilities of comic book hero Daredevil to somehow ferret out the tiniest, most unique aromas and flavors in a wine. Maybe you're feeling like wine tasting is something other people can do, but it’s not for you?
Well, toss that crap right out the window. You’re about to get a whole lot more confident in your abilities with these Wine Tasting Hacks. Maybe there are some lucky folks with magic palates. So what? You’ve already got the best wine tasting superpower in the world - your mind.
Writing about Wine Tasting Hacks all started at dinner with friends. We were talking about what we were drinking and one of the people said they felt intimidated during conversations about wine. They liked the wines, they just didn’t feel comfortable about articulating why. Then another guest chimed in with something their mom used to say, “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to find it.” And that was the birth of Wine Tasting Hacks. So as they say in Philly, effortlessly plucking aromas and flavors out of an unknown glass of wine - fudgeddaboutit!
Engage your mind in the tasting first to know what you’re looking for, and it will be easy to find it. And you’ll find that you’re a pretty darn good wine taster too. You don’t need to remember all 10 of the Wine Tasting Hacks, but even remembering a couple will make you a better and more confident wine taster.
To make things easier, we’re going to divide The Wine Tasting Hacks into two blog posts. The first 5 hacks are about knowing what you are tasting. The second part is about knowing how the wine was made. Let’s get started!
Wine Tasting Hack #1 - Know what you're tasting
Blind tasting is a science, not an art. It is a precise, inductive process that may cover over 20 elements in a rigorous evaluation of a wine that even the most seasoned sommeliers generally don’t do without some type of system. So just don’t do it. Cause you don’t have to. Know what you’re tasting before you taste it. Read the label for important clues about the wine you are going to taste or ask your host about it.
What does the varietal or region tell you? What grapes are in the wine or what region is the wine from if it is known by a geographic name instead of a varietal name. If it’s geographic, ask what is the predominant grape in the wine. Lots of wineries source fruit from different locations. Some places have characteristic aromas or flavors you’ll learn. Also, it will tell you about the climate which we’ll cover in a later Wine Tasting Hack.
What’s the alcohol, the pH, and is there RS (residual sugar)? Sometimes a label will have this info, and it's sometimes available on the site selling the wine. Alcohol will give you clues about the body. More equals a fuller body. The pH will tell you whether to expect more or less acidity. Low pH tastes more acidic. An average pH for white wine is 3.4, red is about 3.5. Dry wine has zero RS so any RS is an indication of sweetness.
Wine Tasting hack #2 - Know the acid code words
All wines have acid compounds, that’s not a bad thing. It’s the acidity in combination with alcohol that keeps the wines from spoiling. Levels of acidity vary by the type of grape. Acidity in a wine also often goes in lockstep with certain aromas and flavors. Tasting notes, whether from the winemaker or wine critics can often help you set expectations for your own tasting experience. In particular, there are certain code words that tasters often use to describe the level of acidity in a wine.
Bright, fresh, crisp, racy - When you hear words like bright, fresh, or crisp, you are hearing code words for higher acidity. Aside from telling you that the wine has acidity, it’s also telling you something about the aromas and flavors. Expect that fruit will smell and taste more like freshly sliced raw fruit. Generally, look for green aromas like apple, pear or citrus in whites, and tart fruit or herbal notes in reds.
But beware sweet wines like riesling, tokaji and sauternes. They have high acidity balanced by sweetness and often show riper aromas like stone fruit and tropical fruit.
Soft, Flat, Fat - Because acidity protects the wine and heightens the brightness of fruit flavors, winemakers try to ensure the appropriate acidity in a wine. Soft as a descriptor might appeal to you if you don’t like wines with higher acidity and it’s not necessarily a red flag.
When you hear words like flat or fat, it tends to mean that the fruit flavors are less bright, more cooked and that the wine seems heavier. These words are usually not complementary and sometimes indicate the taster found the wine unbalanced.
Wine Tasting Hack #3 - Know the tannin code Words
Tannin is a natural component of wine that comes from grape skins, seeds and stems, and sometimes barrel aging. Although white wines can have some skin and oak contact, tannin is a red wine thing. Tannins are good because they lend structure to a wine and they are a natural antioxidant that allows wines to age. But tannins also impart bitterness and a drying sensation to a wine. Different grapes have differing natural levels of tannin and winemaking also plays a big part. But if you know the code words for tannin, you’ll be better prepared for tasting and for spotting wines that suit your style.
Rounded, Silky, Powdery - You’re about to taste a wine with a lighter level of tannin. Expect the wine not to have any harsh edges from tannin and to coat the mouth smoothly and evenly. Dryness will be less pronounced. You might hear these descriptors often associated with lower tannin grape varietals like Pinot Noir, Gamay, Frappato from Sicily, Dolcetto from Piedmont, and Grenache.
Velvety, Fine, Firm - Now you’re entering the world of medium to higher tannin. These wines have definitive tannin characteristics, but in the nice next-door neighbor way. You’ll feel the wine coating your mouth and teeth, and you’ll experience a drying sensation. Velvety, like the material, is still nice and smooth, but heavier. Fine being more pronounced than powdery, and firm basically means that tannin is a notable aspect of the taste profile - so don’t kid yourself. These descriptors are closely tied to winemaking and aging decisions, but some varietals that are generally associated with medium tannins include Malbec, cool-climate Grenache, Carrignan, Cabernet Franc and non-oaked Merlot.
Chewy, Grippy, Muscular - Put on your big girl or big boy pants for this wine. The tannin is going to be pronounced and inextricably linked to the character of the wine. You’ll feel it on your teeth, tongue and all around your gums in a grainy, puckering and lean-in-to-it way. This will dry out your mouth like a run through the Sahara - in a nice way though. Varietals that typically have higher tannin include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Tannat, Aglianico, Carmenere and cool-climate Syrah.
Wine Tasting Hack #4 - Cold or hot?
Climate has a Godzilla-sized effect on wine aromas and flavor. Knowing the characteristic climate of a wine you are tasting along with its varietal gets you almost all the way home. So try to remember this Wine Tasting Hack.
Grapes are a little bit like Goldilocks. They like it just right. Sunlight, day-time warmth, night-time cooling. Most wine regions are between 30º and 50º latitudes for this reason. But then there are other factors that affect the climate and the aromas big time.
Cool-Climate - This is becoming a popular style trend in response to the opulent wines of the last decade. When you hear this, think acidity, lower alcohol and the fruit flavors tend to be more bright but less ripe. Why is this happening? It’s about grape ripeness. Grapes start out with very high acidity and as they ripen - produce sugar - that balances out. So in cooler areas the acidity remains a little higher.
Beside latitude, there are a couple good hacks for recognizing cool-climate wines. Look for proximity to a regular ocean onshore wind. Areas with regular fog which can come from oceans, rivers or low-lying topography. High altitude vineyards that cool quickly without sun.
Warm-Climate - Now that you know cool-climate impacts, just flip a u-turn on it. Heat causes grapes to ripen, creating more sugar which changes the balance. Fruit character becomes more lush, but also less bright and more jammy or cooked like a pie filling. Acid is lower and tannin is softer. But be aware that winemakers can, and often do, add acid and use oak to raise tannin to get lush wines with better balance. Good clues for a warm-climate wine include latitudes closer to the equator, dry-sides of mountain ranges called “rain shadows” like Mendoza in Argentina and Eastern Washington. Another clue is distance from cooling influences, like Calistoga in the northernmost part of Napa Valley.
Wine Tasting Hack #5 - Reds and blacks
“Choke cherry compote cooked in an iron skillet”, that was a wine description that kind of froze me in my tracks when I read it. Huh? Is it tart? Is it sweet? Is it burnt? While I’m going to avoid opening the whole can of worms about self-aggrandizing wine descriptions that most people can’t really even imagine, did I just open it? Anyway, knowing the basic red fruit versus black fruit tendencies of varietals is a great Wine Tasting Hack that you will find super helpful, and it’s easy to understand.
All grapes have a sort of signature flavor profile when fermented. As we saw, that can vary depending on the level of ripeness in the fruit, but it’s normally in the same neighborhood. For red wines, the easiest way to categorize the fruit aromas is either red fruit or black/dark fruit. So once you know what you’re tasting, you have a starting point and off you go. Red fruit -
Black fruit -
Blending - There are some famous blends that combine the red fruit and black fruit varietals because it just tasted better all mixed up, kind of like ice cream sundaes. Rhone Blends or GSM mix red fruit Grenache with black fruit Syrah. Bordeaux blends mix black fruit Cabernet Sauvignon with red fruit leaning Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Go practice your new tasting skills!
So you’ve made it through the first part. Adopt even two or three of these Wine Tasting Hacks and you’ll feel much more confident. Note that I already think you know how to distinguish tastes, because you just do. All you need is a gentle nudge in the right direction. With your confidence heightened, you’ll be more comfortable identifying and describing the wines you like and those enjoyed by friends and family. And that’s basically the point. Learning more about wines so we can enjoy the ones we love the most.
Stay tuned for part two of Wine Tasting Hacks. We’ll focus on wine making and what that can tell us about wine tastes. Cheers!