The first thing to keep in mind when tasting wine is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to taste wine. Contrary to the popular consensus, master sommeliers and wine experts do not have the final say on whether or not a wine is great – and that’s particularly true in the social media era, where wine reviews are written by our friends and fellow wine drinkers often carry more sway on the decision to purchase a specific wine than a lengthy wine review in Wine Spectator.
You should have certain basics in place before conducting a wine tasting of any kind. If possible, you should try to conduct a wine tasting in a room with natural light. You should also make sure that you are using clear, unmarked wine glasses that are slightly tapered. These do not have to be expensive, crystal wine glasses – but they need to have a typical wine glass shape in order to permit the proper flavors and aromas to open up. And, finally, you should make sure that you are conducting the tasting in a location where extraneous odors and smells are not present. Everything else is optional – white tablecloths, fancy cheese plates or elaborate stemware custom-made for certain wine varietals.
Keep in mind that how and why we taste wine has changed in the past 10 years, primarily thanks to the rise of the young millennial wine drinker. Wine is now something much more accessible than it was just a decade ago. As a result, wine is viewed much more as something that we enjoy with our friends as part of shared experiences rather than something formal, stuffy and governed by a large number of esoteric rules. In fact, some of the best winemakers today are specifically breaking the rules when it comes to winemaking, and that same type of iconoclastic thinking is also part of wine tastings everywhere.
At one time, for example, wine tastings meant that you were sampling wines from just a handful of wine regions around the world – primarily Old World destinations like Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Tuscany. But that thinking has been blown wide open in just the past 10 years. It’s now not uncommon for wines from Oregon, Washington State, and South California to be part of tastings that include wines from Napa and Sonoma. In the same way, winemakers from New World wine destinations like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile are challenging our conceptions of what wines can – and should – be.
There is still an important role for Master Sommeliers in the wine culture. These wine experts have gone through extensive training that enables them to identify 6 different wines by vintage, grape variety, country, region and appellation, all within a 25-minute period, or about 4 minutes per wine. That’s a pretty impressive feat – and also one that might sound daunting to a beginning wine drinker.
But no worries – by reading through the four sections in this wine guide on How To Look at Wine, How to Swirl Wine, How to Smell Wine and How To Sip Wine, you will find yourself able to make surprisingly accurate conjectures about where a wine is from, which grape (or grapes) were used to make the wine, and maybe even a hint about the winemaking process itself. So read on if you want to make the most of any wine tasting experience and expand the range and scope of your wine knowledge!