Learn the Five S’s of Wine Tasting

Don’t be intimidated by all of those fancy wine descriptors or the swishing and swooshing sounds that the pros make while they taste. To evaluate wine, it all comes down to the “five S’s.”

Illustration by Ryan McAmis

 

 

Illustration of man with glasses looking at wine
Evaluating the wine’s visual qualities / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

See. Similar to a psychic who gazes into a crystal ball, inspecting wine in the glass can help predict much of what’s to come on the nose and palate. The color, depth and intensity of a wine can offer a glimpse into its age, concentration, body and overall style.

Hint: white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose color.

Illustration of a couple swirling red and white wine
It’s all in the wrist / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Swirl. Swirling is integral to aerate the wine and allow oxygen to “open it up.” This seductive art reveals a wine’s complexities, and it will raise intensity in most young, opulent bottlings as well as those aged beauties. Better yet, when done properly, it will wow and potentially hypnotize those around you.

Illustration of a man evaluating a white wine's aroma
Technique that’s right on the nose / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sniff/Smell. Don’t be afraid to shove your entire nose right into the glass. Wines with medium to pronounced intensity shouldn’t need such a deep dive, but others may be a little bashful at first. In these cases, revert back to Step No. 2 and swirl some more. Aroma is usually where you hear all those cool, eccentric wine termslike “cat pee,” “wet dog” and “grilled watermelon.”

Illustration of standing woman sipping red wine
A matter of good taste / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sip. It takes a while to actually taste a wine during the examination process, but it’s often well worth the wait. Plus, all the prior steps should impart a pretty good idea of how the wine should come across on the palate.

When pros taste wine, you may notice some pretty off-putting and downright disgusting sounds, but there are reasons for it. The swishing, swooshing and gulping ensures that the wine hits all parts of the tongue and mouth. Thus, the taster can gauge sweetness, acidity, bitterness, tannins and identify the overall mouthfeel. Sucking in air allows for further aeration on the palate, and it helps volatile components be sensed by the olfactory system to tap in to all the characteristics of the wine.

Here, you look for primary characteristics (fruit, floral and spice), secondary characteristics (oak and fermentation-related flavors) and tertiary character (those that result from bottle aging, like mushroom, tobacco and nuttiness), depending on the age of the wine.

Illustration of couple savoring wine after sipping
Don’t forget to enjoy / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Savor. Here’s where the finish comes into play. You want to savor the final essence of a wine. Here, you not only look for length, but balance of fruit, acidity, tannin and texture. When a wine leaves you with an overwhelming desire for another sip, you know you’ve found a winner.

Final tip

If a young wine has a far superior finish than its taste on the palate, it probably needs a bit of aeration or even a little more time in the cellar.

Published on April 15, 2019
TOPICS:Wine Basics
About the Author
MARSHALL TILDEN III

From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.

How to Taste Wine Like a Pro

Ever feel like the pros at wine tastings are speaking their own secret language? In a way, they are. Learn the ins and outs of “tasting grids,” which set the standard for how we evaluate wines and the words we use to talk about them.

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Ever wonder how the pros tackle a wine tasting?

Whether it’s the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) Systematic Approach to Tasting, the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Deductive Tasting Format or any other wine education system, most have a common element: The tasting grid.

The tasting grid provides a guide for an objective description of a wine’s character and quality. While there are differences between various grids, they allow the taster to gauge a wine based on appearance, nose and palate, which leads to an unbiased conclusion of quality, age and development.

So how do wine tasting grids work, and what should you do when you approach a new pour?

Lineup of red wine glasses
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Judging appearance

The first step is to look at the wine against a white backdrop, like a blank piece of paper. This ensures that wines are not distorted by external colors.

In addition to the color, there are various levels of intensity to gauge. White wines gain color as they age, ranging from lemon and gold to dark caramel. By contrast, reds lose color and intensity with age, as they progress from purple to ruby to deep tawny. So while a typical aged Barolo might be described as pale or medium garnet (a hue between ruby and tawny), a young Australian Shiraz may lean toward deep purple or ruby.

Approaching the nose

Here’s where it starts to get fun. First, you swirl. Swirling allows for increased oxygenation, which can bring out more complex secondary aromas.

The first assessment is to determine if the wine is clean or faulty. Faults can include excess levels of brettanomyces, cork taint, volatile acidity or oxidization. Once you’ve determined a wine is free of faults, the next step is to gauge intensity.

Intensity is usually measured on a scale of low, medium or high. If you can smell a wine from a few inches away, it’s generally regarded as high intensity. If you must put your nose slightly inside the glass, that would equate to a medium intensity. Medium-minus and medium-plus cover the ranges in-between. If you can detect the wine’s aroma with the glass just below your nose, it might be considered medium-plus.

Aroma characteristics are where much obscure wine-geek jargon originates. Aromas of pencil shavings, cat pee, rubber hose or wet dog? The tasting grid tries to eliminate these subjective and eccentric descriptors with specific, standardized terms for each aroma cluster.

Wine tasting notes
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Evaluating the palate

The description of the palate, or what you taste, is by far the most in-depth category. A complete tasting note would include levels of sweetness, acid, tannin, alcohol, body and intensity. Once again, these are all graded at low, medium and high levels, with plus or minus used as modifiers for the medium range. Flavor characteristics and finish are factored in as well.

With flavor, the wine is to be described in terms of primary attributes like fruit, floral, herbal or spice. Secondary characteristics include oak, earth, and flavors that result from production techniques like malolactic fermentation and lees contact. Tertiary factors can be bottle age, oxidation and long-term fruit development. Just as with the aroma descriptions, fruit should be organized in clusters.

For example, a young Napa Cab could boast black fruit flavors (black cherry, blackcurrant), where a Sonoma Coast Pinot would more likely exude red fruit character (red cherry, strawberry and raspberry).

Once you’ve nailed down the flavor profile, determining the length of the finish and the wine’s overall complexity is the final step.

Drawing conclusions

For the Court of Master Sommeliers’ grid, there are two conclusions to be drawn. The initial conclusion is to deem a wine as Old World or New World, examining the type of climate, possible grape varieties and country of origin. This gives way to a final assessment of vintage, grape, country, region and designation.

The WSET conclusion starts with an assessment of quality and readiness to drink. That leads to a similar final assessment of grape variety and origin, but also includes style and method of production.

While some variance exists between programs, the premise remains the same for any tasting grid. Dissecting a wine using a formal system based on sight, smell, taste and feel can be equal parts art and science, but the first time you’re able to guess a vintage or variety at a blind tasting accurately, the payoff is worth it.

Check out these samples of the WSET and Court of Master Sommeliers tasting grids, and see if you can taste like a pro at home.