You won’t become a wine tasting expert by reading a blog post. You will, however, seem like one if you read the post and then practice the technique on your own. You’ll get even better by tasting lots and lots of wine, too!
Wine tasting – a French tradition
Wine tasting is hallowed territory in French culture. It should come as no surprise that the French take their food and wine very seriously. That’s why they’re such high quality. For the French, wine tasting methods are fixed. There are also rules to follow concerning how wine is drunk, and how it’s shared with others.
The French don’t have the copyright on wine tasting – although if that existed, I’m sure they would seek it. There are also tasting traditions for Italian wine, Spanish wine, and other countries. None are quite so well known as the French, though.
There are 3 steps to wine tasting in the French tradition, all of which I’ll take you through. But first, some background on etiquette, and sharing wine with others.
Interested in wine? Read about Belgian wine!
Proper Wine Etiquette
When you buy a bottle of wine for someone else and bring it to them for a dinner party, they will open it and drink it with you – unless it’s a good bottle that should be aged. In that case, the host will keep it and offer you one of their other bottles instead.
Tasting wine in a French home with other guests
The host, whether they bought the wine or not, opens and serves the wine. They pour a small amount into a glass and offer it to one of their guests to taste, before serving anyone else. If the guest finds it satisfactory (it almost always is) then the host takes the glass back and fills it all the way up. They then fill everyone else’s glasses.
The point of designating a “first taster” like this is bestowing that person with responsibility. They are tasked with ensuring the wine is acceptable for everyone else to drink, confirming it hasn’t spoiled.
Tasting wine at a restaurant
While you may not find yourself in a French home to observe this practice, you will certainly see it at a restaurant. When you order wine, your server will follow the same procedure. When you’re handed that glass of wine to taste, you have proper wine-tasting techniques to follow.
If you’re tasting wine at a vineyard or on a tour, you can focus more on your personal tastes. You are likely planning to purchase a bottle, after all. If you’re at the dinner table, though, wine tasting isn’t about personal tastes in the slightest. Your tasting and “approval” of the wine before it’s served is rather a duty to everyone else.
You shouldn’t linger, then, on each step. The whole process should take less than 10 seconds. If others are present at the dinner table and waiting for you to taste and accept the wine, they might appreciate some expediency.
Now that you have the background on wine tasting etiquette, let’s look at each step in detail.
The steps to tasting wine properly
There are typically 3 steps to this process. At each one, you evaluate a different characteristic of the wine. The process I’ll describe here will pertain to tasting for yourself – at a vineyard or on a tour.
At each step of the process, you ask yourself “does this appeal to me?” Because wine tasting in this setting is about your preferences, selecting the wine you would like to drink. The process is building an expectation of the wine, then making your decision.
If you’re at a restaurant, you ask “Is this wine adequate to be drunk by everyone else?” You don’t build an expectation of the wine because you should already have one. You ordered it, so you should know what you’re getting! This brings up an important etiquette rule – turning away a wine at a restaurant because you don’t like it, is not acceptable. The only reason you reject a wine is if it has noticeably spoiled.
Step 1. The color
The first characteristic of the wine you inspect is its color or robe. More broadly, you’re looking at its appearance. Is it clear, or deep? Are there any bubbles? You want to check these things out because it helps you decide if you’ll like the wine.
To inspect the robe, hold the glass up against a white background so it catches the light. Tilt the glass toward the white background. You’ll catch the best glimpse of the color this way. For whites wines, the pale hues will be lighter, fruitier, and possibly more floral. Yellow wines with golden hues mean the wine will be richer and spicier.
For reds, a lighter color also means lighter wine. Wines with darker hues tend to have more alcohol content as well. For rosé wines, the pale, salmon-colored ones will be drier. Those closer to a pink hue will be sweeter and fruitier.
If you’re at the dinner table, don’t linger too long on this step. You won’t determine if the wine is spoiled just by examining its robe, anyway. And remember – less than 10 seconds!
Here is a great resource on wine color.
Step 2. The smell
Has your wine passed its first inspection? If so, the next step is to smell it. The wine’s smell or aroma is better sampled when it’s in the glass, not the bottle. Your olfactory senses are integral in deciding if you’ll like the wine, or if it’s drinkable. If the wine has gone bad and turned to vinegar you will smell it! Your nose can pick up thousands of unique scents, so sniffing your wine before tasting will refine your impression.
There are two sniffs. First, you place your nose just over the edge of the glass, then inhale. Once you’ve processed the scent, you swish your wine around in your glass vigorously (like you’ve probably seen wine aficionados do while wondering why). When you swirl the wine around, it opens it up. This will release a slightly different scent than the one you just registered.
Now you’ll put your nose on the edge of the glass furthest from you. You’re shoving your face into your glass just a little bit here. Inhale deeply. What scent did you get this time? Do you have aromas of berries, vanilla, wood, flowers, oak, or maybe citrus? Do you smell vinegar?
Step 3. The taste
Finally, you get to taste the wine. For your first taste, don’t gulp down a whole mouthful. You want just enough to flow over the top of your tongue. After you take a sip, roll the wine around in your mouth. You will get the full flavor of the wine doing so. There are three phases of the taste to look out for: the attack; the evolution; and the finish.
Initial and evolution phases
In the initial attack phase you won’t taste much, but get an impression of the wine. The evolution phase is where you’ll really sense the taste. If it’s red you might get berries, plum, spices, or oak. With whites, it could be citrus fruits, honey, and floral tastes.
The finish is how long the wine’s taste lingers afterward. You can evaluate the taste and the impression the wine left you with. This is how you decide if you want to drink more. It’s also when you’ll approve or reject the wine for drinkability if you’re with guests.
Good wine doesn’t simply have one taste. It should take you on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Depending on the wine, and personal preferences, the ride might be tame or more thrilling. The finish phase is where you reflect on what experience the wine left you with.
There’s a bonus step that you can choose to add, but not required. It’s very French and takes some practice to master. So if you’re tasting at dinner, then it’s safest to skip this part if you aren’t sure what you’re doing.
When you take your sip, open your mouth slightly to suck in some air – while still holding the wine in your mouth. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with wine spilling onto your shirt.
The reason for tasting with a slurp of air like this is to let the wine breathe. It’s akin to letting the wine air out a few minutes after you’ve uncorked it. By taking in a bit of air with your sip, you are previewing what the wine will taste like after it’s been left to breathe.
Mastering the art of French wine-tasting
Wine tasting is steeped with tradition in France, much like wine production. You show that you understand etiquette when you follow the established rules. You also express a certain level of refinement, and an ability to appreciate quality.
Whether these rules for tasting are still the most adequate way to judge wine is irrelevant. You learn them and execute them because that’s how it’s been done. As a non-French person, however, you’ll be forgiven if you don’t do it perfectly.
Tasting for yourself vs. tasting for guests
The purpose of wine tasting differs from personal tastings to dining with others. In one case, you are pausing to reflect on your preferences. In the other, you are bearing the selfless responsibility of checking the wine for everyone else. This contrast shows the centrality of etiquette and tradition in French dining and wine culture.
For personal tastings, it comes down to what you like. Don’t drink – and certainly do not buy – a wine that you just don’t like. You should enjoy your experience sampling wine, it’s about finding your preferences. In this instance, the goal isn’t to master the technique. The objective is slowing down, taking time to enjoy. And pausing over some good wine is definitely an art the French have mastered.