What Does Red Wine Taste Like? How to Taste Wine Using 3 Simple Steps
What does red wine taste like? You've seen people do it: take big sniffs from their wine glasses after a nice swirl. They throw around terms like, "spice" and "cherry" when you just think "red wine". They take a sip and slurp in air, swishing the wine around their mouths and then discussing "mouthfeel" and "acidity" and "tannins". And then they throw around more flavor-related terms. Wait, did he just say "asphalt"? Like road?
Wine tasting can be a bit intimidating, but if you want to not only learn more about wine but also be able to track down wines that you like, it's a good idea to get some tasting basics under your belt. We'll start today with tasting reds - the method you'll follow; what you're looking, sniffing, and tasting for; common descriptors; tips and tricks; and also some suggestions for those of you thinking about taking your tasting ability to the next level.
The Steps Of Tasting
When tasting red wine, you will go through a series of steps in order to take in a variety of factors: color, aroma, mouth feel, acidity, tannins, flavors, finish. We'll go through the steps and some basics now, but be sure to keep reading for information on each of these different factors. We'll have you tasting like a pro in no time!
Step 1 - Tip for Tint
The first part of your red wine tasting experience doesn't have to do with taste, it has to do with color. Drinking wine is a sensory experience - we'll talk about everything except the sounds associated with wine (but aren't they musical?) - and it starts with, "What does the wine look like?"
What Does Red Wine Look Like?
Can you see through the wine, like a glass of cranberry juice? Can you not really see through it but light gets through? Or is it so dark you can't see much at all? These are ways to describe wine and just like in science class you can use the same descriptors: transparent, translucent, and opaque. When you tip or tilt your glass what happens? How does the wine change depending on its depth? Is it a different level of transparency or does the color even change? Take time to get to know how wine looks and appreciate it. Describe the colors and enjoy them before moving on.
The Two Places To Look At Red Wine
You'll first notice the center of your glass, pretty much everything other than the rim. This is the primary color of the wine.
Look around the rim for other colors - do you notice that the color seems to change? What do you see? Is the wine at the rim darker? Lighter? Is it very different from the rest of the wine? Or barely visible?
Common Visual Descriptors
- Deep Red
- Brick Red
Color Related Tips
- Color can tell you about the body of the wine: lighter colors mean a lighter bodied wine.
- A browner wine can be an indication that the wine is very old.
- Noticing a blue tint to your red? This is a sign that the wine is low in acidity.
- Another way to tell the age of a wine? The more difference between the primary color of the wine and the rim color the older the wine!
Step 2 - Take A Sniff, Give It A Swirl, Sniff It Again
After describing the color you'll move onto the aromas of the wine, often referred to as the bouquet. By taking an initial sniff of the wine before aerating it, you'll get an idea of just how much it changes, or "opens up". It's amazing how a few swirls can really change the scent. You can swirl wine by leaving on the table and placing your hand over the base and swirling it. You can also hold the wine above the table and swirl when grasping the base or stem. Do whatever gets the wine moving the most smoothly and never sloshing outside of the glass. After giving it some good swirls, stick your nose in the glass and take a big sniff for a few seconds.
What Does Red Wine Smell Like?
Fruit! The nose of a red wine is most often where you will smell fruit. You may smell other things and you should definitely describe those, but by focusing on fruit in the beginning you will learn more about what to look for. So, what fruit? Red-toned ones... you're probably going to be able to recognize berries (raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, blueberry). Sometimes you can smell other fruits: plum and cherry being very common.
There may be other scents beyond fruit but in the beginning, keep your focus there. Of course, if you smell something else, feel free to mention it. And say what it smells like: wood smoke? leather? vinyl? These are often heard described when people are tasting reds. Smell portabello mushrooms? It's okay to say!
Common Olfactory Descriptors
- Pencil Lead
Aroma Related Tips
- Close your eyes. Wine tastes like wine, so trick yourself into just focusing on the smells.
- When you're starting out, focus on the fruit - just the fruit! If something is overwhelming, go ahead and say it.
- Don't be shy. When tasting, especially with a wine expert, say what you smell. Winemakers, sommeliers, and other professionals are likely to tell you that they agree, or maybe give you a tasting term to think about. They might also tell you something you're missing. If you don't smell it, that's okay, too - but there is no better way to pick up some new skills than by discussing wine with experts.
Step 3 - Taste the Wine
To taste wine don't just take a sip and swallow. Wine is complex and in order to truly get a taste you have to make sure you experience both the taste and all of the tactile sensations. You'll want to experience having the wine hit every part of your tongue to get the best experience of flavor.
The method to sip properly is:
- Take some wine into your mouth and allow to hit all the areas of the tongue and sides of the mouth.
- Take in a little air. You'll have to practice this skill but you want to do it through the wine that is in your mouth to aerate it there.
- Swish and chew. Yeah, sounds crazy but you'll thank us later - you want the wine to really spend time in your mouth.
- Swallow. Savor this moment and the few seconds after as many wines taste a little differently at the end and can often finish differently than they tasted on the initial sip.
What Does Wine Taste Like?
So many things! And often not the thing you'd think: grapes. Wine is made out of grapes. That's it (unless it's labeled as being fruit or another kind of wine (e.g. mead). But winemakers bring out the unique flavors, terroir plays a role, and use barrel aging and fermentation to bring out flavors. Varietals are also known for their unique flavors.
Common Taste Descriptors
There are two ways to think about fruit flavors in red wine (at least in the beginning): Red fruits/berries and black fruits/berries. See the tips in this section of a great way to explore identifying.
Spice and Herb
Probably the most common spice tasted and thrown out at a tasting is black pepper, but eventually you might notice others. White and black pepper are common, as are cinnamon, clove, anise (licorice), and others from your spice rack. Sometimes it's hard to tell just what the spice is so "spicy" is in itself a descriptor. As a general rule, red wine will have more tastes of spices and white wine of herbs.
Is that vanilla? A taste of vanilla is often an indicator that a wine has been oaked.
Often a sign of a flaw, some vegetable tastes are normal: green pepper, celery, mushroom. It often depends on the wine and the amount of the flavor so if you taste it - ask about it and learn!
Floral tastes like roses can be dried or fresh and like with many other flavors you will sometimes only know that it tastes like flowers - so call it "floral". But if it is distinct and you get lily of the valley, mums, roses, or honeysuckle, by all means please share!
You know the smell of rain? Or wet road? Or wood? These are earthy flavors. They often have a distinct feel on your tongue and will immediately make your brain think "earthy". Earthy is an acceptable descriptor but others include: forest floor, asphalt, tar.
Tasting Related Tips
- Better to describe a taste in an honest way than to try and sound like you know what you're talking about. More people will understand, "Like licking the inside of a tin can," than "like rain falling on seven dimes." Don't be fancy - say exactly what you taste if there is no name for it - you'd be amazed how many people will agree. And, the best part? Someone might tell you a name for it.
- When you start tasting and describing, it's okay to just use the broad terms: I get red fruit and spice.
- When trying to decipher fruits don't forget things like figs - which are black. Also, if it tastes more like candy it's likely a red fruit. Rounder, richer fruits = black. Lighter, sweeter fruits = red.
Where Should I Taste Wine?
Everywhere! At restaurants, in your home, alone and with friends - practice tasting whenever you can. You can download and print all kinds of charts from complex blind tasting sheets to more simple sheets to just explore flavors. It can be fun to taste with a friend and then compare notes. Sometimes you can even find tasting events live-tweeted on Twitter!
Engage with others when tasting, especially at a vineyard tasting room. Say what you taste, ask what they do. Say, "I'm getting something that's a red fruit but I have no clue what it is - do you get that?" and you might just learn that that red fruit is dragonfruit, something not everyone can recognize.
How Can I Take My Tasting To The Next Level?
If you find that you're good at this from the start, or if you want to learn more about tasting, the key thing is to learn about essences. Essences are the common aromas found in wine. They are what let you go from "I taste red fruit" to "I smell raspberries, candied cherries, and dragonfruit." Here are some great resources for learning about how to taste like a pro.
Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine
If you love non-pretentious wine education like we deliver here at Wine Turtle chances are you'll also love the beautiful design and easy to understand layout of Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack's new book. Madeline is the face of WineFolly, and delivers fresh videos and posts blending the knowledge of a sommelier (she is one), with a geeky, casual, unpretentious edge.
The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Become a Wine Expert
Don't laugh! As crazy as this sounds, this little book is getting big reviews. While it won't make you an expert, it will teach you all kinds of things. Major essences are isolated so that you can distinguish individual scents (e.g. black pepper), from more general categories (e.g. spice). At under $15 this is a great intro to start learning how to answer the important question: what does red wine taste like?
Red Wine Essences Kits
Let's say you get the scratch and sniff book and are ready to keep going with your education. If you're motivated you can consider moving up to the next level: wine essences. These kits come with vials of individual aromatic essences, from as few as three to over 100. You get to smell and learn the individual scents, quiz yourself, and build the necessary olfactory memory to become an exceptional wine taster. The kits are not inexpensive, so start small and see how motivated you are to keep going.
Le Nez du Vin
We don't suggest you start here but wanted to highlight Le Nez du Vin, often considered the epitome of kits. It's pricey, but beautifully put together.
AromaMaster Red Wine Aroma Kit
This set of 24 red wine essences by Aromaster is presented in a beautiful folio with an illustrated key. Before long you'll be able to describe wines that have aromas and flavors of: raspberry, blackcurrant, strawberry, blackberry, cherry, plum, violet, capsicum, mint, tobacco, toast, vanilla, coffee, pepper, cinnamon, liquorice, hazelnut, oak, cedar, chocolate, smoke, leather, truffle, and tree moss.
Many wine shops, tasting rooms, and other wine businesses will offer tastings, classes, workshops and pairing dinners. Wine festivals are also a great resource for learning more about tasting. Check out your local community to see if there are available wine courses for you.
Now you know the steps to taste wine, some flavors to expect, and some descriptors. So open a bottle of red, go through the steps, and tell us: how does red wine taste to you? We look forward to hearing from you in the comments!