Wine Insider and Expert Tasting Secrets

To get the most that you can out of a wine tasting, and to substantiate a complete understanding of wine, you must step away from text books and actually taste the wine. And by taste we mean understand and truly absorb every drop with every sense. Some of these tips are common tasting techniques, some are little tricks that wine experts have gathered along their journey and shared with us. Make your next tasting a full-body experience with these useful insider tasting secrets.

Tools of the Trade

A handy new widget by Natalie MacLean (AKA: Nat Decants) - deserving recipient of the Louis Roederer International Wine Writing Awards! This widget (available in two sizes) has solved the age-old problem of what to drink with Korean Barbecue... and has now found a permanent home on Insider Tasting Secrets on

Wine Director Joseph Nase calls decanters "the most under-utilized weapon in the Sommeliers arsenal"... Decanters add a subtle finesse to almost any aged wine, removing sediment, cork and aerating opens up the flavors - softening acidic qualities and tannins. A decanter can be used to make almost any wine "drinkable." We recommend the RIEDEL ASTRAL WINE DECANTER.

Wine experts agree that Riedel glassware and decanters are two of the most valuable tools utilized during serious tastings - this decanter brings you both tools in one beautiful vessel. Hand-blown leaded crystal with a matching stopper, it’s sleek curves and unparalleled quality make this one of the most elegant decanters on the market ($234.95).

The Wine Aroma Wheel
In 1990 at University of California at Davis, professor and sensory chemist, Ann C. Noble, developed a comprehensive aroma wheel to be used in conjunction with wine tasting. This diagram has become a standard tool for both connoisseurs and newcomers to wine tasting. The primary goal of this wheel is to guide you to accurately articulate the flavors you are picking up in a wine.

120 different aromas are displayed on this wheel to represent common (and sometimes uncommon) aromas and flavor characteristics found in most varietals. So the next time you hear an expert describe a wine "having notes of acetaldehyde," he or she most likely knows a thing or two about tasting and has likely referenced the wheel.

The flavors and aromas are separated into three sections (12 primary categories, 29 sub-categories, and about 120 tertiary categories) to help you discuss the complexity of a wine with accuracy.

The Primary Categories are: Chemical, Pungent, Oxidized, Microbiological, Floral, Spicy, Fruity, Vegetative, Nutty, Caramelized, Woody, and Earthy. Sense it's inception, the wheel is available in seven languages and for sparkling wines (English only).

The Nuance Wine Finer
This cylindrical device is a favorite tool of serious wine drinkers and recommended by Wine Enthusiast. The Nuance Finer is made of rubber coating to help it fit snugly inside the neck of the bottle, with a stainless steel interior tube for the wine to pass through. It contains 32 aeration vents to remove sediment and cork while bringing out subtle flavor nuances. Perfect for quick decanting, about 30 seconds ($29.95).

Picking Up Aromas with Fruits, Vegetables and Spices
This tip is very useful for teaching your nose how to pick up different bouquets in the nose of a wine— it is also an entertaining contribution to an informal wine tasting or party. What to do: Collect a group of common aromas found in wines and place them in separate dishes organized by category. Sniff them prior to sampling a wine, if the component is evident in the nose, you will pick up on it more clearly. For example, most Sauvignon Blancs have "grassy" characteristics. If you inhale the aromas from a bowl of cut grass before tasting the Sav Blanc, your nose will pick up that note first.

Herbs and Spices: cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, orange and lemon zest, black pepper, anise
Dried Fruits: prunes, raisins, apricots
Fresh Fruits: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, cherry, peach, apple
Fresh vegetables and vegetation: bell pepper, mint, eucalyptus, cut grass
Canned Vegetables: asparagus, black and green olives
Nuts: walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds
Other: coffee, tobacco, strawberry jam, honey, tea and chocolate

Tasting Steps and Techniques: An easy, step-by-step guide to tasting your wine properly.

Look: This is your first moment with the wine you are tasting, and you know what they say about first impressions.

Use clean glasses so there is no mistake when judging the clarity of the wine. Tip your glass away from you at 45° against the light to see clarity, and against a white tablecloth (or other white background) to grasp the color. Wine may appear brilliant, cloudy, murky, dull, hazy, and transparent. Wine that is reddish brown around the edges denotes an aged wine. Younger wines will have a watery or transparent edge.

Having wine with great clarity is just like having diamonds with great clarity...desirability is based on the level of imperfections.

Swirl: This action aerates the wine and invites the bouquet to rise from the wine and collect below the rim of the glass...preparing for the next step, smelling the wine.

Curious about the "legs" of wine? It used to be a wide misconception that having more legs in a glass of wine indicated a higher quality of juice in the bottle. Scientific study prevails to show that legs are a product of alcohol to water ratios. The higher the alcohol content, the greater the legs (we could make a joke out of that last sentence but we won't.) Legs are also referred to as tears (French), curtains, and church windows.

Smell: Ever notice a wine professional getting awfully personal with their glass during a tasting? Most will tell you "not to be afraid to really get in there." The more you expose your olfactory's to the aromas in a glass, the more you will get when it is time to taste it.

It is really only possible to gather a few aromas with each sniff, so repeat this two or three times, but wait a moment or to in between. Repeat this step too many times and the aromas (and your nose) will get confused. You want to smell the wine in this order: Fruit and Earth (natural), then Oak (manipulated). This is how your nose is conditioned to pick up scents.

Taste: Take a generous sip and slurp (quietly) inside the mouth. Let the wine roll over your tongue, exhale through your nose as you swallow. This will allow your taste buds to carry the weight of the work. Write down the flavors you are picking up, then repeat this step to see if it is different the second time around - most likely it will be.

The flavors a wine presents is in direct relation to the mouth feel. More on mouth-feel coming soon, in the mean time, here is a quickie guide:
  • Wines that contain a high alcohol content will often be referred to as "hot" due to the warm and sometimes burning sensation left in your mouth.
  • Acidic wines provide you with mouth pucker.
  • "Chewy" refers to a full-bodied wine so dense and tannic that you feel like you could actually chew it. This is a product of high glycerin content.
A Note on Spitting Wine: This is often done at formal tastings to allow quick note recording and to prevent intoxication. Let's face it, how well can you really taste your fourteenth wine if you have swallowed every sip?

Stefanie Payne

I am a product development lead in NASA's human exploration deep space program at headquarters in Washington, DC. When I am not telling the story of human exploration in space, my focus is on writing about travel on Earth—with articles appearing in The Huffington Post, The Travel Channel, blogs for The National Geographic Society, The Wall Street Journal, BusinessInsider, IBTimes and more. ...(Read More)

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