Chapter 7: How to Taste Wine

Chapter 7: How to Taste Wine

Wine appeals to four senses: sight, smell, taste and touch. Each by itself is important; but the final impression is an amalgam of all four. Most experts pay more attention to smell than to taste, but the majority approach wine tasting to determine a total, overall assessment of the wine's quality or lack thereof. It is important to note that wine is a very subjective thing, yet the professional taster must be objective as much as possible. Professional tasters are constantly fighting their own shortcomings. A cold, upset stomach, personal or business problem can affect one's ability to taste a wine accurately. Moreover, everyone's tasting ability varies from day-to-day, even from morning to afternoon.

What we call the sensation of "taste" involves smell, the eye, and even touch. A wine of brilliant color, for example, usually will score higher in a tasting than a wine of lesser brilliance, even if the latter is superior. Part of the subjectivity of wine involves one's "threshold," which is different for everyone. Threshold is the ability to smell or taste various compounds in wine at minimal concentration. For instance, one taster might be able to detect a very tiny amount of sulfur dioxide in a wine (burned match), while another taster will not detect it until the concentration is 5 times greater. The former has a low threshold for sulfur dioxide, the latter a high threshold. One's threshold is different for every compound, and varies daily.

As with any flavor comparison, wine is very subjective. Professionals must be objective and rank a wine on its merits. It is very difficult not to rank a wine best which one personally likes. A good wine taster may rank one wine as best of several tasted, but drink a lower ranked wine with lunch because they like it better. Also, it should be kept in mind that many wines might not be particularly to one's liking on their own, but will taste extraordinarily good with food. In the same vein, an ordinary wine in a beautiful setting will taste delightful, while a great wine in poor circumstances may not measure up to expectations. For this reason, professional tastings are usually conducted under rather clinical conditions.

Understanding how we taste is very helpful. The greatest proportion of what we normally consider to be taste or flavor is actually smell. When wine is sniffed, the small olfactory, or odor-sensitive, portion of the nose is opened and collects information that is transmitted to the brain. Additional information reaches the olfactory regions when the wine reaches the mouth where it is aerated and warmed sufficiently to release more volatile components, which are exhaled through the nose.


Professional tasters, whether they are in the wine, tea, coffee or other trades, all use the same, easily mastered technique. While the technique might seem awkward at first, it will open a new world of taste sensation.

After observing color and clarity, the taster swirls the wine in the glass to aerate it, then immediately places the nose into the mouth of the glass and gives a quick, rather strong sniff. It might be found that one nostril seems more sensitive than the other, in which case the sniff should favor the sensitive side. If more than one sniff is needed, they should be spaced about 10 seconds apart, or more, to avoid overwhelming the olfactory nerves.

A moderate sip is usually enough to get the full impression of the wine. Swirl the wine completely around the mouth so it comes in contact with all parts of the tongue. Part the lips slightly, draw air through them into the wine to agitate and aerate it as much as possible. This procedure, though a bit noisy, is the best way for your senses to achieve the full impact of the wine.

Aside from the vital role played by the sense of smell, the tongue experiences the four basic tastes: sweet, sour (acidity), salty and bitter (astringency). For all practical purposes, these sensations are true taste, while the balance of "flavors" we detect in wine or other food is smell. This is why, if one has a cold which effectively seals the olfactory passage, food has little "taste" other than that which can be detected by the tongue, i.e., sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

A sweet wine might taste "dry" to one taster, while another can detect the most minute amount of sugar. The matter of threshold also applies to "sourness," which, of course, is high acidity and/or low pH. In a wine, the salty sensation seldom is encountered, but we do find "bitterness." Very occasionally, a wine might have a strong bitter quality, the result of excessive tannins. These dissipate with time in the bottle.

True tastes are perceived at various points on the tongue. Professional tasters learn these points so that they can separate tastes with more clarity. At the tip of the tongue we taste salty and sweet. Along the sides, the taste sensations are salty and sour. Bitterness is experienced at the back of the tongue, where some people are especially sensitive. The taste receptors at the center of the tongue are the least sensitive, but since some zones are more sensitive than others, it is important that all parts of the tongue are exposed to the wine.

It is easy to evaluate a wine if one concentrates on what you taste where. If a wine is dry on the tip of the tongue, but fruity in the middle, it is dry, but has a lot of flavor. Some tasters confuse fruit with sugar. The fruit could be effusive in the middle of the palate, if there is no sweetness at the tip, it has no sugar. Acid is not so much tasted as it is felt. The prickly, curling sensation on the sides of your tongue is the result of acid. The gritty texture on the front of your teeth is tannin. If the wine is excessively tannic, you will also experience a bitterness in the back of your mouth. Try tasting wines knowing just this little bit of information and you'll be surprised at how accurate you can be.

One's taste, like smell, is subject to fatigue. For this reason, professional tasters seldom taste more than 12 wines at one time. Since the senses are keener in the morning, serious tasting is usually done then, although wine judges often taste for a period in the morning, then again in the afternoon, allowing a complete rest of the senses in-between.

The sense of "touch" is a very important component of wine tasting. This is the "feel" of a wine in the mouth. The astringency of a wine, as opposed to actual bitterness, is a matter of feel. You don't taste tannin as much as you feel its effects; puckeriness and a chalky sensation at the front of the mouth. The most important aspect of touch is the "body," or viscosity of a wine. Alcohol is the major contributor, but so are complex acids and phenols such as glycerin. Professionals will say a wine has "weight on the palate" if a wine has good body. A wine without body will feel "light" on the palate. Sugar is also a contributor; therefore, a sweet wine can feel "heavy."
The many acids present in wine make a vital contribution to its taste. It is the acid, which carries the wine's flavors from the front of the mouth to the back. Esters, formed by the combination of acids and alcohol, are equally important to a wine's "aroma." Aroma is a term used in the description of a wine's vinous, or "grapey" scent. It is to be differentiated from the term bouquet, which refers to the smell of an older wine and includes not just the grape aromas but also the techniques used in making the wine, as well as the vineyard from which the grapes were harvested.

Sauvignon Blanc generally has a "smoky" aroma, Cabernet Sauvignon generally has a "green pepper" or black cherry aroma. The overall smell of a wine, the combination of bouquet and aroma is referred to as the "nose." In organized wine tastings, a wine with a good nose, but some defects in taste, generally will rank better than a wine with no taste defects but a weak nose. This clearly indicates that tasters tend to place more emphasis on nose than taste, demonstrating that we smell far more than we taste.

Temperature is an important factor in tasting. A red wine served cold will taste far more astringent than usual. If served warmer, astringency will seem less apparent. White wines that are very cold will lose much of their taste and most of their nose; this is why professionals taste them at cellar temperature (55˚F). White wines are most refreshing with food when served slightly chilled, about 50˚F. Red wines should be served at room temperature, about 65˚F.

Memory is an important part wine tasting. It establishes one's "platform" of experience and allows one to make comments based on that experience instead of thin air. Thin air, however has not stopped many verbose wine connoisseurs from pontificating ad nauseam. Memory also serves to inform tasters what they are tasting. Once you've tasted a particular wine, or property in the wine, and committed it to memory, you will have an easier time identifying it the next time you taste it. This talent doesn't happen overnight. It takes lots of years and lots of practice. Just remember that no matter how good you think you are there is always someone else who is better. And, more importantly, you can always be fooled.

Don't worry if you can't identify a specific wine or even its varietal in a blind tasting. Even experts are often mistaken, and everyone has good and bad days. Furthermore, highly experienced tasters, when blindfolded, often cannot distinguish a white wine from a red. Therefore, no matter how well trained the palate, wine tasting is not a precise science.

In wine tasting, color and sight often are interrelated and announce a good deal about a wine before one begins the tasting regimen described. In red or white wines, the glass should be held to the light and the wine should be clear and free from suspended matter. Its brilliancy often can be evaluated to a further extent by placing the glass on a white background and looking down into the wine. Color is best judged by tilting the glass to one side and paying particular attention to the wine's rim. If the rim of a red wine shows a purple shade, the wine is young or has a high pH. If slightly brown, the wine is older and more mature. Red wines can range from light red to deep garnet and even inky black. White wines should have some color, ranging from a hint of light yellow, almost that of straw and sometimes with a green cast, to medium yellow and light to medium gold. As a white wine ages, the color darkens and, eventually, will move toward brown.

Finally, as the tasting is concluded for each wine, particularly if many wines are to be tasted, it is wise to spit the wine as professionals do. This might seem wasteful, but it is the only way to remain clearheaded for other wines to be tasted. In casual circumstances, the wine may be swallowed. In that case, the duration of the "aftertaste," sometimes called "finish," is yet another aspect of taste. Generally speaking, the longer the finish, the better.


In most organized tastings, wines are evaluated by an agreed upon scoring system. Usually, the higher the score, the better the wine. After the scores are tallied, the wines are ranked by order of preference. Many scoring systems for wine evaluations have been devised. Some (most notably the Davis 20 point  scale) give a numerical range for each element in a wine. The wine is then rated on the basis of its final point score. Such systems are useful in directing new tasters toward paying attention to the various elements of wine, such as color and nose. However, it is important to note that if wines are ranked against each other, they should be of equal stature and varietal make-up. Judging a Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay against each other would be an exercise in futility since these wines have their own unique properties which, for better or worse, couldn't be part of another wine simply because each one is so different.  A typical Davis scorecard has been reproduced for your reference.

Appearance 2
Color 2
Aroma and Bouquet 4
Volatile acidity 2
Total acidity 2
Sweetness 1
Body 1
Flavor 2
Bitterness 2
General quality 2
Ratings: Superior (17-20); Standard (13-16); Below standard (9-12); Unacceptable, or spoiled (1-8).

This system has fallen out of favor because as you pick a wine apart, you find that you give it a higher score than you think it deserves. It may be generally okay against the above criteria, but it may also be boring! Another problem with the Davis System, as you can see, is that no wine rated below an 8 is acceptable. For all intent and purpose, the Davis System is a 12-point scale.

The recent emergence of the 100-point scale takes the Davis System to new heights of absurdity. The difference between a wine ranked 88 and one ranked 89 is impossible to explain even by the person doing the ranking. And again, a wine rated under 60 is undrinkable, making it a 40-point scale.

Edmond Masciana Wine Rating System
The Edmond Masciana Wine Rating System is based on two major premises:

  1. All wines should be rated in their class, taking into consideration the variety and vintage. Chenin Blancs can only be evaluated against the best Chenin Blanc you've ever tasted, not a Chardonnay. Zinfandel can only be evaluated against the best Zinfandel, not a Cabernet. A young wine, which tastes old is flawed. An old wine, which tastes old is not flawed.
  2. Since 80% of the wines available in the United States are commercially sound, the rating system should take that into consideration. This means that 80% of the rating system should be available for sound wines. A 100 point system that classes all wines rated under 60 as undrinkable, does not have room for the reality of the situation.

Our rating system is divided into groups around a 10-point scale.

  • An off bottle 0 Points
    0 Points = Wine is flawed beyond drinkability through action by outside sources. Bad cork or bad storage are often the culprits.

  • A flawed wine-1 to 2 Points
    1 Point = Excessive manipulation or bacteria. Sulfur, volatility, hydrogen sulfide or another bacterial problem.

  • 2 Points = Same as above except not as excessive.

  • An acceptable wine 3 to 5 Points
    3 Points = An unflawed, but completely nondistinctive wine. Shows neither varietal character nor is it indicative.

  • 4 Points = A good wine, some varietal integrity. Nothing exciting.

  • 5 Points = A solid wine. Correct from the aspect of varietal and vintage. Shows some complexity and length.

  • A very good wine 6 to 8 points
    6 Points = Has all the properties of a 5 point wine with additional complexity, several layers of flavor and a longer finish.

  • 7 Points = More complexity, better structure and an integration of all the components like wood, fruit, ML and lees contact.

  • 8 Points = Complex essences beyond the variety, but still retaining the varietal integrity. Lacking only the depth of flavors and a finish to make it exceptional.

  • An exceptional wine 9 to 10 points
    9 Points = Nearly perfect in all aspects, except finish. A classic integration of aromas and flavors, married together to form a harmonious whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • 10 Points = A perfect wine. A wine that refuses to be swallowed. All the perfectly balanced flavors and essences linger for minutes instead of seconds.


There are two major types of wine tastings: horizontal and vertical. A horizontal tasting compares one varietal, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, from a single year, but made by several different producers. An example would be the comparison of Cabernets from the 2001 vintage made by 12 producers. In this way, the differences between areas as well as the skill of the winemakers become clearly evident. The vertical tasting is one in which different vintages of one varietal (say Cabernet Sauvignon), all made by the same winery, are evaluated. This type of tasting shows the variances in vintages and/or increasing sophistication of the winery. A horizontal tasting would be 2004 Cabernet from wineries A, B and C. A vertical tasting would be  2002, 2003 and 2004 Cabernet from winery A. In either form of tasting, wines should be arranged in a dry to sweet, old to young tasting order or, more classically, no order and served blind.

There are many variations on these two basic themes. Wines, for example can be tasted by regions. Red wines might be arranged for tasting in a light to heavy manner, such as Gamay to Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon.


Matching food and wine is an art, a science and all or none of the above, but it should always be fun. It should never, therefore, be made too complicated. It should be treated as one of those games that it is almost impossible to lose. If all else fails, an eccentric match of wine and food can always be passed off as one’s own personal taste.

A large part of the secret is to look at the meal as a whole, rather than tackling each dish as a separate entity. Just as each course should complement the one before and the one after, so that one doesn’t end up with fish in everything, the wines should complement each other as well as the food. Food and wine should suit one’s stomach and mood, as well: a menu that works well at dinner may not work at lunch, and the sort of wine that appeals when it is raining outside may not be as pleasurable in a heat wave, even if the food is the same.

Guidelines, not rules:

  • Light wines before heavy wines
  • Young wines before old wines (This usually works for dinners, but in a tasting I prefer the older wines first. I feel that the young overpower the old, just like in real life.
  • Simple wines before complex wines
  • Dry wines before sweet wines
  • White wines before red wines
  • Let the sauce decide the wine
  • Local wines with local foods

Food and wine have an effect on each other, and that effect should be beneficial. When well matched, food will soften the tannin and lower the acidity of wine; wine will enhance the flavor of food and help both the digestion and the appetite. But, as in all marriages, one partner will dominate. The dominant partner may stimulate the other, but it will still dominate. In wine growing regions this is so well accepted that the traditional food is often simple and intended to show off the wine.

This is one of the easiest ways of producing a good wine and food marriage. A rich beef braciole dish with a Barbaresco  from the same region; Spanish olives and almonds with a Fino Sherry; osso buco with Chianti. All these combinations are tried and tested, and based on irrefutable logic: local flavors lend themselves to local wines, and even the seemingly unlikely marriage of wild boar with white wine is entirely natural if looked at in a regional context. A splendid German Riesling Auslese with local wild boar is a complex and fascinating classic combination.

Thinking of Riesling with wild boar can help to elucidate the white wine with fish, red wine with red meat rule. The color of the dish overall is perhaps a better guide to the color of the wine: white wine, then, with pale food, red with dark. Light reds are generally a happier match than white with dark fish like shark; most reds would be a mistake with sweetbreads in a cream sauce. The reason lies in the texture of the food: fish is generally less dense than meat so it needs a less “dense” wine. As it approaches meat in its denseness, so the wine changes, too. However, this should not be overstated. Letting the sauce decide the wine is just as important. What this means is simply allowing the flavors of the dish as a whole, not just its staple constituent, to decide one’s choice. The somewhat neutral flavor of chicken is an obvious example: with delicate, creamy flavors, it will demand a white wine; with assertive, spicy tastes, like tomato and garlic, a red would probably work best.

The other guidelines are based on entirely practical considerations of what one’s palate can cope with. Drinking light wines before heavier ones, and young wines before older ones is all part of allowing a meal to build to a climax; lighter or younger wines do not show to advantage after older or heavier ones with few exceptions. Similar reasoning applies to drinking simple wines before complex ones. To do the opposite would make the simple wines look, well "simple" in comparison. A dry wine will taste unpleasantly tart and acidic after a sweet wine.

However, there are times when the food demands that these guidelines be broken. Cheese and foie gras are two such occasions. Many cheeses go best with young wines that have plenty of acidity, yet cheese is usually served towards the end of a meal, necessitating a move back from old wine to young. Foie gras is superb with a sweet, generally botrytized white wine, yet is offered at the beginning of a meal. Very old wines, too, can pose a problem, as they may well have lost body as they have gained in age; setting them against rich food may overpower them.

So the guidelines are not infallible, nor are they intended to cause anyone to lose sleep. Matching good wine with good food should be enjoyable.  And the best part is that when you match food and wine and it doesn't work, you never forget it!