Wine 101 – Looks and Smell

Anyone can drink wine. Millions of folks do it every day, But how many actually “taste” their wine? How many people actually know how to “taste”?

Here’s a small test for you.

In the picture here, you can see two glasses full of wine. Pick one, and take a mental drink.


If you took a drink from the glass on the left, you just took a drink of white wine vinegar.

Yes, it was a little harsh, but there’s a point to all this: Have you ever wondered why wine afficianados swirl and sniff their wines?

Well, now you know. It’s to alert them when the wine in their hand may be a bit “off” (or in my example, a glass of vinegar). Before you can taste wine, you should learn as much as you can about it. Why? So you can set your expectationsn of the wine accordingly. How? By using your eyes and nose. In fact, when you see people review wines, you’ll see them talk about how the wine looks, its nose, as well as the way it tastes. Do you need to do these things in order to find a good wine? Not really. But it certainly helps.

Taste the Wine with Your Eyes

“Taste the Wine with Your Eyes” is almost a cliche in the wine community, but there’s plenty of truth to it. Let me explain briefly how it works.

Remember that baseline wine that I talked about previously? If you have a bottle hanging about, pour yourself a glass now.

As mentioend previously, my wine of choice is Rielsing, in this case a 2003 Joh. Jos. Prüm spätlese (more on that when I research Rieslings). I pour myself 1/3 of a glass and look at it in the light. I then look at it against a white background. I note what color I see…in this case a pale yellow with just the slightest tint of green. I then look at where the wine ends and the glass begins (called the “rim”) and note any coloration there. For this riesling, it’s almost as clear as water. I also note if the wine is cloudy or clear (clear).

So what does all this tell me? It depends on how you compare it other wines. Whites with little color tend to be light and fresh tasting. The more color in a white, generally the more assertive the flavor. With reds, the darker, the more complex the flavors. The lighter the red may taste lighter, but as the colors of reds lighten as they get older. This means that a light red wine may have subtlety and complexity. So a “light look = light taste” isn’t a hard and fast rule, but rather a guideline.

For the rim, what are you looking for? Well for whites, you’re looking for any brown colors, which may indicate that the wine has reached maturity or even has gone beyond it. Any other color…gold, yellow, or whatnot…you probably have a decent wine on hand.

Red wines? Again, if the rim is brown,it’s probably mature and ready to drink. Blue or violet? It’s a young wine. Rust or orange? You have a very aged red wine. Whether or not these colors are good or bad things depends on the varietal that you’re drinking. Knowing the wine can can also tell you how sweet or how much sugar the wine is supposed to have.

Wait a second. How can one tell how much sugar is in a wine? You swirl it in your glass.

Swirling is done for several reasons, some of which I’ll get to in a moment. But for looking purposes, I want to pay attention to

  • - How much of the wine sticks to the side of the glass…does it coat the glass or does it immediately pour itself back into the wine, or is it something in between?
  • - How does the wine that remains on the side of the glass our itself back into the wine? Does it tear up in beads and run down, or does the slowly come down in a curtain?

The answers to these questions tell me a great deal:

If a lot of the wine sticks to the glass when you swirl it means that the wine is thick and viscous, meaning it probably has a fair amount of alcohol and/or sugars. If it immediately drains back into the glass,then it probably is a light alcohol or dry wine.

If there is a fair amount of tearing (rivulets, or “legs”) this may indicate a higher glycerin presence, which indicates an ability to retain flavor and aroma.

In the case of the riesling, when I swirld the wine, it left a near glaze on the side of the glass, and came down back to the wine in large, thick legs. What does this tell me? A fair amount of alcohol, and a boatload of sugar. If any of you out there are riesling fans, this is a good sign.

Taste the wine with your nose

Here’s where the swirling also helps. The swirling releases aromas not readily apparent. Once swirled, take a small wiff of the aroma. Note what you smell.

Good smells:

  • Dessert – wine smells of chocolate or vanilla.
  • Fresh nose – wine is pleasant with youthful charm
  • Flowery nose – wine is fragrant with intense aroma of flowers.
  • Fruity nose -smells of ripe grapes, but not “grapey”. Currants and raisins also often mentioned.
  • Fragrant nose – naturally scented. No chemical scent.
  • Spicy nose – scent of spicy aroma: cloves, vanilla are typically cited.
  • Clean nose – absence of unpleasant odors.
  • Woody nose – wine has the scent of wood, such as oak or cedar.
  • Yeasty nose – suggestive of yeast or bread dough.

Bad Smells:

  • Metallic nose – unpleasant, usually due to metal contamination during wine-making or aging process.
  • Moldy nose – caused by rotten grapes, or stale, unclean casks.
  • Corky nose – Distinct smell of cork.
  • Sulfuric nose – similar to smell of rotten eggs.
  • Oxidized nose – stale smell due to exposure to air.
  • Vinegary nose – similar to vinegar.

As you smell, it helps to try to place the aromas with ones in your past. We’ve all have smelled flowers… does the wine smell of flowers? What spices are you familiar with? Are they present in the wine? Wine tasting is as much about asking questions as it is about the actual tasting.

Now that you’ve learned how to eyeball and smell the wine, tomorrow we’ll discuss on what to look for when you taste.