Unpolished Grape 101: The Basics of Seeing, Smelling & Tasting Wine

When we drink a glass of wine, what are we looking for? What should we be smelling? What should we be tasting? Do all wines look, taste and smell alike? No! They are ALL different!

We can experience the beauty of a wine through its appearance, our nose, and our palate.

Appearance: What A Wine Looks Like

How our wine looks in a glass can tell us a lot about what we will drink. Is the color pale, deep, or in between? Paler wines may be lighter and crisper (think about a very light lemon color of a Sauvignon Blanc), and deeper-colored wines could be richer in flavor (think of a spicy, black Malbec from Cahors, France).

This isn’t always the case because there are always exceptions to that rule. For example, a pale red wine like Nebbiollo could actually be deceptively complex, and a deeply colored red wine could taste flat and simple. In this way, appearance only gives a clue to what a wine may taste like but does not indicate quality.

The color also indicates the age of a wine. White wines transition from a pale lemon color, to gold, and on to a deeper tawny (brown) as they age. Red wines move from purple, to ruby, to brown as they age. Looking at the color gives a clue to how old a wine may be, and how age could affect the taste.

Nose: What We Smell

Our noses are complex and smart! There are so many notes we can pick up on just by putting our nose into our wine glass. Swirling wine before we take a whiff will help to unlock even more aromas and flavor notes.

In wine, we should be able to smell the dominating “primary fruit” category. For white wines, do we smell green fruits? Citric fruits? Tropical fruits? A Sauvignon Blanc from northern France will showcase more green fruits, whereas, a ripe Chardonnay from California may smell like tropical mangoes and pineapples. In red wines, we will look for red fruits, black fruits, or possibly stewed fruits. We can also smell other primary scents like flowers, herbs, or minerals.

Secondary notes are created from the winemaker’s processes. Oaked Chardonnays may smell creamier and like butter. A barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon may smell of cedar, spice, or vanilla. Wines aged for an extended time (i.e. 10+ years) may smell of petrol, honey, leather, tobacco, baked desserts, meat or earth (tertiary notes). Training your noes to pick up on these distinctive smells will make your wine-tasting experience more interesting.

Palate: What We Taste

When we finally drink the wine, it will taste very close to what we smelled, given that our olfactory senses work in conjunction.

But we can also taste a wine’s acid, sugar, tannin, and alcohol levels. Grapes grown in cooler climates tend to be more acidic, and grapes from warmer climates tend to be more fruit-forward. Is the wine sweet, off-dry, or dry? Some black grapes have more tannin in their skins, which will make for an increased cottony feel in our mouth. Grapes grown in hot climates could have higher alcohol levels,.

Sugar, alcohol, and tannin levels all impact the weight and body of a wine. The finish (or aftertaste) we experience helps us to determine the quality of a wine. Do the delicious flavors linger in your mouth for a long time or quickly disappear?

When we see, smell, and taste wine, these are the things we can think about to understand what we are drinking, and appreciate the true uniqueness of each glass. As we hone in our senses, we can also begin to identify a wine’s quality level.


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