Wine Masterclass: A Beginner's Guide To Wine Tasting

by Piotr Pietras MS

‘Don’t be influenced by others opinions or expectations – not even mine because wine is very subjective, just like food. Trust your own taste buds and drink wines you enjoy drinking.’

Tasting wine is a personal experience. There’s no right or wrong way to do it so the best advice is to taste what you enjoy. That said, if
you are planning on becoming a ‘serious’ wine taster and are looking to sample a wide variety of wines in great detail, I recommend starting with one category and building up. For example, I started by learning about off-dry wines such as Mosel Riesling; whereas my wife began by focusing on Prosecco and Gewurztraminer, and is now only looking at Champagne and white Burgundy.

‘Your tastes will gradually change the more you taste wines so don’t be perturbed if you don’t enjoy every variety immediately. Wine preferences are very personal and subjective. It’s a shame to say but I hated red wines when I first started my wine journey. At the time, I couldn’t really taste them because they weren’t to my taste but, interestingly, at this point, I enjoy red wines more than white wines. It’s a journey.’

A wine’s aroma is equally as important as its taste, if not more so. Your palate is important because you can identify the sweetness, dryness, acidity, bitterness, complexity and so on, however 80% of the wine tasting actually happens through your nose. With that in mind, I might even value smell over taste because what you put to your palate comes back to your nose. As you lift the wine glass up to sip, before you can even taste the wine, the aroma immediately hits your nose. That can be pleasant or unpleasant and, regardless of whether you enjoy the taste of the wine, the aroma is what influences your taste buds first. Will it make your mouth water or put you off?

‘Smell the aroma. Is the wine free of faults? If it is, smell it for a bit longer. Try to identify the individual notes, the grape… are there spicy notes? Which spices? Sweet notes? Fruity notes? Which fruits?’

Take a small sip. What can you tell about the quality of the wine? How does it taste? Crispy, refreshing, rich? Which flavours can you identify? Fruits, spices? Is it sweet, savoury, rich, dry?

A wine’s colour is influenced by both its age and the grape variety.

GRAPE VARIETY. Different grape varieties express different colours. For example, Gewurztraminer from Alsace, France has a copper colour, whilst Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, France, has a pale straw colour.

AGE. A common misconception is that the colour of red wine becomes deeper and richer with age due to enhanced concentration. However, in actual fact, white wines get darker with age, whereas red wines become paler and more garnet in colour.

LOOK AT THE APPEARANCE. What can you tell from the colour? Where might it have been produced? Does it have thick, slowly falling tears? (I.e. meaning high alcohol content, possibly produced in a warmer climate.) Vintage? (This isn’t the most important aspect but it can still be very interesting.)

The label can provide a lot of information about the wine. It will tell you:

Where it was produced (inc. the country of origin, the region and the protected appellation inside that region).

The alcohol content. Wine producers are required by law to identify the alcohol content on the label; however it is often misleading as the tolerance differs depending on independent country regulations. For example, European wine has a tolerance 0.5% so the actual alcohol content may be higher or lower than what the label indicates. Whereas, for American wines such as those produced in California, the tolerance is 1.5% for wines
14% and 1% for those 14%, so you could think that you’re drinking a wine with 14% alcohol but, in reality, the actual percentage may be as low as 12.5% or as high as 15%.

‘Personally, I’m not driven by percentages but I’m aware that some people like their wine concentrated and full bodied, meaning that the wines alcohol content is often 14%. Whereas other people, including myself, prefer more refreshing wines with a good balance so stick to 13% alcohol content. That said, sometimes you’ll find wines where the label indicates an alcohol content of 15% by volume but the alcohol is so nicely balanced - almost hidden - and beautifully made that it doesn’t matter. Consequently, it’s not one of the main aspects I’d pay attention to when tasting.’

Try to use different sized glasses for different courses and different wines. A common misconception is that you should use different glasses for different courses, which, whilst it is correct, is slightly misleading. In actuality, the glass selection should be influenced by the wine selection, which changes with each course, rather than the course itself. As a guideline:

Richer red wines. Use larger glasses that take more oxygen to allow the wine to breathe and open up before you taste it.

Sweet wines. Use smaller, narrower glasses as the wine doesn’t need oxygen or space to breathe.

Refreshing, crispy white wines. Use smaller, narrower glasses as the wine doesn’t need oxygen or space to breathe. The smaller glass enables you to pour less wine per serving, which is important because you don’t want the wine to become too warm too quickly.

Sparkling wines or Champagnes. 90% of sparkling wines are light and fresh so I’d recommend using a flute. Nowadays, an increasing number of customers are requesting wider wine glasses to drink their Champagne. Some Champagnes are rich and very complex so they want to let them breathe, open up and appreciate them simply. They like to enjoy them slowly and also to swirl the glass, taste them and smell the delicious aromas… The larger glass may lose some bubbles but as long as you enjoy the experience, that’s the main thing.

‘Definitely and I think that’s something that many people don’t realise. I suppose it relates back to what you were saying about the changing vintages… A wine produced in 2003 will be different to one produced by the same winemaker in 2009, for example… If wine is developing all the time then of course, naturally, your wine glass should develop too.’ 

I’m not a big supporter of overfilling the glass. You should never fill the glass more than halfway. It’s better fill the glass to 1/3 full and top it up when needed. If you overfill the glass and allow the wine to sit for prolonged periods, it will affect its flavour and aromatic profile. For example, if a white wine sits for too long, it will become warmer and the flavour will become ‘flabby’ and more alcoholic in taste. The environmental temperature is quite warm currently so, for best results, keep the wine chilled (9-12°C) whilst you’re drinking, pour smaller quantities and keep topping the glass up.


White wine. Serving white wine at a temperature of 9-12°C will ensure that it has a beautiful freshness and fantastic aroma. Any warmer (e.g. at room temperature) and the wine won’t express itself as it should.

Red wine. Red wine is best served at a slightly warmer temperature (16-18°C); however try to avoid it becoming too warm. Red wine often has a higher alcohol content than white so, if it becomes too warm (i.e. 20°C), the taste can become too powerful, too alcoholic. You want it to taste refreshing.

Always store your wines horizontally as the wine needs to be in contact with the cork to keep it moist. If kept standing in the cellar, the wine won’t have contact with the cork and, over time, the cork will dry out. Cork is very flexible so, if this happens, eventually it might start permitting oxygen to enter, leading to oxygenation and spoiling of the wine.

There are some guidelines for how long a wine should mature before it’s past its best; however it’s often very dependent on the individual wine. You need to consider the vintage, place of origin, grape variety and style. For example, Borolo from Piedmont can usually be kept for 10-20 years, sometimes even 20. It has natural tannins, high acidity and additional barrel ageing (i.e. provides even more tannins) which will only enhance its flavour. However, French Rosé from Provence will only keep for 1-3 years, after which you’ll need to buy a new bottle and vintage. The best thing to do is to visit one of the wine critics websites as they’ll give you an estimate based on the appellation potential, grape variety and vintage to drink it within 3-5 years, 10-20 years etc.

A common misconception is that you can tell the quality of wine simply by the cork but that’s not true. You should always judge the quality of the wine by the inside of the bottle because, in reality, the wine behaves very differently to the cork. For example, the cork might smell terrible but the wine inside might be fine; or vice-versa: the cork could be in pristine condition but the wine might be totally affected by the TCA fault. 

There are many faults that wine may be affected by. For example, if it smells musty or like wet cardboard, it’s may be affected by TCA (i.e. cork taint). A surprisingly large number of wines are close to this, whereas other wines may be oxidised. If they smell like old apples and taste nutty and bitter, you shouldn’t drink them but you needn’t waste them either. These wines are perfect to use in cooking, perhaps to prepare a delicious sauce. Be creative.

It’s always lovely to drink special wines but, if you want to taste wines everyday, it’s important to look for good value for money. Listen to professionals, sommeliers or salesmen. We’re always really happy to offer our advice.

‘I know that sommeliers tend to be stereotyped. Outside of the industry, many people still think that we’re quite uptight, judgemental, have big noses and are always looking to enhance the restaurant’s revenue but we’re not like that at all. We’re there to help people. We really want to make people happy so that they enjoy their experience and leave the restaurant satisfied.’

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