Vail Wine Ink column: The art of tasting wine: see, sniff, sip, savor |

Vail Wine Ink column: The art of tasting wine: see, sniff, sip, savor

The nose knows: Scientists say the human nose can differentiate more than 100,000 different aromas.
Photo by Getty Images | iStockphoto


Those who aspire to be certified sommeliers through the Court of Master Sommeliers must past blind tasting tests to qualify. Here are seven categories that are examined when gazing into a glass of wine.

• Clarity: clear, slightly cloudy, cloudy

• Brightness: dull, hazy, bright, day bright, star bright

• Concentration: pale, medium, deep, translucent, opaque

• Color: straw, yellow, gold (white); purple, ruby, garnet (red)

• Hue: silver, green, orange, blue, ruby, garnet, brown

• Rim variation: color change from center to edge

• Viscosity: tears, low, medium, high


Beringer 2014 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast — As I looked in the glass, I could see a bright red wine that was fairly clear. The nose instantly conveyed red cherries and strawberries that were indicative of the flavors to come. While the tears, or legs of the wine, were slow to diminish, indicating a bit of alcohol, when I tasted the wine, it felt clean, smooth and refined on the palate — fruit forward, but balanced, with a nice acidity. Going back to the bottle, I was surprised to find a 14.9 percent alcohol level, higher than my expectation. All in all, a great see, sniff and sip experience.

Taste. It is the ultimate reason to drink a wine. At the end of the day, if you don’t like what’s in your glass, then why bother?

But one of the most intimidating things about wine is that many people think, frequently because of price or a review, that they are supposed to like the taste of a certain wine. You wouldn’t drink a Barq’s if you liked Mr. Pibb, or a chai if you preferred Earl Grey tea, would you? Of course not.

Yet with wine, there is still a feeling of elitism that comes into play, that there are “experts” who know more than you do and therefore know better than you what you should drink.


Of course, there are gifted tasters who have the talent and the faculties to isolate various aromas and flavors in a glass of wine and identify its origins, and sometimes even its vintage. Then, there are trained tasters who use a series of deductive reasoning methods to try to identify particular aspects of a wine to pinpoint exactly what that wine might be.

But the thing is, none of them have your personal palate. They don’t have your unique physiological attributes, or your sensibilities, that determine what tastes good to you. That doesn’t mean their opinions are not valid. It simply means you are best served as a wine drinker by taking control of your own palate and drinking wines that you like best.

There are a few things that you can do to help navigate your own tastes and insure that you can identify the wines that make you happiest.

Know that we experience wines in three separate and distinct ways. First, we see them. Next, we smell them, and finally, we taste them. If, on your first few sips, you use what you already know, you can deduce a lot about what you are drinking. Pay attention, and your senses will allow you to make your own wine choices.


Begin by looking into your glass. The first thing to determine is whether the wine is a red or a white. Sounds simple, but it gives you a place to start. Score the first point to you. But examine it a little closer. If it’s a white, then is it clear and without color? Maybe it’s the color of straw? Perhaps it may even have an orangeish tinge to it or maybe it is even a bit green. This can give you hints about the grape involved.

If it is a red wine, then look at the clarity and brightness of the wine. Can you see through the glass, or is it too deep to see through? Generally, the darker the wine, the bigger the grape. A pinot noir, for example, may be light and translucent in the glass, where a syrah may be dark as night.

Is the wine cloudy? That may mean that it has not been filtered. Swirl the wine in the glass. Does the residue cling to the sides with what some call “tears”? This might mean that the wine has a little bit more alcohol or residual. All of these things are clues about what the wine is — and also what it isn’t.


Next, use what some say is the most important tool in tasting, your nose. Take a quick sniff of the wine and see if anything smells familiar. Do you get fruits on the nose? In a white wine, there may be citrus or apples that come immediately to mind. Red wines may give off the aromas of cherries or maybe darker fruits such as figs and plums.

Do you smell any other elements? Perhaps some stone or even a touch of dirt? And be aware if you get a quick hit of wood. Scientists say that we can smell more than 100,000 different aromas. If you can identify, say, 30 or so that appeal to you, then seek them out in your wines.


Finally, the moment of truth. You’ve seen it and sniffed it, now give it a sip. You can swirl a wine in your mouth and assess things such as sweetness or dryness. Does it feel thick on the palate, or is it thin? Do the tannins dry your mouth, or do you feel the crisp acidity of the wine?

All of these things can give clues to what you are drinking, but more importantly, they can help you identify the things that turn you on. It may takes some time, but spend a minute with your wines and see, sniff and sip. It will help you take control of the most important wines in the world — the ones you like.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at

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