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Wine 101: Describe that Wine!

As a wine educator, one of my goals is to help my students have more confidence in selecting wines they like. Tasting wine is a sensory experience and learning common descriptors is key to articulating wine preferences, understanding tasting notes from a wine list, or making sense of “shelf talkers” in a wine shop.

See that Wine

It may seem silly that “tasting” wine requires “seeing,” but being able to describe in some detail how a wine appears can help you select the wine you want. Take a moment to observe the intensity of color, the presence of legs or tears, and, in the case of sparkling wines, bubbles.

If your wine is white, is it straw-colored, yellow, or gold? Is your red wine garnet, ruby, or purple in hue? The color of your wine can give you some varietal clues, but mostly color speaks to the age and condition of the wine. A rule of thumb is that as time progresses, a white wine will deepen in color while a red will become lighter. When you swirl your glass, does your wine leave legs? If so, this can indicate a higher sugar or alcohol content.

Finally, observing the size, formation, and persistence of bubbles in your wine can help describe the type of sparkler you favor. And while there are exceptions, generally speaking, the finer the bubbles, the higher quality the bubbly.

Smell that Wine

Smelling wine is the most important factor when “tasting” and describing wine. The flavors we experience are primarily from odors that reach our nose when drink. Smell accounts for over 85% of our sense of taste and we can detect over 100,000 distinct scents. That gives us plenty of options for describing the nose of our favorite wines! Fruit qualities, earthy characteristics, aromas resulting from oak aging, and vinous attributes are the key descriptors.

In your white wine, try to detect tree fruit (apples, pears), citrus fruit (lemon, grapefruit), stone fruit (peach, apricot), or non-fruit notes (floral, vegetal). If your wine is red, look for red fruits (cherries, strawberries), black fruits (blueberries, black cherries), dried fruit, or other non-fruit aromas (floral, herbal). Dirt or mineral characteristics can be present in both red (damp earth, mushrooms) and white (mineral, chalk) wines, and tend to be more predominant in Old World/European wines.

The presence of aromas such as smoke, vanilla, or toast can indicate oak aging and provide additional clues of a wine’s identity. Some wines such as Alsatian Riesling are hardly oaked, while others such as Spanish Rioja spend considerable time in barrels.

Finally, does your wine smell of bright, young fruit? If so, chances are you are enjoying a young wine. If the nose displays more earthy or spicy flavors such as leather or tobacco, then your wine might be aged or “vinous.”

Taste that Wine…Finally

Now that we’ve spent time gazing at and sniffing our wine, it’s time to taste the juice. But let’s do this purposely so we can complete the tasting profile. While many of the flavors you taste in the wine echo both the fruit and non-fruit aromas you smell, additional traits such as the sweetness level, the body, and the finish will enhance your understanding of your preferences.

Does your wine taste dry, meaning it contains little residual sugar from the fermentation process? Or is it sweet? It’s also important to avoid confusing fruitiness with sweetness. The former refers to the intensity of the fruit flavors inherent in the wine and can range from “New World-style” fruit-forward (ripe peach, strawberry) to “Old World-style” savory (mineral, dried herbs).

The body or mouthfeel of a wine is dependent on many factors including alcohol level, acidity, and tannins, which are compounds found in a higher degree in red wines that can leave a drying sensation in your mouth. Light-bodied wines tend to be lower in alcohol, less tannic, and have higher acidity. Fuller-bodied wines are generally higher in alcohol, more tannic, and have more tears.

Finally, does your wine leave an aftertaste on your palate? Is the lasting impression or “finish” short, medium, or long? Generally speaking, the longer the finish, the better quality the wine.

Now that you’ve learned the most common terms for describing your favorite wines, you should feel more confident in ordering what you like. Are you ready to practice your skills and discover more wines? Join me for wine workshops at the first-ever Columbia Food and Wine Fest on April 15th from 12:00-3:00 at Five Points! Tickets are available at



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