Tag Archives: how to taste wine

Today’s Wine Word: Horizontal Tasting

What’s a horizontal wine tasting?

Don’t worry – you don’t have to lie down. Unless you want to 😉

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Where do the Plums Come From?


Or cherries? Or spice?

Why the heck should the wine smell like plums when it’s made from grapes? 

Do you ever use the Wine Aroma Wheel when you’re tasting? What’s the most bizarre aroma or flavor you’ve ever noticed? 

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Is it Necessary to Swirl the Wine?


Question from Jess: In your last post you referred to swirling the wine. Is that really necessary? What difference does it make? I feel really silly and pretentious doing it.

Reply: Hi, Jess. Thanks for writing! I don’t know that it’s necessary, but it can certainly add to your pleasure.

You be the judge. Try this experiment: Pour yourself a glass of any sort of wine, preferably not too cold (cold wine doesn’t have much of a fragrance, as we discussed in that last post). Don’t fill it too full. A half-glass is fine. If the wine has been in the fridge, just take it out and wait 30-45 minutes to do the experiment.

Smell the wine. BTW, when you smell the wine, you should actually put your nose in the glass – no long-distance sniffing! Smells good? Now, set the glass down on the table and grip the stem, close to the base. Swirl briskly to get the liquid really moving in the glass. After swirling vigorously for several seconds, smell the wine again. Notice the difference? Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Wine Aroma Wheel


Doesn’t it just drive you crazy when you smell something in the wine, and you know that you know what it is, but you can’t come up with the word? Wine Aroma Wheel to the rescue!

This is one of my all-time favorite tools. I actually had this wheel blown up into poster size to teach wine-tasting classes. 

The purpose of the wheel is to give us common language to describe wine. Rather than saying something esoteric like “This wine reminds me of a warm afternoon on the Champs Elysées.” – what the heck does that mean? – the terms are things we can all relate to. Like strawberries or licorice for instance. 

There’s a guide on the aroma wheel website that give you detailed instructions of how to use it. But, the big picture, as I see it, is that the wheel asks you questions that lead you to be specific in your in your description. In the center of the wheel you see the most general description, like “fruity” or “floral”. Say you think the wine smells fruity. As you work your way out, the wheel says “Okay – if the wine is fruity is it like citrus fruit? Or berries? Or dried fruit? What do you think?” If you select berries it goes on to ask if the wine is more like strawberries or blackberries. If you think it’s citrusy is it more like lemon or orange?  Continue reading


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Vanilla in Wine

Question from Karen: It seems like a lot of wine descriptions say “vanilla.” Why would something made of grapes taste like vanilla? 

Reply: Hi, Karenl. Thanks for writing! We usually assume that vanilla character is extracted from the barrel (the barrel would have to be relatively new). Vanillin occurs naturally in raw oak and it becomes more noticeable with toasting, up to a point (the wood staves are bent into place over an oak fire. Then they toast the barrel, a little longer, over the fire in most cases). 

There are lots of different characteristics in wine that are barrel derived and vanilla is in the top five, which is why you see it so often. Other common flavors/aromas: Coconut, caramelized character, smoke, coffee, spice (especially clove), nuttiness, dill (especially American oak), tobacco… 

We can never be 100% sure that any of these characteristics are barrel derived. For instance, spiciness may be barrel derived but some grape varieties are inherently spicy: Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer and Syrah come to mind. Hay and tobacco aromas may come from the barrel, but Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc display those characteristics whether they’re barrel aged or not.

I think that’s part of the fun. For everything we think we know there is an equal number of mysteries – especially when it comes to fermentation aromas. 

Hope that helps. Cheers!

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How To Taste: Smelling the Wine

Maybe you’ve laughed when you’ve seen someone in a tasting a room walking around with his nose stuck in the glass. OK – fair enough – it looks pretty silly. But, sometimes a wine is so good that smelling it is almost enough. I said almost

Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. Since smell is taste, nosing the wine (checking out the way it smells) can be ever so pleasurable and it also gives you an idea of what to expect from the flavors. 

So, we’ve already gone over why you want to swirl the wine. And we’ve talked about the benefit of using a wine aroma wheel or something like it. 


OK, give the wine a good, vigorous swirl for several seconds and pop your nose in the glass (no long-distance sniffing). First and foremost, does it smell good? Every other consideration pales in importance to this! What do you smell? Is it a fresh smell or a rich smell? Have you smelled a wine with a stronger fragrance before? Or less fragrant? You’re beginning to gage aromatic intensity.  Continue reading

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The Wine Just Smells Like Wine To Me…

Question from Jim: How do you learn to pick out the different aromas in wine? My friends describe things like strawberry or vanilla, but it just smell like wine to me. 

Reply: You know, Jim, you have a lot of company! I’ve done countless tasting seminars in my career and when I start asking for descriptors folks tend to clam up. They’re afraid their perceptions are “wrong” (which is impossible – your perception is your perception). Or, the brave members of the group will look me straight in the eye and say “It smells like wine.” 

Bravo for them! That takes some courage. It seems we all think we’re supposed to shoot out of the womb as wine experts.

People like me get so caught up in fruity, floral and barrel-derived characteristics that we forget how overwhelming fermentation aromas are. And, fermentation is what makes wine smell like wine. How to get past them? Practice. 

Becoming a perceptive taster is just like developing a good golf swing. It comes with practice and gives you pleasure. Without the second half of that sentence, the first is pointless. Since wine’s only purpose is to give us pleasure, if it’s not fun for you, don’t bother.  Continue reading

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