Correct wine etiquette makes the tasting experience much more enjoyable. Like most interests, there is a set of protocol that most wine lovers adhere to. Here are some resources to learn proper wine tasting and terminology.
The enjoyment of wine is a very personal thing. You don't have to be an expert, you just need to trust your own taste. Each time you taste a new wine your awareness of the character and subtle differences will be expanded. Tasting wine is like a sport, the more you practice the better you become. To enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of wine, follow the five simple steps below:
LOOK: The first step is to hold the glass by the stem and look through the wine against a white back-ground to enjoy the true color. The wine should be clear, not hazy or cloudy. White wines range in color from a very faint almost clear to a golden yellow. Red wines range in color from a dark, intense red to a very light pale red.
SWIRL: To get the full aroma of the wine, fill a large wine glass halfway and swirl the wine around in the glass. This releases the aromas to the the top of the glass.
SMELL: Inhale and try to identify what you smell. Do you smell fruit or spices? Does it remind you of mom's apple pie or a cobblestone street after a rainfall? You might find hints of familiar smells including - tobacco, citrus, apple, chocolate, plums, pineapple, flowers or raspberries. While contemplating the smell, look at the wine and notice whether it's thick or thin, whether the color is bright or mellow or whether it's clear or hazy.
TASTE: Roll the wine around in your mouth to reach all of the taste buds. Then, breathe air through your lips to bring up the aromas. If the wine makes you pucker, it may be a little tart (high in acids) or tannic (think dry like banana skins and tea leaves): if it feels hot and burns a little, it may have high alcohol content; if none of these elements overwhelms you, it is very likely well-balanced. Notice how it feels in your mouth, this is called the texture.
SPIT: It sounds funny and may make you a little uncomfortable, but if you are tasting several wines it is essential to spit. It provides you with the opportunity to taste several wines in one sitting. If you are just trying a few go ahead and swallow. A wine that lingers in your mouth and throat after you have spit is a sign of good length and body.
Acidic: or tart, sour. All wines contain some acids, predominantly tartaric. Raw, young wines are generally more acidic than older ones. improperly balanced wines may taste sour because of an abnormally high acid content.
Alcohol: the sine qua non of wine, its affects run from the obvious to the not so obvious. Alcohol doesn't just provide the kick: it gives texture ("body"), flavor (roundness and sweetness) and vinosity (makes it smell and taste like wine) as well as providing balance and a certain chemical and physical stability to wines. The primary alcohol is known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol, but there are dozens of other so-called "higher" alcohols which though in minute quantities provide hundreds of flavors.
Aroma: that portion of the smell of a wine derived specifically from the grape variety, such as Cabernet-Sauvignon or Chardonnay, as opposed to that portion of the smell derived from other sources (see Bouquet).
Balance: a balanced wine is one whose constituents--sugar, acids, tannins, alcohols, etc.--are evident but do not mask one another. A young red wine--tannic and acidic-- is not considered balanced because these two characteristics mask the other flavor elements of the wine, which, given time, may display themselves.
Bitter: one of the four basic taste sensations. Young, red Bordeaux or Cabernet-Sauvignons will taste bitter because of their relatively high tannin content. Tannin is a bitter element in wines.
Body: English wine authority Michael Broadbent puts it well in his Wine Tasting: "the weight of the wine in the mouth due to its alcoholic content and to its other physical components. These in turn are due to the quality of the wine, to the vintage, its geographical origin, and general style. Wines from hotter climates tend to have more body than those from the north (compare the Rhône with the Mosel, for example)."
Bouquet: as opposed to aroma, bouquet is more encompassing. It is the odor which derives from the fermentation process, from the aging in wood and bottle process, and other changes independent of the grape variety used.
Breed: according to Michael Broadbent, English wine authority, breed is "a distinctive and distinguished quality stemming from the combination of fine site soil, cépage (grape type), and the skill of the vignernon winemaker".
Brilliant: perfectly clear, without haziness. Brilliant wines often have higher than normal acidities.
Brix: a measure of grape solids in a juice sample, usually at picking time. The great majority of these solids are sugars which are fermentable into alcohol. By measuring the brix of grape juice at picking, it is possible to estimate the final alcoholic content of the wine. So when a wine writer asks a winemaker "what was the brix at picking" he is not just trying to be cute.
Character: a wine of good character is one which doesn't just slip down the throat and say "bye-bye"; it says "stop a while, friend. You have just come upon an above-average liquid. Think on it".
Chewy: a high-but-balanced acid wine with a greater than average tannin content is considered chewy. Some Bordeaux reds, especially St. Estèphes, California coastal mountain Cabernets or Shiraz wines are so described.
Cold fermentation: a method of fermenting grape juice into wine at lowered (c. 55 degrees F.) temperatures in order to conserve as much fruit/varietal character as possible.
Complex: a complex wine is many-faceted; it contains not only acids, alcohols, tannins, etc., but more. Each sip brings another flavor, reveals another nuance.
Crush: in wine lingo, the time of year when the grapes are picked and processed. Grapes for the so-called "finer" wines are not literally and dramatically crushed, but are broken open to allow their juice to run out.
Dry: a dry wine is without noticeable sweetness. Technically, a dry wine retains little or no sugar after fermentation.
Earthy: not actually referring to a dirty or soil-like smell or taste, but to a characteristic of the wine derived from its special soil and climate. The iodine-like quality that many relate to red Graves wines, or the rubbery character many associate with Mayacamas Mountain Cabernets is called earthy, or possessing goût de terroir (taste of the ecosystem, if you will).
Estate-bottled: a term that classically means the grapes for the wine in the bottle were grown by the fellow that bottled the wine (and raised, tended, and picked the grapes, as well).
Filter: to strain out wine solids by mechanical means, large or small.
Fine: to reduce the solids content of wine after fermentation. In traditional operations, egg whites, or milk solids is used, more often, a fine clay called "bentonite" or the like is used.
Finish: the sensual impression -- long or short, strong or weak --that lingers after you have swallowed a wine; a.k.a "aftertaste".
Flat: usually connoting a wine without acid tang; oxidized.
Flowery: a nebulous term referring to an indeterminate fragrance akin to flowers in general. Mosel wines are flowery, as are some Chenin Blancs, Seyval Blancs, and Aurores.
Fortified: wines having had grape spirit added to them are considered fortified: Sherries, Ports, Madeiras, etc.
Free run: wine that is allowed to flow by gravity from the fermenter. It is considered lighter and less rich than press wine, but is often blended with it to arrive at a balanced product.
Fruity: a pleasant fragrance from ripe grapes made into wine; a berry-like quality akin to fruits in general.
Green: usually said of younger, raw, acidic white or red wine; a rough aspect that usually softens with age; also the appearance of a more acidic than average wine will be green-tinged.
Late Harvest: a term seen on wine labels to indicate that the grapes for the wine were left on the vine to ripen, often raisin, for longer than normal. Usually a so-labeled wine will be higher than average in residual sugar and/or alcohol.
Malolactic conversion: a conversion by bacteria of the malic acid in wines into lactic acid which results in a lowering of the overall acidity, and, hence, tartness of the wine. The conversion occurs mainly in wines from cooler climates where there is an excess of malic acidity in the grapes and wine, and usually happens after the alcoholic fermentation. Modern methods, however, allow for malolactic conversions brought about by the addition of malolactic-inducing cultures.
Mellow: a soft, smooth, often sweet-edged wine a "jug red" and a well-aged Cabernet-Sauvignon or Zinfandel may all be mellow.
Must: the term for the mixture of grape juice, skins, seeds, and pulp in a red wine fermentation or just the juice in a white fermentation.
Oaky: term used to describe the flavor of wines that have been aged in small, usually newish wood barrels.
Oxidized: all wines are oxidized to a degree because of the presence of oxygen in or near them. A high degree of oxidation is not desirable in most table wines, while in fortified wines, especially Sherries, a greater oxidation is attained and desired. A table wine smelling more like a Sherry and tasting generally lifeless is said to be more or less oxidized.
pH: a measure of the intensity of the acidity (hydrogen ions) in grape juice and wine. pH is often a better measure of acid balance in a juice than is the total acidity. You'll see the term used in writings about wine, but it is better left in the lab.
Press wine: that portion of the wine that is pressed from the skins, pulp, etc., after draining off the free run wine. It is usually richer in extract, tannins, and other flavoring materials and is often partially blended back into the free run.
Prickly: a taste sensation derived from small amounts of residual carbon dioxide in wines. Often a prickly character can be noticed in white wines fermented cold (the lowering of the temperature tends to integrate more carbon dioxide than usual); its appreciation is relative to the individual taster.
Rack: the process of draining wine from a holding tank in order to separate it from the sediment that has collected at the bottom. This also serves to aerate the wine.
Residual sugar: a measure of the sugar left in a wine after the alcoholic fermentation is completed and a key to the sweetness. More and more wineries are listing this on their back or front labels as an aid to the consumer.
Spicy: many wines will display distinct or nebulous ("what is that flavor?") spicy flavors such as dill, basil, or the like. Often, any tangy character in a wine, such as that in a fairly dry Gewürztraminers, will be described as spicy.
Stemmy: a term applying either to wines actually having been fermented in contact with their stems, or to wines which, owing to an unusually brutal crushing or pressing, contain an excess of the bitter tannins of the stems.
Sulfur dioxide: a chemical which is added to most wines of the world and which is necessary for the stability of any commercial wine. Wine with an excess of SO2 will smell and/or taste like fresh-struck matches although advances in modern technology have obviated these problems.
Sweet: a basic taste sensation dependent mainly upon grape sugars, but also one resulting from alcohol, new oak and to a degree glycerin. A sweet, as opposed to a dry wine is one which retains some sugar after fermentation has ended.
Tannin: a natural constituent of wines, especially reds. It is a bitter-tasting material which is partially responsible for preserving wines during their sometimes long aging periods. Bite a grape seed to experience the flavor of tannin.
Thin: lacking in body or alcohol; a watery wine.
Topping Up: the practice of completely filling casks or tanks with wine to assure that there is no air space in the container.
Ullage: the distance between the cork and the wine as the bottle stands upright. A large ullage in an older wine is normal; a similar level in a younger wine might mean trouble.
Varietal: term used to describe wines made totally or predominantly from a single variety of grape.
Velvety: akin to mellow, but more so, without the connotation of sweetness. Someone once said that a velvety wine is "one that coats your tongue like a robe".
Volatile: most of the flavor components of wines are volatile, or easily perceivable by the nose. Volatile acidity refers to the acetic acid and ethyl acetate content of wines, their vinegary aspect.
Wood(y): many wines are aged or treated in wood containers, ranging in size from fifty to one million gallons. In well-made, well-aged wines this wood lends a characteristic smell and taste--depending upon the type of wood used and the size of the barrel--which is just another facet of the wine. Old wood, contaminated wood, or excessive wood aging will result in an overly woody, sometimes astringent smell and taste.