White Wine Tasting Basics

chilled white wine

When it comes to white wine tasting basics, the more you taste, the more you learn-it's as simple as that!

Always Learning

One thing I have learned in my professional wine career is that you can never be too educated when it comes to white wine tasting basics. There are always tips, tricks, and techniques to be learned all the time. We're going to share a few white wine tasting basics with you today.

Practice Makes Perfect

Before we get right into white wine tasting basics, we have to mention that there are many types of white wines out there-many very different from each other. The more you taste different wines the more experience you gain about some commonalities and differences between the varietals. The more you taste the more you learn about your likes and dislikes. For example, perhaps you realized you are not a fan of Sauvignon Blancs with high acid content. Maybe you prefer softer ones with a touch of residual sugar or maybe a hint of oak. Perfect…but how did you figure that out? By tasting many different wines!

Not "Good" or "Bad"

The first thing to do when evaluating a wine is to throw away the terms such as "like, nice, pretty, good, yummy". In my class I ask the students to taste a wine and identify what they taste without using these terms. It's more difficult to do than you think, trust me. When describing a wine, only use flavor and consistency terms-objective terms, not subjective. This is key.

Tools

Before you dive into your evaluation, you may want to give yourself some tools first. One thing I recommend to students is to get a wine wheel. This is an aroma wheel that helps identify scents in a wine. It was created by Dr. Ann Noble, professor emeritus from UC Davis. You can pick this up at most bookstores or online at many wine sites.

Another tool that is useful to use is an aroma set (called Le Nez du Vin-meaning "nose of the wine"). This is an expensive set, but very helpful in learning and identifying different aromas in wine. The set includes different aromas with helpful tips on how to use them in a learning environment. You can also buy this at many wine stores online and at retail locations.

Blind Tasting

In class we taste all of our wines blind-meaning the bottle is covered and all you have is wine in a glass. You know what the wine-type is, but that's it. This is by far the most impartial way to evaluate a wine. Why? Because of our prejudices! For instance, if you saw a bottle of Charles Shaw (2-buck Chuck) you may already decide in your head that it's no good, and can't possibly be something you would drink. This could go the other way too…perhaps you see a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay that happens to be your favorite. You will not judge that wine fairly since you have preconceived feelings about it. To do this at home, just get your partner, friend or neighbor to pour some wine in a glass and put the glass in front of you. That way you won't know what it is and thus evaluate it more objectively.

The Four Steps

There are four basic steps to evaluating a wine:

  • Look
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Finish

This process can be more in-depth, but it's a good starting point. Get a piece of paper so you can write down your notes. Do not rely on your memory, it's easy to forget or confuse a wine with something else. Let's take a closer look at the steps.

Look

For the first step, you look at the wine. The way a wine looks can tell you many things! The best way to get the most out of a visual evaluation is to use a white tablecloth or a piece of white paper to hold the glass up to. Take the glass, angle it, and take a look at the color. Is it dark yellow, more pale yellow, or more clear? Perhaps a tinge of green? Maybe something else? The darker yellows tend to mean more oak used in the winemaking process or maybe air leaked into the wine before you opened it and it became oxidized. Now give it a swirl. See those lines form as the wine travels back down the glass? Those are called "legs". The longer the legs, the more alcohol or sugar content in the wine.

Smell

Now we're at the smelling step. This can tell you as much about the wine as tasting it can. The first step before smelling the wine is to swirl it in your glass. This increases to surface area the wine covers so you can actually smell the wine better. It's not a snob thing to swirl, it truly is helpful! After you swirl it, put your nose into the glass and sniff. Do this a couple of times. Each time look for something different. Write down what you smell (remember the rules-no "good, yummy or pretty"). If you smell fruit, try to figure out which type of fruit it is. Perhaps you get grassy aromas in your Sauvignon Blanc? Maybe the Chardonnay smells buttery? Don't be afraid to write down what you think you smell in the wine. If you do this with a group of people and you tell them what you smell, I can promise you that someone else in the group smelled it too but did not want to say it. Believe me, your first time at this will be tough. This process will get easier each time you do it.

Taste

Finally the step we've been waiting for: Tasting! Time to sip the wine. When you put the wine into your mouth, swirl it around so it covers the entire tongue. Now this may sound a little gross, but it actually helps the tasting process: suck in some air while you have the wine in your mouth. The first time doing this may end up with wine down your shirt or on the table, but practice makes perfect. No, it does not sound pretty either, but what you are doing is oxygenating the wine so you can taste it better. Once you've done this a few times, either spit the wine out (if you have many others to taste) or swallow it. Remember to write down everything you taste. Fruit, earth, mineral, floral, and other types of aromas you find in the wine. Write down anything else you found such as viscosity (called mouth-feel) or acid levels.

Finish

The last step is the finish. Finish is defined as how the wine tastes right after you swallow or spit it out. How does it change? Does the taste go sour? Perhaps it just trails off and it tastes like your just sipped a glass of water? Or, maybe the finish was smooth and lengthy with the flavor lasting on and on.

Last Step

At the end you can make subjective statements such as do you like it or not, would you drink it or would you rather clean your drain with it? I use the term "DPIM" when I taste wines I detest…DPIM stands for Don't Put In Mouth! The important thing to do when evaluating is keep the subjectivity out of the process until the very end. That way you can back up your opinion with your notes! As always, practice makes perfect. It's more fun to do this with a group of friends and have every person bring a bottle of wine or even set up a wine tasting group that meets regularly to do this. There are many themes and tastings you can do-the sky is the limit. The more you do this, the faster you will be at the evaluation process, and better yet-the better you will be at identifying aspects in wine that you like. Cheers!

White Wine Tasting Basics