Must-Know Basics of Red Wine Tasting

Reviewed by California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) Karen Frazier
woman sniffing red wine

This is red wine tasting basics 101, a less than formulaic primer to gain deeper enjoyment and enhance one's appreciation of red wine. While the wine world is rife with "rules" about tasting and appreciating red wines, the most important thing to remember is this: choose what you like. It doesn't matter how good someone else says it is if you don't personally enjoy the wine.

The Red Wine Tasting Basics Primer

The more you know about red wine and its varietal characteristics the better you can judge the wine you are drinking and perhaps reap a more dynamic tasting experience. With this in mind, the following are some tasting fundamentals to help increase your red wine drinking pleasure.

Taste From the Right Wine Glasses

Tumbler-style thick-rimmed glasses are not the best glasses to showcase a wine, they are cloddy and clumsy. The squat tumblers work perfectly fine for drinking a simple vino da tavola (table wine), but they don't help showcase the wine or dig down deeper into its character. Because there's no stem, you grip the glass with your hand which blocks viewing the wine's color and clarity, and it's impossible to swirl and aerate the wine. The small glass size also makes it awkward and messy to stick one's nose in the glass to inhale the wine's bouquet. Which all leads to a point about the shape and size of a wine glass for red wine.

Red wine glasses at a tasting

Large is better than small, and the glass should be able to hold a 5-ounce pour with extra empty real estate to swirl without spilling. Also, the glass rim should be thin and cut rather than rolled to facilitate the smooth flow of the red wine to the tongue. In terms of shape, wine glasses should have a large bowl that tapers to the rim that helps focus the wine's aromas when nosing it. Consider two types of glasses:

  • Bordeaux style that universally works well with the majority of reds and whites
  • Burgundy style with a more bulbous bowl that tapers more radically to the rim. This bulbous style helps release the aromas for more delicate reds such as Burgundy and Pinot Noir wines.

Wine's Serving Temperature

One key to red wine tasting basics is temperature because it can make or break the wine. Ideally, the red wine has been stored at a stable 55° Fahrenheit. However, most homes are environmentally controlled above 70° F, which is great for people but tough on wine. Red wines served too warm taste of alcohol that blocks out the subtler flavors.

  • The optimum serving temperature for most red wines should be in the 60°F to 65°F range.
  • Fruitier Beaujolais (think Beaujolais Nouveau) should be served cooler than most reds and closer to whites (about 55°F).
  • You can obtain the right temperature by putting a bottle in the refrigerator for 15 to 20 minutes (note-not the freezer).
  • It's also a good idea when it is too warm to put a red into an ice bucket for a few minutes. Don't leave it too long because a red's flavor and character will mysteriously vaporize into an over-chilled mist if too cold.

Decant and Breathe

To decant or not to decant? Don't get too sophomoric on this age-old wine question. Basically the two primary reasons to decant a red wine is to:

  • Let it aerate
  • Help remove sediment, especially for particularly older reds

It's best to decant tannic reds. Lighter reds may not require it, although you can allow the wine to breathe by removing the cork about an hour before serving.

Eyeball, Swirl, Sniff, and Sip

This is the usual four-step process to wine tasting for red, white, or rosè wine. First, check out the hue, color intensity, and then its clarity.

Eyeball

Red wine gets its color from the pigment in a grape's skin which leeches out during the fermentation process. Not all colors are equal. Some reds, such as Syrah or Zinfandel, will be a dark inky purple, whereas a Pinot Noir or Sangiovese may show a lighter ruby or garnet color. In general, the darker the color, the more concentrated and intense the red wine. Curiously, a red's color mellows as it gets older, turning into a reddish mahogany. Judge the color and intensity by tilting the glass slightly towards you and then glancing over the rim. Next, hold the glass up to the light to assess its clarity with a murky red indicating sediment or that it was unfiltered or unfined, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Woman looking at a glass of red wine

Swirl and Sniff

Start by sniffing the wine before you swirl. Then, swirl the wine in the glass to encourage the wine's bouquet to open. Do this by holding the glass by the stem and rotate it quickly but carefully. It's also easier to do this with the glass on a table. This swirling action releases the wine's aroma. These aromas accumulate in the bowl of the wine glass waiting for your nose. Sniff again, small delicate ones or a big whiff, your choice. Note how the aromas have changed after swirling the glass to areate the wine. Be advised that too many sniffs won't help because at some point you'll have reached olfactory overload and sniffing more won't add anything. So what do you smell? Essentially you will be smelling two things: the fruit from the grapes or the byproduct scents from the oak barrel. That blackberry smell is the grape, the vanilla and spice are from the barrel. When people refer to the wine's aroma they are generally talking about the grape's smell. The wine's bouquet relates to the smells that evolve over time in the bottle.

On a side-note, after swirling the wine you may notice rivulets of wine dripping down the side of your glass. These are called legs or tears. There's an endless debate whether they have any significant meaning. They indicate denser viscosity and can possibly mean thicker and sweeter wine or absolutely nothing. The legs can cascade in a uniform pattern, haphazardly, fast or slow.

Sip

Of course sipping is the critical step in red wine tasting basics because you finally get to taste the wine but, did you know that aroma accounts for over half of your ability to taste the wine? Some believe up to 80% of taste comes from the aroma. This is not to say that tongues are overrated, it's just that a good sense of smell is critical and the role of tasting is to confirm what you have sniffed. As you sip, draw a little air over the wine to aerate it a bit more so the flavors can develop on your palate.

Man sipping wine

Things to Look for When Tasting

When tasting the wine, note the following characteristics.

Body

This describes the weight and arrives from the wine's viscosity or density. Reds can range from light, medium and full. A higher alcohol wine will be full-bodied, but that doesn't necessarily make it better.

Quality

This is partly objective and partly subjective. A wine's quality is comprised of several variables related to classification, production variables, integration, complexity and overall result. Ultimately quality may be up to individual preference.

Texture

This is how the wine feels in the mouth, a wine's tactile sensation. This can be the soft velvet of an Australian Shiraz, the silky-satin of a Pinot Noir, the earthy grit of a Spanish Tempranillo, or the puckering astringency of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Much of this texture is derived from the grape's tannins, ethanol, and even the vanillin from the oak barrels.

Group wine tasting

Red Wine Flavors and Aromas

The following are a general list of flavors and aromas that you may encounter when tasting red wines.

Fruit

There are various dark and red flavors in red wine. Sometimes the fruit takes on a cooked or baked character which results in cherry pie, prunes and that jammy blackberry effect.

  • Black fruits - Blackberry, blueberry, cassis (black currant), boysenberry, plum
  • Red fruits - Cherry, strawberry, raspberry and cranberry
  • Stone fruits - Cherry, plum

Vegetable or Vegetal

Don't be surprised to run into some green pepper, green bean, mushroom, and olive notes.

Chocolate or Coffee

Look for chocolate and mocha oriented flavors in Cabs, Malbecs, Pinot Noirs, and Shiraz.

Herbs and Spices

Black and white pepper shows up a lot, but you can also find cloves, cinnamon, licorice, thyme, and mint.

Earth

Forests and dirt appear in the form of cedar, pine, dried leaves, wet earth, and the woody forest floor.

Barrel

There's oak, vanilla, and toasted notes from the barrel. Keep a nose out for caramel flavors such as butterscotch, soy sauce, and molasses as well.

wine barrel tasting

Other Flavors

Other flavors may be present as well, including:

  • Smoke
  • Minerals
  • Barnyard
  • Cola
  • Bacon
  • Leather
  • Tar
  • Tobacco
  • Tea
  • Violets
  • Floral
  • Wet dogs

The Usual Red Suspect's Taste Profiles

Different grapes tend to have different flavor characteristics. Here are some common flavor profiles for different types of red wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The classic and king of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon stands on its own or is blended with others. The standard mix of aromas and flavors include cassis, black cherry, plum, and spices. Don't be surprised to find notes of mint, leather, tar, tobacco, cedar, and other vegetal flavors. Cabs have sturdy tannins, a full body, dark-purple color, and take well to aging in oak which transfers a woody oak or cedar impression along with variations on vanilla.

Pinot Noir

If Cab is the King, then Pinot Noir is the seductress; it's softer with feminine allure. There are many styles of Pinot Noir ranging from fully-loaded and intense to one that is elegant and layered with finesse. In general, Pinot Noir is lighter-bodied and colored wine than Cabernet Sauvignon but is supple and silky. A good Pinot will fill your mouth with baked cherries and plums and then take off with earthy mushrooms, cedar, leather, chocolate, herbs, and cola. However, Pinot Noir can sometimes be as fickle as weather, and a bad version can turn funky and take on the essence of a gym locker.

Red wine bottles and glasses

Syrah

This rough and tumble wine exudes potency, exuberance, and depth. The inky dark red is full-bodied and flavorful, and its personalities vary depending on its geographical origin. From the Southern Rhône, to the Barossa Valley, to Paso Robles, Syrahs are wines that are full of dark berries, black cherries, smoke, bacon, nuts, jam, leather, tar, and spice. Syrahs are supple with smooth tannins and the good acidity that make it a flexible wine with many foods.

Merlot

This is a key grape that works solo or blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in the typical Bordeaux blend. It shares many of the Cabernet Sauvignon attributes with blackberries, cassis, mocha, and leather, but it is softer and fleshier. This occurs as the Merlot grape ripens its tannins soften and round out. The result is a wine that is often referred to as, "lush" and "velvety."

Practice Makes Perfect

The best way to get to know red wines is by tasting red wines. Visit wine stores and wineries and taste a variety of reds. You'll find that while the colors are similar in red wines, the flavors are varied and interesting.

Must-Know Basics of Red Wine Tasting