First Time in Napa Valley? Here’s How to Taste Wine

how to taste wineWine tasting is as ancient a practice as wine production and has long been an expert trade that is now enjoyed recreationally throughout Napa Valley. At one of the area’s many tasting rooms, visitors enjoy the privilege of partaking in this ritual, examining and evaluating wines based on their sensory effects. While sommeliers and buyers will employ complex terminology in their analytical process, wine appreciators frequent these elegant watering holes to taste for personal pleasure, and perhaps even to learn how to taste wine.

Whether you’re heading to one of the Napa tasting rooms, wineries or vineyards, this breakdown of how to taste wine will help you appreciate the process, and give you a jumpstart if you are completely new to this wonderful sensory experience. Wine tasting is always a great educational experience so get ready to learn, whether you’re fairly experienced, or completely new to the game.

How to Taste Wine

  1. Appearance – Start by looking straight down into the glass, giving you a sense for the density, saturation and color in the wine. Hold it up to the light to get an idea for how clear the wine is. If it looks murky as opposed to translucent, there could be chemical or fermentation problems. You’re looking for a clear wine with a bit of a sparkle!
    Next, tilt the wine so you can see what the edges look like. You don’t want them to look watery or pale or conversely dark or brownish. Finally, give it a swirl and see if it leaves “legs” of wine running down the glass. Legs are a sign of riper and fuller wines.
  2. Aroma – After swirling, hover your nose over the top of the glass. In a series of quick short sniffs, you are looking to identify four categories of smells. First smell for wine flaws like the scent of burnt matches or wet newspaper – these are signs that the wine has turned. Next smell for fruit aromas, which indicate a great wine as wine is made from grapes and should smell like fresh fruit! If it doesn’t it’s probably too old, sweet, or cold. Other common things to smell for are flowers, leaves, herbs, spices, and vegetables. Certain scents are indicative of particular grapes. Finally, smell for wine barrel aromas like toast, smoke, vanilla, chocolate, espresso and so on. These are all associated with having aged in oak barrels and will change based on the kind of wine and the how long it was aged for.
    There are also secondary aromas, which are found in sparkling wines and young white wines. These smell more like beer because of the yeast used for carbonation.  
  3. Taste – When you actually get to taste the wine you want to decipher how the a wine’s flavors are working together to create the particular sensory experience. This is the penultimate step in learning how to taste wine, and usually the most challenging to master. First you want to learn to decipher whether the wine has an equal balance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter notes, and then you can determine if these tastes are harmonious. Do the differing notes suit each other in pleasant and interesting ways? With experience, you will learn to pick out complex wines whose flavors are working at different times and in different places in your mouth to create the experience.
  4. Finish – Finally, a complete wine has a satisfying finish that is balanced, harmonious, complex and lingers with the final taste that leaves you intrigued and wanting more. When you have found a wine with this kind of pleasant finish, it’s a good idea to drink more of it, as these are the ones that will teach you the most about how to taste wine.

There is no better place to learn how to taste wine than the Napa Valley, whose beautiful landscape is home to much more to do than exploring its vineyards and tasting rooms. This free vacation guide is full of ideas of other things to do while in the area.