How to Train Your Palate and Vocabulary to Taste Better and Describe Wines
When it comes to tasting wine, I get a common question from people new to drinking wine as well as people who have been drinking wine for many years. It’s more common among new winos but even the vets often ask me “how do I get better and tasting wine?” How can I tell why I like some wines and hate others? How can I improve my tasting skills to better select the wines I like most?” All fair questions. Anyone who likes wine wants to know how to select and consume wine they like most, while avoiding those they like least. I find that some people will just blindly try any wine they find, hoping it is a good one or then being disappointed when it turns out to be something they dislike. I am going to guide you through the best way to build your wine tasting powers by training your palate, brain, and vocabulary to identify and describe what you taste with every bottle of wine you drink from now on.
The Basics of tasting wine:
Any wine professional or serious wino will come to the 6 major elements of tasting or scoring a wine. It is good to be aware of these 6 elements to not only look for them in your wine but also speak the broad language of wine when buying at the store, wine shop, or a formal wine-tasting event. The 6 elements are:
Body- think skim milk vs whole milk, light vs heavy
Alcohol- the genuine burn factor you feel as you swallow, the higher the ABV, the more burn typically.
Acidity- The zing or tingling effect felt on the tongue as well as mouthwatering effect it induces after sipping.
Bitterness- this is perceived on the back of the palate and is often one of the last taste sensations to be perceived when tasting.
Sweetness- simply the sweetness factor of your wine. Ranges from ‘bone-dry’ like Pinot Noir to very sweet like Moscato d’Asti.
Finish- this is the length of time the wine taste and sensation sits in your mouth after swallowing. Some are as short as 6 seconds or less, while others can last nearly a minute.
Balance- Is the wine one-dimensional and kind of boring or does it have layers of flavor and sensations to it? Are the above elements in the right balance?
Flavor vs Taste
There is a difference between what we perceive as flavors and what we perceive as taste. Taste is more a sensation with both a detection and identification threshold based on one’s genetics and their exposure to that food or drink. The smallest amount of a food or drink required to detect its presence is detection, whereas identification refers to the amount of food or drink required to correctly label its flavor or type.
The 5 basic tastes we all have are sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (protein). Taste can also encompass the chemesthesis component of foods and drinks. This is the chemical stimulation of the item consumed. Think carbonation, the sting of hot salsa, the burn of a strong brandy, or the cooling sensation of a menthol mouthwash, etc. You feel these things more than taste them. Wine has characteristics just like this that some like, and some do not. Flavor is more the traditional term we think of when someone asks, what does X taste like? It is what allows us to discern between types of meats, types of fruit, types of nuts, types of herbs, and even types of wine, since wine often possesses those flavors. The Wine Aroma Wheel I mention next offers people a way to put terms, names, and formal identification of the flavors and aromas you will encounter when drinking wine.
Using the Wine Aroma and Flavor Wheel
I found an amazing resource when I first started learning to taste wine myself. The Wine Aroma Wheel helped me out big time! Two wheels exist, one for red wine and one for white wine. You can likely find many other versions of this 1990 original wheel out there these days, and many are very good as well. Find one you like best and feel you can understand best and use it with real-world wine tasting. Learn to use these wheels with any wine you drink, new ones most of all. You become increasingly adept at identifying the specific fruit, herb, wood, or flower that you smell or taste in your wine, and then associating it with a name.
When I started my formal training to get better at tasting different wines and identifying why one was better or worse than another, I took an online Sensory Wine tasting course from UC Davis that gave me some truly amazing practical methods to develop a strong nose and palate for aromas, and flavors. You simply taste various groups of herbs, fruits, spices, chocolates, licorice, breads, nuts, etc.. along with wines known for that same aroma or flavor. It magnifies the identification of the aroma or flavor you are seeking, which is then imprinted to your brain’s sensory memory.
Your nose, knows!
Most of you know that when we have a cold or stuffy nose, it’s hard to taste anything, let alone smell anything. Food tastes bland, drinks taste flat. This is because without the sense of smell, or what is formally called ‘olfaction’, our sense of taste is left hamstrung to do its job well. We need our nose to allow molecules (volatile compounds) to permeate our nasal cavity to stimulate our brain's sensory system to tell us what we are smelling. The taste buds again only have the 5 broad, general sensation receptors. With some training, humans are estimated to be able to detect about 10,000 different odors! Wine is known to contain about 200 universal odorous compounds. The exact flavor we are getting is the job of the nose and the brain to interpret that stimulation with a familiar name or label.
Try this, the next time you try a wine you have already had, see if this makes it even better or more pronounced. Take a small sip and hold it in your mouth, close your lips almost completely and take a slow, careful breath (don’t breathe and pull wine down your throat!) into your mouth as the wine sits there. Close your lips and breathe again slowly with your nose alone. Now swallow. This should amplify the taste of the wine as it brings oxygen into your mouth over the wine’s surface and carries the volatile compounds into your nose for better stimulation and interpretation by the brain. This is known as retro-nasal tasting.
Lastly, you can simply smell wine before even tasting it at all by taking small whiffs of wine from a glass. You should do this as well to train your wine aroma sense independently from your taste sense. I like to see how the nose aromas compare to the mouth flavors I get in wines. Sometimes they are nearly identical and other times worlds apart.
Like anything in life that you want to get better at, it takes practice. Yes, you can practice wine tasting and wine tasting skills. This was a common part of each lesson in my UC Davis online class. 2-3 wines a week were the norm to focus on specific flavors and aromas unique to those wines only. Sensitizing your nose and mouth to new aromas and flavors common to wine is a practiced skill. But like anything else, balance is key. Too much of anything can take you off the deep end. Consider applying the sip & spit strategy if you want to. There is no harm or foul in doing so. In fact, this was quite common during my time in Italy at major wine events. You simply cannot taste or even sip 20+ wines in a few hours or even a day and not have some consequences to deal with. Wine tasting practice can take place anytime you drink wine, formally or informally. I used a wine tasting journal from Wine Folly for about 2 years early on in my wine education to document any new wine I drank to profile it objectively and subjectively as a record of those I liked most and those I would not buy again.
Taste a wide variety of wines. Trying wines outside your norm is a good first step. Break the mold of being a white or red only drinker, sweet or dry wine drinker only. Expand your options and try the following domains of wine to build your tasting exposure.
Young wines under 2 years since bottling and older wines with 4+ years of age since bottling.
Start with single varietal wines. This will allow you to really capture the common characteristics of the major international wine types. For reds go with; Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Sangiovese) and for whites, try Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Reisling, and Semillon).
Try different regional areas of the United States, such as Texas (my favorite) or California, Oregon, Washington State, or NY State. These 4 states lead the USA in wine production, so it’s a good place to see how other AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) produce the same wine grapes with distinctly different flavors and tastes. Even go as simple as trying wines from different regions in Texas alone. We have 8 official AVAs in our state to pick from, so get out there and see what awaits you!
Drink what you like and note why so, bypass what you dislike and note why so as well. There is no right or wrong answer or fixed good and bad wine (although wine professionals certainly will agree that bad wine does exist). You are the ultimate judge as to what your nose and palate like most and like least. Scoring your wine with an overall 1-5 ranking is something I suggest you do. I have done the same using my wine tasting journal as a quick reference to a wine's overall “goodness factor.” I urge you to go deeper than just ok, good, great, terrific etc. Learn to explain why you like wine A, disliked wine B, loved wine C, but hated wine D. By building up your vocabulary, your senses, and your taste bandwidth, you will be on your way to becoming a wine tasting powerhouse and that sounds cool to me.