Salt 101

August 14, 2023

How To Taste Wine (Without Looking Like a Prick)

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. If you’re under the age of 40, you will look like a complete idiot when you’re tasting wine. It’s just a fact. There’s just something about wearing a poly-blend Zara blazer to a restaurant that you probably found on TikTok that doesn’t scream, “I can smell the notes of 1967’s Kinks hit, Waterloo Sunset, on the legs of this Bordeaux.”

However, oftentimes, at nicer restaurants, there aren’t enough leather pants you can sport or “Hi, I buy my two buck chuck in bulk from Trader Joe’s” red flags you can wave to stop the waiter from pouring a whisper of whatever bottle you ordered into your glass and then hovering above your seat until you sniff, swirl, and agree to whatever he or she shows you, no matter the taste.

You say, “Wow, this is lovely,” despite never using that particular adjective outside of this exact context, and you both know that this ritual dance you just performed was a big “blind leading the blind, deaf, and mute into the abyss” sort of situation when they finally leave you alone to sip your "second cheapest option on the menu" in peace. 

All that said, as you grow older, you do come across more and more dinner table situations where a baseline knowledge of what you’re sipping can be useful. To help, we’ve created an Idiot’s Guide to Wine Tasting to help you pretend you’ve got a singular clue as to what you’re doing. 

To start, let’s cover the basic motions that you frequently see people go through. 

Basic wine tasting motions

Chew a piece of bread before tasting

This will help remove any lingering food or drink flavors from your mouth so you have a fresh palate to discern the taste of your wine. 

Angle the glass to check the intensity of the color

The reason you’re meant to angle your wine glass after the waiter or sommelier pours the little finger of wine into it is to check out its color and clarity (yes, like a diamond). The best way to do this is to find a white background, the tablecloth is usually the easiest bet, and then examine the color and clarity of the wine. Is it bright and clear or darker and murkier?

For reds, this could mean anything from a dark, deep purple to a more transparent, pale crimson color and for whites this means anything from as clear as water to a darker yellow gold (yes, like pee when you’re dehydrated). The darker yellow can either account for its age or the fact that it was stored in oak.

Look at how the wine clings to the glass when you move it

These trails are what Parent Trap's Meredith Blake would pretentiously call “legs.” The legs account for how “thick” the wine is and can either mean that it is on the sweeter side or has a higher alcohol content. 

Swirl and sniff

Swirling your wine before sniffing it oxygenates the pour, thus “opening” it up and bringing the smell out. 

Some common scent notes to keep in mind are fruits—dark, citrus, orchard, stone, tropical—and whether they smell fresh, cooked, or sweet and jammy, flowers, spices, toasted flavors, nutty flavors, or smoky flavors, and even meat or tobacco. 

The smell of a wine can tell you a lot about what it is and where it’s from. Each grape has a distinctive scent, hotter climates can mean jammier, sweeter flavors, the soil in different regions makes the grapes taste differently, buttery and yeasty flavors can be a result of how the wine was made or aged, and the age of the wine can be determined by the scent sometimes as well.

The most important thing that you can tell by smelling the wine—and the reason why you’re allowed to taste it before you are poured a whole glass—is whether or not it’s corked or gone bad. 

Finally, take a sip

At first, be careful to take a tiny sip of your wine, swish it around your mouth, and try to breathe in a little bit. All of this helps to further oxygenate the wine and bring out all of the flavors and aromas. Also, taking a big gulp is just a surefire way to look out of place.

Think about:

The body, or how thick the wine feels in your mouth—more watery or more viscous.

The sweetness.

If there are tannins. You can judge this by the drying feeling you get on your tongue when you take a sip. To comment on them you can determine their strength or if they taste more ripe or green and tart. 

Whether it tastes bitter.

The acidity level. If it’s more acidic, your mouth will water and create more saliva, and if it’s less so, it will feel smooth.

The warmth. Does your mouth feel warm after you take a sip?

The finish or the aftertaste. How long does the wine linger in your mouth? Some of the best wines you can taste for up to 60 seconds after you sip. 

A few basic flavor profiles to get you started


Most cabernets will deliver notes of black currant, cherry, black fruits, and certain spices.


Merlots often taste like plum, assorted red or black fruits, spices, and have floral notes.

Zinfandel and Syrah

Zinfandels and Syrahs/Shirazes are jammier and sweeter with notes of black fruits and peppery spices.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noirs taste herbaceous and floral with notes of red fruits.


Chardonnays can go two different directions. If your bottle is from a cooler climate, it will taste more tropical, while bottles from warmer regions will feature more melon and citrus.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blancs have distinctive notes of grapefruit, gooseberry, lime, and melon.

Key wine tasting words and phrases to remember

Some common flavors and key vocab to keep in mind when tasting wine are:

Tree fruits like apples and pears, citrus like lemon, lime, grapefruit, and orange, tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, papaya, passion fruit, and banana, or stone fruits like peaches, apricots, and nectarines for white wines.

Red fruits like cherries, berries, plums, pomegranates, and red currants, black fruits like darker cherries, berries, and currants, and dried fruits like raisins, dates, prunes, and figs for red wines. 

Whether the notes and flavors you’re mentioning are primary (coming from the grapes), secondary (created during the winemaking process), or tertiary (they come from the aging process, the oak or bottle, or they linger with the aftertaste).

Whether the wine tasted balanced, intense or complex.

And most importantly…did you like it?

Check out this guide from WineFolly for more details: