Sniff, swirl, Spit: An Amateur’s Guide to Wine Tasting

Sniff, swirl, Spit: An Amateur’s Guide to Wine Tasting

I have the pleasure of living in wine country. It’s great. Wine flows like water in La Rioja, Spain. They have so much of the stuff that the nearby town of Haro holds a festival every June called the Batalla del Vino where you go and douse each other in wine. How much more indulgent can you get?

The problem is, I’ve never been that much of a wine drinker. I’d tasted just enough to be able to say I like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir more than malbecs or shiraz. I preferred sauv blanc to riesling. While that was sufficient to navigate a wine menu at a restaurant, it really meant nothing. The only distinction I was making was between dry and sweet wines.

Flash forward nine months, and I’m in the tasting room of a Bordeaux chateaux with a glass of 80-euro wine in my paws being asked to talk about the nuanced flavors and scents. Out of my element, I wasn’t sure if I should play sommelier and pretend like I knew what I was doing, admit the truth that I had no place drinking that fine concoction, or just sip and try to appreciate it.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to approach a  tasting when you know next to nothing about wine:

1. Check the color

One of the first (and easiest) parts of wine tasting is looking at the color. Tilt the glass to a 45-degree angle, but don’t spill! This isn’t amateur hour. Hold your hand behind the glass to make a solid, neutral background, or use a white napkin if you want to be more profesh.

Then, look at the color and clarity. If you can clearly see your fingers behind the glass, it’s probably going to fall into the ‘light-bodied’ category below. If you can’t see your fingers very well, it’s probably  more full-bodied.

Some common colors for red wines are: Purple, ruby red, deep red, red brown, mahogany and brown.

  • If the wine has an orange hue …

Then it’s too old. Perhaps it was aged too long and is past its prime. A wine that’s orange in color might start to have a vinegary flavor. Unfortunately, these wines should probably be tossed rather than consumed.

  • If the wine is purple…

It’s a sign that the wine is young and immature. It should probably be put in a cellar to be aged for a couple of years so they can “open up,” as a fancy pants French man in a wine shop told me.

This came as a huge surprise to me because I happily drink purply wines all the time. If you have the self-control to age your cheap, young wine, good for you. If you don’t, no judgments. However, your wine mouth will be a telltale sign that you’ve drunk it too soon.

Smelling wine

2. Give it a first sniff

Now that you’ve correctly identified the color, it’s time to give it a sniff test. So stick your nose in the glass and take a deep breath. What do you smell? Wine? Yeah, me too. But don’t tell that to the bodega owner.

I didn’t even know you were supposed to do two sniffs, but you are and here’s why. The first one is like your control. It gives you a baseline against which to compare the second sniff, which comes after swirling to oxidize the wine. So don’t worry if your observations aren’t super sophisticated after the first whiff. Some basic things like fruits, berries, vanillas, and spices, will do just fine.

3. Swirl it around

This is when you grab the stem of the glass and swirl it around, while making thoughtful conversation about sophisticated things. Don’t be shy. This isn’t for show.

The more you swirl the wine, the more you bring out the flavors. The tour guide at the last bodega I went to encouraged us to do it for a full 30 seconds.

This is also when you can talk about the legs of a wine. Long legs? Fat legs? Nice legs? [tears]

4. Smell it again 

Now stick your shnoz back in the glass and do another sniff test. This time, there should be a lot more going on in the glass. Scents that weren’t there before are now the first thing you’ll notice.


If it doesn’t smell like anything, well. Then, you might be drinking a shitty wine. Still no judgment. It took me years to graduate from Franzia and 2-buck chuck.

Hopefully if you’re at a vineyard or a bodega, or cracking open the latest spoil from your wine-of-the-month club, you can identify some interesting and distinct scents. Don’t worry if you’re not sure at first blush what they are. I read that even sommeliers have trouble putting names to smells initially.

Here is a handy aroma chart that can at least give you something to throw out there at a tasting:

5. Take a sip

Finally, it’s time to do what you came for. Drink the wine!

You don’t have to do a lot of spraying and swishing if you don’t know how. I don’t, and I’m pretty sure that it if I did, it would just look like I was mocking the wine people. Real classy, rookie.

Instead,  I just try to pay attention to all the sensations I get when I take a sip. Is it fruity at the tip of your tongue, and dry at the back of your mouth? Is there any acidity, and does it come at the beginning of the sip or at the end? Tannins are the parts of the grape skin that make your mouth pucker/dry. It’s like the skin of a granny smith apple. Do you get any of that?

Here’s what you should be looking for:

  • Acidity
  • Alcohol
  • Tannin
  • Sweetness
  • Dryness
  • Fruitiness

I’m not saying any of this will make you a wine expert, but it could give you some talking points at a vineyard so you don’t feel like a person who just fell off the turnip truck.

6. Spit

Yeah riiiight. Drink that wine. Joke’s on them