Wine Tasting 101

September 6, 2018
Tasting & Learning

The Napa Valley Wine Train brings you the best wines and flavors of the Napa Valley, and whether you’re tasting aboard one of our Dining Journeys or sampling at one of the winery stops of our Winery Tours, we’re sure you’re going to find a new California wine to love.

While it’s true that nothing quite beats casually sipping a glass of wine while taking in views of the beautiful Napa Valley, there is definitely an art to wine tasting—one that can be intimidating. We’re here to tell you that anyone can taste wine like a pro, with our wine tasting tips.

Wine Tasting Basics

There are three basic steps to tasting a wine, and each one tells you something different about the wine you’re about to drink. Even if you aren’t dreaming of being a sommelier, following these simple tasting steps can help you grow your palate and figure out the wines that you love best.

Step 1: Look

Tasting a wine starts long before you actually bring the glass to your lips. First, hold your glass by the base of its stem (you don’t want the heat from your hands to warm the wine) and hold it to the light. Looking at your wine in front of a neutral or white background is best, but if you’ve got nothing but one of Napa Valley’s stunning tasting rooms, beautiful views, or the lush decor of one of our vintage rail cars as your backdrop, we say that’s fine too.

What color is the wine? Is it light or dark? Is it murky or opaque at all? If you tilt your glass from side to side, does it seem watery or a bit more syrupy or viscous? All of this gives you information about the wine you’re about to drink.

Wine Tasting step one: see

Step 2: Smell

After you’ve taken a minute to discern the color, opacity, and viscosity of your wine, give it a little swirl. The easiest way to do this is to place your glass on the table and still holding it at the base, gently swirl the glass in a circle.

Why Swirl?

Swirling your glass lets some air get to the wine and helps it to release its aromas—opening up the wine in wine terms.

Stick your nose in your glass (don’t be shy) and inhale the smells the wine gives off. It can be intimidating to name the aromas you pick up, but don’t be nervous! To start, think big. Maybe you can’t identify strawberry, but can you detect a berry or red-fruit smell? Tasting notes or sommeliers may list pear or green apple, so can you identify an orchard fruit? With practice, your ability to identify aromas will grow.

There are three different kinds of aromas in wine, and each tells you something new and different about the wine you are tasting.

Wine tasting step 2: smell

Step 3: Taste

It’s time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for! Now that you’ve seen and smelled your wine, it’s time to give it a sip and see what flavors you can taste. Give your mouth a moment to feel the wine before you swallow. The wine should taste similar to how it smelled—fruity, flowery, slightly mineral, for example.

Also pay attention to where in your mouth you can taste the wine, as that will tell you even more information about it. If you feel a drying sensation in your cheeks, it’s because your wine is highly tannic. If you’re sipping a sweet wine, that’s likely one of the first flavors you’ll pick up on, right at the tip of your tongue.

The main elements you’re looking to discern as you taste your wine are:

Acidity: A wine with high acidity will taste tart and have a mouth-watering sensation, compared to wines with a low acidity that will have a smoother taste.

Sweetness: Some of the most common wine descriptors are used to describe sweetness: dry and off-dry, meaning not very sweet, to medium, on the sweeter side, to sweet.

Tannin: A wine’s tannins come from the grapes used to make it. Specifically, the grape skins. They occur in red wines where the peels have been left on throughout the winemaking process and give a wine that “taste you can feel in your cheeks” drying sensation.

Body: Describes the overall feeling of wine in your mouth. A full-bodied wine will feel thick and rich compared to a light-bodied wine that has a more watery texture.

Wine tasting step 3: sip

Now that you’ve seen, smelled, and sipped your wine, you’ve got all of the information you need to pair it with one of your favorite meals, add it to your list of favorites, or simply enjoy it!

Book your Napa Valley Wine Train journey to taste some of the region’s best wines and learn about the vintners who make them.