WineInk: On Tasting |

WineInk: On Tasting

The process of identifying a wine

Kelly J. Hayes
Wine glasses sit on the table during the Food &; Wine Classic member luncheon on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“So, are you one of those guys who can look at a glass of wine and tell people what the grape is, where it came from, what the vintage is, and who made it?”

The person who posed the question over dinner the other night in Old Snowmass had just learned that I write this column.

I get that a lot.

The truth is I am not one of those guys. Or gals. My focus is on telling stories about wine. While I have a decent understanding of the techniques used by professional sommeliers to deduce the origins of  wines in a blind tasting, I don’t pretend to have the skill set of people like Jay Fletcher (Matsuhisa), Maddy Jimerson (Casa Tua), Chris Dunaway (The Little Nell), Greg Van Wagner (Parc Aspen), or a host of other Aspen-based wine professionals who have amazing palates and even more amazing knowledge of the world of wine.

For those who really care about wine, like these folks, tasting can be a complex business. Great tasters deduce the provenance of the wines they drink by going through an intellectual process, layering levels of knowledge over the sight, smell, and taste observations they make.  

A great taster may look at a wine’s color and deduce that it is a particular grape and see that it has some age on it. They may watch the legs run down the side of a glass and know from experience that it has a certain level of alcohol. When smelling the wine, they may get notes that says it is herbal, floral, or fruity. They may taste vanilla and understand that the wine has been aged in a particular wood that gives off its unique flavors and aromas.

Sommelier evaluating red wine in wine glass at tasting.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

They will use all of this information, coupled with their knowledge of vintages, regions, and the practices of individual winemakers, to identify what is, and sometimes more importantly, what is not in a glass. Tasting is not a parlor trick. It is the practice of paying attention and then using what you know to better appreciate a wine.

Simply taste, and enjoy. For many people, that is how wine works. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. I’m not suggesting you spend more time studying your wine than you do enjoying it. But if you’re mindful of what is in your glass, the world of wine can provide so much more than you may think.

See. Smell. Taste. Consider. Those are the four steps you can take with each glass of wine you pour to become a better taster.

Begin by trusting your SIGHT, and take a good look at what is in your glass. No need to swirl; simply tilt the glass, and let the wine run toward the rim. What color is it? If you see a white wine, is it clear like water, or does it have the yellowish color of, say, straw, or heaven forbid, cat piss? Are there bubbles in it? You can already make a determination from what you see that it may be, say, a steely, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc or a yellow, buttery Chardonnay or even a glass of sparkling wine.

If it is a red wine, can you see through it, or is it so dark that you are staring into a pool of deep garnet grape juice? The former may be a Pinot Noir, and the latter could be a bunch of things, but maybe a Cabernet Sauvignon. Is the color the same all over, or are the edges of the wine opaque or orange? All of these are clues as to the varietal, the age, and the origin of the wine that you are drinking.

From small to tall, slim to wide, tapered at the top, there are a range of sizes and shapes of wine glasses designed to make the most out of the tasting experience.
Shutterstock image

Set the glass back down, look at the place where the wine met the rim, and see how it drains back into the bowl of the glass. Is it slow, or does it break up and run easily back down the sides of the glass? These are the fabled legs, and they can be an indicator of the alcohol levels or the  viscosity of the wine. 

Now comes the SMELL part. Put your nose deep into the glass, and give it a couple of quick sniffs followed by a deeper inhalation, and, without thinking about it too much, quickly say the first things that come to mind. Do you smell grass in that Sauvignon Blanc? Does that red wine reek of wet stones? Maybe there is something that reminds you of chocolate or vanilla? It is amazing how much you know if you don’t think about what you don’t know. Open your nose, and free your mind, and you’ll likely find that there are many things in a glass of wine that are familiar to you.

Of course, all of this really is just foreplay for when you actually TASTE the wine. And that really is the point, isn’t it? But before you just take a gulp, take an extra second or two to really taste the wine. Take a bit of liquid and let it sit on your tongue. Is it sour? If so, you have some acidity in the wine. Does it make your mouth pucker? That’s a sign of tannins. Does it have a flavor that reminded you of what you noticed when you gave the wine the smell test, or are the flavors completely different? Most importantly, do you like the wine?

Finally, CONTEMPLATE. What color did you see? What did you smell in the glass?

How did the wine feel in your mouth, and what did it taste like? Take 60 seconds, OK, 30 seconds, and reflect on what just happened. You might not be able to name the wine or its origins, but you likely will be able to make some good guesses about what it is.

Now, this might sound like a lot of work and too many things to think about when all you want to do is open a bottle of wine and have a glass. But in reality, it’s not so hard at all. It is just a matter of thinking a bit about the experience and getting the most out of the glass and the money you have already invested in a wine.

Those who read this column know that I frequently riff on the fact that wine is the universal elixir. That if you know even just a little bit about wine, you’ll inevitably also acquire knowledge about geography, geology, technology, and the other “ologies.” That’s because wine comes from all over the world, reflects the various soils of Mother Earth, and relies on physics and science to make it.

If you want to know more about wine, then the first thing you have to do is drink wine. That sounds silly, I know, but the more wines you taste, the broader your base of experience will become. Drink just Pinot Noir, and that will be all you know. But if you try some Sangiovese, or a little Grenache, you will start to understand the differences that mark different grape varietals. Throw in a little Australian Shiraz, maybe a bottle of California Cabernet or an Argentinian Malbec, and you will not only come to recognize the unique nature of the grapes as they reveal themselves, but also begin to learn a bit about the places where those wines come from and the people who make them. You can actually take a personal journey simply by sipping a wine.

If you delve a little deeper, pay a little bit more attention to the liquid in the glass, and use your senses to experience the wine you have poured, then an entire world awaits.


2019 Durigutti Cabernet Franc

Someone at the gathering in Old Snowmass brought a bottle of this Argentine wine. There was no way I would have identified it as being a Cab Franc produced in the Mendoza region of Argentina from the 2019 vintage that cost less than $20.

Oh sure, it was deeply dark in the glass, had aromas of dried cherries and tangible tannins. When I first tasted it, I noted the flavors of vanilla and a touch of smoke. But I would, mistakenly, have pegged it as a Cabernet Sauvignon from California, costing twice as much.

As I said, I’m not one of those guys.

Durigutti Bottle Shot.
Courtesy photo


More Like This, Tap A Topic
Aspen Times Weekly

Mountain Mayhem: Tennis anyone?

Birthday girl Jodi Jacobsen hit the Smuggler Racquet Club tennis courts to ring in the start to her next decade with a party for friends and family on Sunday, May 21. Jodi’s mom, Ruth Jacobson, and sister, Jamie Cygeilman, came to town to help her celebrate and honor her dad who slipped away 30 years prior, and would have loved the tradition.

See more