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Snooth User: ScottLauraH

How do I become a better wine taster?

Posted by ScottLauraH, Sep 20, 2011.

I taste a lot of wine, both for work and pleasure.  I would like to get better at it, but I don't know how.   While I am able to pick out varietals, and often, even regions, pretty accurately, I want more than that. 

I want to be able to pick out all of the wine's nuances, both on the nose and on the palate.  Often when I am tasting I find that one or two characteristics dominate my palate and my nose.  For example, the fruit in a pinot noir.  Another person tasting the same wine will mention the wine's earthiness, or acidity, but once my palate has zeroed in on one characteristic, I really have to work to find the others. 

I should mention that, at work especially, I am tasting wines from all over the world, in every price point from $7.99 a bottle to $249 a bottle.  (Okay, at home, I don't believe I have EVER tasted a bottle of wine over $70.00...) 

From reading many of your tasting notes, I know that many of you have very sharp palates.  Please share how you were able to mature as a wine taster.

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Reply by JonDerry, Sep 20, 2011.

Can definitely relate to this, as i'm pretty much in the same boat. The advice i've seen on this board is to keep tasting a diverse variety of wines and occasionally test yourself by blind tasting, and of course meeting with other people in your area or on the net who are interested in the same thing is always a great idea.  There's no easy road to developing these skills if you're ambitious enough to become a master of wine of sorts. But that's a whole other can of worms that Greg T has pontificated on a few times before.  It's hard to really point at one wine certification that gives great credibility or confirms

Something I plan to use more in tasting is a reference sheet or wheel? of all qualities of wine with subdivisions of each, to help describe the flavors that you're tasting.  If you can learn to match the unique flavors or combinations of flavors with different regions and sub-regions, you'll probably start to gain a lot of ground in heading in the direction you want to go in. 

Reply by GregT, Sep 20, 2011.

Scott -pay attention to what you're eating/drinking.  And taste wine.

That's it.

Go to the best coffee place in your town.  Even Starbucks if you need to.  Order the daily blend and something else like a French roast, etc. - NOT a flavored coffee.  Taste one, then the other.  Describe the flavors to yourself.  Taste them side by side.  Go back and forth. 

Then go and get 2 cheeses - maybe both should be Cheddar from England (not Kraft) or Gouda or whatever.  Taste side by side and notice differences.

That's all you need to do.

You either pay attention or you don't.  Same thing when you listen to people speak or you listen to music or you watch people do cement work. If you pay attention in life, you'll note differences and subtleties w/out even thinking about them.  If you don't pay attention, you'll be satisfied witn mediocrity.  I believe most people pay no attention. Otherwise, how would they sell stuff like Snickers?  Wax and fat and sugar. If you actually like chocolate, you'll puke.

Same thing with wine. It's no different and no more complex than anything else we eat or drink.  If you haven't paid attention in your life until now, start.

As far as tasting notes go - don't put a lot of stock in those.  First, I don't think most people really really really taste all those things. Plus, I figure if someone can write three paragraphs about a particular wine, with astonishing detail, that person would be able to recognize that wine a mile away in a blind tasting.

Doesn't really happen all that often tho.

Second, tasting wine shouldn't be a contest to see who can come up with the most descriptions. That's a good way to ruin a nice glass of wine. And it's impossible if you're tasting a large volume.

I just got done tasting a few dozen wines so I'm obviously PWI.  But it's pretty impossible to do a serious assessment of 80 wines in only four hours. I know what Riesling or a Gruner Veltliner or a Chardonnay are generally like, so I don't have to record everything related to those grapes.  I just jotted a few notes that made those particular wines different from the norm, or that made those wines somehow memorable, for better or worse. 

So my suggestion is to taste whatever you can.  Don't focus on varieties, because they behave very differently in different regions.  And don't start looking for "typicity", because that's just a measure of how much something corresponds to your preconceptions.  Just taste. Region sometimes makes much more difference than variety, and producer sometimes trumps both.  Eventually you'll be pretty good.

Reply by Mark Angelillo, Sep 20, 2011.

Second Jon's recommendation of using a wheel. The power of suggestion is, well, powerful. However if everything is suggested to you at once as is the case with a wheel, you tend to think a bit more for yourself.

Have to say, my palate saw the most improvement after I started writing tasting notes. Committing my thoughts to paper forced me to go through the mental exercise of processing the flavors, and that was the single biggest thing I can point to that helped me train my palate. If I didn't write something I'd have been lazy about learning.

Reply by dmcker, Sep 20, 2011.

Greg's comments, as usual, are mostly spot on, but I'll add some caveats. First, taste more than two to get not just the nuances, but even the blatant differences. So three or more coffees and cheeses and chocolates and even melons or other fruits. Hell, even fruit jams. The more you learn to discern the more you will discern. Thus the more you taste of wine, the more you'll learn, the more you'll understand, the more you'll be able to discern. And the broader your tasting experience across a range of smells and flavors, the larger the palette you'll have to paint your descriptions with.

Another key element that *hasn't* been discussed much in this and similar past threads in the forum is the importance of memory. The best tasters I've ever tasted with, some famous ones being Hugh Johnson and Shinya Tasaki, but others being successful restaurant manager/producers and wine distributors/negociants, all have phenomenal memories. I'm known in other contexts for being good in that area but when it comes to wine I find I'm in a lesser league than the people I mention in the previous sentence. You have to taste a lot but you also have to remember as much as possible and be able to store those memories in context to be able to recall anything on the spot.

None of us really need to try to pass ourselves off as supertasters, nor can we expect to have super-recall. So I guess that's where notes come in, and perhaps why we can't recall later everything we wrote down on some previous occasion, especially when we're drinking again and the fog-of-alcohol starts drifting in. It is possible, of course, to refer to those previous notes. And hopefully to accrue knowledge that we can later recall, even at a far-lower percentage than perfect....

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 20, 2011.

To Greg's point about paying attention, i've noticed that with Italian wine, especially Sangiovese, it just becomes apparent that i'm drinking an Italian wine, and it's probably sangiovese, and that comes without thinking about it.  Usually similar with Tempranillo for me.

Memory's a great one Dm, and that brings up specialization.  We all have only so much hard drive space in our brain.  If you try to specialize in all world regions, even the up and coming ones and try to go for all of those sub-categories also, you'd have to pretty much devote your life to it to be relatively good or expert at everything.  With that, it's probably important to figure out what regions and varities you have a bigger thirst for, specialize in those areas/varities first, and branch out from there.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Sep 21, 2011.

Another thing:  Work on remembering smells, and not just food and wine smells.  For instance, forest floor, or wet carpet.  To me, the best grenache always leaves me with an after-aroma of wet carpet.  Even the next day.  Smell weird things, like the charcoal (careful not to breathe in too deeply!) before you light it, or wet leaves, or damp ground from different locations.  Smell the stems of grapes you buy.  Really try to remember where you first smelled a particular odor, or when that odor was really defining.  I was once standing on a trail in a really obscure, wooded area of San Francisco and smelled this smell and suddenly I remembered that it smelled like our morning cooking fires in Nicaragua.  Smell things that you don't even think of as having smells, like sugar, or that you think have generic smells, like different kinds of salt.  These odors have a huge influence on taste.  Smell the roasting pan you cooked lamb in before you wash it. When you smell something bad, don't just ignore it, but try to catalog that, too.

Try this, too:  Try looking at a food you eat often or have a really good sense of.  A tomato, or a mushroom. Different kinds of olives, or sprigs of rosemary or mint.  While you look at it, see if you can recall its taste, as clearly as you can, until you can actually taste it.  Look at another food right after and see if you can marry those two tastes as one.  Chefs do this, often without thinking about it.  It trains you to recall flavors and odors really well. 

Try not to do so much at any time that you get overwhelmed because your nose loses sensitivity, but try it everyday.

Okay, I am starting to sound like the Old Spice guy, with his stream of consciousness weirdness.

Reply by JoelCann, Sep 21, 2011.

I became interested in wine tasting (as opposed to wine drinking) about a decade ago, and lived in Europe for a significant portion of that time. My approach was to taste by country (one-by-one), region (again, one-by-one) and, where possible, by grape (exclusively single varietal recognising that sometimes blended wines (Rhone, Italy) are "typical". Slowly but surely, a picture or mental "wine map" appeared to me (it takes time).

I'd typically select 12 different wines from a selected region, and shopped at a store offering case (12 bottle) discounts to gain a saving and drink an average bottle price of GBP20.00. I often drank significantly more expensive wines, however, felt the GBP20.00 limit forced to identify the best wines on a price-per-point basis (upon tasting).

Finally, I purchased some Reidel glasses. It brought out the best out of GBP20.00 wines and enables you to identify its characteristics more easily. One of my wine epiphanys was listening to a podcast interview with a Reidel glass maker. He described how to use the glass to identify fruit, complexity and balance - without tasting the wine. Brilliant ! By the way, I recommend Reidel however any recognized brand will do the job.

I've used Hugh Johnson/Jancis Robinson "World Wine Atlas" since 2004 and it helps me mentally map wines by country/region and sub-region/variety and vintage.

I'd use a Wine Wheel (terminology is important - I'm not into an over-extensive wine vocabulary ... eg: muddy tractor tire !!!) and follow the wine critic who has a similar palate to me (Jancis Robinson). When she critiques, blogs, comments I generally think "that's how I responded to that wine/vintage/producer ... whatever".

Also, don't drink alone ... I find equally interesting to discuss a wine with friends as they often read a wine differently to me and they have their own "wine map" to share.

I'm a better taster for being experimental as well, have you tried any Alto Adige wines, sampled anything from Portugal or English champagne ?!


Reply by GregT, Sep 21, 2011.

D's comment about memory is important.  In fact, that's what you're developing when you pay attention - you're developing your memory.  We can easily describe our parents, children, spouses or people who are close to us.  We've interacted with them and we have all kinds of little events to hang on to that give texture to our memories and that make those memories more complete. 

Same with food and wine.  I can still remember my first encounter with limburger cheese as a child, and  gjietost, which for me is even worse. Those disgusting flavors are seared into my brain for life. Those over-the-top reactions help  us remember and if you ever choke on a wine, you'll remember that wine!

After a while, you can tell if a cheese comes from sheep's milk or cow's milk and if you taste a lot of cheeses from a region, you can tell that it's say, Gorgonzola vs Stilton or it's a Gorgonzola from this producer vs that one.

Then after you've become familiar with some wines, you use them to describe others - e.g. you think something is "Bordeaux-like" or something seems "Pinot Noir-like" or whatever.  (At least I do.)  What those terms mean is of course going to be unique to you. I do the same thing with other foods though - right now I'm drinking an awful coffee that tastes like it has cigarette ashes in it. Sigh.

I'm repeating myself but wine is no different from anything else.  I think what happened is that it is something that was kind of grafted onto American culture, which was a beer and whiskey culture since the founding days of the country.  Because it came relatively late, like in the 1970s, people weren't familiar with it and they looked for guidance.  Same thing with coffee however - I remember when the first espresso places popped up on New York and the various magazines had articles explaining what it was and how people in Europe drank it and what the terminology meant. 

That's now old-hat but then again, people already drank coffee every day, whereas the wine market is still growing.

Thus wine still has an unwarranted mystique. But the more you drink the more memory flavors you'll have.  Eventually you'll think to yourself "that tastes like it's Italian for some reason" and you may not know why but it's because you've associated some flavors/aromas with some French wines you've had.  May be wrong, may be right, but there's something that made you think that. When you figure out what that thing is, you'll know what brett is!  You always tasted it, but now you'll have a word for it. Doesn't mean you're a better taster, just means you're picking up a more specialized vocabulary.

That's kind of my problem with tasting wheels and such. They're useful in the way that a thesaurus is - as memory triggers.  But they shouldn't be used as primary sources. So if you can't quite remember the flavor in your head but it's familiar and someone says white peach, suddenly you have an "a ha" moment and you're good. But reading some notes, I'm thinking that people often pick and choose descriptors almost randomly. I mean, if you don't really know quince and guava and cassis and ganache, don't use those terms!!

Any how, again, it's not about writing detailed notes, the original question was about how to become a better taster and with this long-winded bit of bloviation, my suggestion is once again, just pay attention to what you're tasting and you'll be fine.  Good luck!


Reply by ScottLauraH, Sep 21, 2011.

Thank you all for your suggestions.  I think note taking is going to be my best friend.  If I am already able to pick out varietals and even regions, then something is sticking in my memory. I just need to figure out what the "something" is. 

Some of you compared wine tasting with tasting food.  I already cook quite a bit and I love to play with flavors.  I can remember and describe the taste of rosemary, garlic, cracked pepper, etc.  My guess is that if I can do these things with food, I should be able to do them with wine too. 

I'm going to start trying to take notes when I taste, and slow down a little too.  

Reply by Richard Foxall, Sep 21, 2011.

SLH (your new abbreviated moniker--and a great AVA for pinot!), lots of those food flavors are wine flavors, too--cherry, meat, olives, rosemary.  You're on your way already.

GregT:  Gjetost, yeah thanks for bringing back one of my worst cheese memories.  Never could understand what my hippie housemates liked about it. Ick.

Also like GregT's comment about not using things you don't REALLY know. Quince?  I have no idea.  Pretty sure I haven't tasted it in any way that stuck with me. 

Reply by dmcker, Sep 21, 2011.

Northern California agricultural accessibility and no quince, Fox? How about loquats and kumquats? Fortunately I had a whole side of the family that always made jellies from them and many others.

Perhaps another rationale for travel could be to enhance your olifactory range. Go to foreign locales and be sure to visit the markets. Stop and enquire about things that look and smell good. Buy, eat, remember.

And frequent local farmer's markets, too, or those in domestic areas you travel to.

Reply by kimbero, Sep 21, 2011.

Taste, taste and TASTE! There is no other way to improve your skills.

Taste, take notes, compare, sniff spices that you don't know, and different versionsof the ones you do know- not to have a descriptive (they are subjective), but rather to open up your sense of smell to new things.

Get your 10,000 hours in!

Reply by napagirl68, Sep 21, 2011.

Tasting is a great idea!  And for sure, I have done a LOT of that!  But what I lack.. is that connection to the smells/ tastes of many a variety of substances which enable one to describe a wine.  I sometimes use the wrong descriptor, when I really mean something else.    I was informed that here, in my wine country area, is an intensive class to identify/taste wines from all over the world.  I wanted to take it this year, but schedule got in the way.  I still intend on taking the class.  In the words of wineworkers who have taken the class... they always knew what they liked, but had a hard time verbalizing it to tasters they were serving, or employees.  Mental memories of smells/flavors can get mixed up with what you describe when you taste something.  A class of this type, I believe, can clarify those descriptors, for the purpose of communicating our experience of a wine to others.  I totally understand.. I have been tongue-tied at times to describe what I was PERFECTLY tasting.  Look for a REPUTABLE tasting course.

Reply by ScottLauraH, Sep 22, 2011.

@Napagirl, I think I may suffer from the same issue as you.  It's not that don't actually taste the nuances and spices in the wine.  It's these nuances that allow me to pick out varietals, even in a blend.  However, I cannot seem to VERBALIZE them. 

@Foxall and GregT, fully agree that it's useless to use descriptors you don't even know...almost ridiculous even.  Lychee?  No clue.  Quince?  Never had one.  When I see words like that in a wine description, I think to myself, "Still have no clue what that may taste like....."

As for my new abbreviated moniker: it may help you all to know that 99.99999999% of the time it's the "Laura" portion of "ScottLauraH" that is posting.  The day I signed up for Snooth I was suffering from a lack of creativity and just used the first part of our email address.  The "Scott" portion loves wine, but calls me obsessed, and is much more likely to lurk than post.  Just an FYI :)

Reply by Richard Foxall, Sep 22, 2011.

SLH: Yeah, I told JD last week when we had dinner that your were a female, at least when there were posts. 

D and SLH: Yeah, go figure about the quinces.  I just haven't had them in any memorable form.  But lychees, those we have.  And kumquats for sure.  When we had friends over for dinner one night, they asked what they could bring, and I jokingly said, "kumquats."  They were in season, but I didn't actually expect them to show up with them.  Lots of them.  Be careful what you wish for indeed.

NG:  Let me know in a PM where and when this class is.  I am interested and it may be close enough to me that I can go...

One thing to keep in mind is that the wine tastes of different things at different times and can also be (accurately) described in more than one way because the flavors and smells are combinatory.  Also, our sensory apparatus is peculiar, varies from person to person in slight ways, and can be thrown off in many ways.  We also have different preferences to some degree based on the individuation of our sensory abilities. But, duh, everyone here knows that much. 

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 22, 2011.

Yes, SLH, Fox did enlighten me.  I assumed you were a guy, but then something didn't seem right about that, so it all made sense. Cheers to becoming better tasters.

Reply by kimbero, Sep 22, 2011.

I have an aroma kit, which helps, and a defect kit, which is also useful to identify when wine is off.  I bought some herbal teas to sniff (don't laugh!), and you can even go to home depot and sniff all the herb plants! Whatever works...

I personally don't like generic descriptors- how many times have we heard "dark fruit" "nuances of cassis" "dark chocolate", "lychee", "melon",  etc.,  but obviously one has to articulate what one smells.  The thing is, what may smell like "dulce de leche" (A descriptor I have used) to me, may smell like creme brulee to you, or apple pie, or just simply vanilla to someone else.  Depending on one's personal and ethic background, you will associate smells with things that are familiar to YOU. Then of course, there are aromas that are pretty universal, like oregano, smoke, cherry, leather, etc...but that is just a question of practice.  Temperature will also affect which aromas come out more predominantly, or at all.

I would also get to know, to the extent possible, as many expressions of a varietal as possible, as although they vary, there will be some common aromas coming through (i.e. cab franc tends to have a mentholated aroma somewhere present...)

That's what is so passionate about wine- you never stop learning.  Wines evolve, our perceptions mutate according to the food that accompanies it (or lack of food accompanying), or the time of day, or atmosphere, or how the wine was stored, etc...Just when you think you've really learned a lot, you later realize that there is an infinite amount to discover.


Reply by TomG, Sep 22, 2011.

(Scott)Laura(H) and Foxall - I've never had an actual quince either, but get yourself some quince paste and put a dab on a slice of manchego cheese with almost any kind of pear (I like Anjou) and maybe a glass of Rioja...   Then you can add "quince paste" to your taste memory/vocabulary, and have an outstanding appertif as well!

Reply by Richard Foxall, Sep 22, 2011.

TomG:  Great advice.  Although dmcker is right to hassle me for not eating quince, since I am always going on about the bounty that's available in my backyard (sometimes literally).  Resolved:  Quince before the end of September!

kimbero: I just met the founder of a new, high end tea company--actually, I moderated a panel he was on, don't ask why--and he made me want to buy tea for the same reason.  Not to drink, no interest.  Just because there are so many nuanced smells to learn from.  Your point about also about the same smell having two names, or more:  I work across the street (hey, we could make this a game--tell me where I work!) from a coffee roaster and many times when the coffee is roasting, it smells just like toast.  Plain old toast.  But it's coffee roasting--same smell.  Also, re: cab franc, that note can be menthol from any kind of mint, tomato leaf, green pepper, all depending on its iintensity and how other notes--leather, toast, oak, tobacco, various fruits--cover it up.  And that note can show up in slightly greener cab sauv, and a bunch of other places.  But it's almost always there in cab franc. Still, you can be fooled.

We used to get this "shiner" syrah called Bangers and Mash that, when you first opened it, you thought they made a mistake, and it was cab.  Then, on the finish, it went all Syrah on you... even though Syrah can be one of the most varied grapes, super-sensitive to growing conditions, this did not lose its Syrah typicity even though it was pretty fruit-forward.  I tried to track it down through folks in the business--didn't know about outthere yet, but maybe he knows since it came from Sonoma County-- because I wondered if they blended in a little cab or what.  Never could figure out who put it out there, so I am just accepting that this syrah fooled me a little.  After all, the Bords that made Bordeaux famous often had Rhone Syrah in the blend that had been brought in to improve them, or because the grapes didn't ripen well enough in Bordeaux.  Those fooled folks into thinking that they were cab, too.

Reply by ScottLauraH, Sep 22, 2011.

There certainly aren't any wine tasting classes in this area.  Perhaps I will be able to find some when we move to Northern Virginia at the end of the year.

Foxall, I'm glad that you realized I am female!

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