To thy own self drink true: Deciding what wines you like and why you like them

Courtesy of Danielle Joy Photography

Friends and folks I hardly know often comment, “I don’t know anything about wine other than that I like it.” It’s the sort of confession that working in the wine world elicits from people. At the core of the confession is a sense of curiosity. I believe wine drinkers wish to understand why they like a certain wine. This level of self-knowledge empowers us around wine menus and aisles. Employing the Five S’s of wine tasting (See, Swirl, Smell, Sip, Savor (or Spit), doesn’t just allow you to evaluate a single wine you’re drinking, it is the ideal way to understand your overall wine preferences.  (written for the Los Altos Town Crier)

Plus, being wholly aware of your surroundings is the right way to experience life and wine. It’s sort of like taking a moment to notice the sunset before slipping into the waves for an evening ocean swim – that pause to appreciate the horizon makes the swim all the more exceptional. When you are next enjoying a glass, make your way through the Five S’s, starting with See. 

Looking closely at your wine gets your palate and your brain prepared for what you are about to drink.  


Now it’s time to look at a wine’s clarity, brightness and color. 

To begin with, the sight evaluation step will ensure you don’t drink a wine that has gone off. If, for instance, the wine is overly cloudy or hazy it might need to be discarded. A small amount of haze (sediment) might indicate an unfiltered or aged wine and taking a sniff will confirm if it is flawed. If the wine appears in good condition, start looking for other clues about what it will taste like. 

Brightness, which is in lockstep with clarity, is a wine’s ability to reflect light. The spectrum of brightness goes like this: cloudy, hazy, dull, bright, day bright, star bright, brilliant. 

The lighter in color a wine is, the more light it can reflect. A wine like sauvignon blanc may be so bright it is nearly colorless and therefore designated as “brilliant.” To really see a wine’s brightness, tilt your glass slightly so the wine is at an angle and let it reflect onto a white piece of paper. Once you’ve discerned the brightness, use the color/hue to learn more. 

The color of the wine says a whole lot about it. It’s safe to deduct, for instance, that a lighter colored wine is from a cooler climate, and a wine deeper in color is from a warmer climate. A wine’s age also affects color. Red wines generally become more translucent as they age, while age makes whites and rosés darker. Storage factors in, too. An oak-aged chardonnay will certainly reflect its barrel time in its color.  

Wines have a range of colors. By holding the glass first straight on, then slightly angled and up to a light source, you will see where the wine falls on the color scale:  

White wines are straw, yellow, gold and brown. 

Rosé wines are pink, salmon and brown. 

Red wines are purple, ruby (red), garnet (brown or yellow) and brown. 

If you’re drinking red wine, you should look for rim variation. Holding your glass again at an angle will allow you to see how the color varies between the center area and the border (rim) of the wine in your glass. Age produces rim variation and the more there is in the glass you’re drinking the older the wine must be.  

To finish off the work our eyes do while evaluating wine, we need to swirl it. 

Swirl and Sniff

The nose knows. 

Red, white, rosé, doesn’t matter, swirl away. Swirling the wine aerates it, which releases aromatic attributes.  

Once you’ve spun the wine around in your glass a few times, hold up your glass and take a look at the legs – the clear droplets that hang onto the glass after spinning it. The slower the legs slide down the sides of the glass, the higher the alcohol level of the wine. 

Create some centrifugal motion and prepare to sniff. 

Our sense of smell is responsible for about 85% of our enjoyment of wine, which is great news because your nose is a genius with an incredible memory. Thanks to the work of your olfactory system, you have the ability to recall thousands and thousands of different smells. So when we drink wine, and talk about the aromas present, we are relying on the information our nose has stored over the years. To drive the point home, just recall how flavorless food is when you eat while you’ve got a stuffy nose. 

This is all to say that you have within your olfactory memory the ability to take your enjoyment of wine to new levels. The struggle is usually with naming what you are smelling. You can probably bring to mind the smell of butterscotch, pencil shavings and eucalyptus instantly in your mind but often times connecting these aromas in wine with your brain can be challenging. With practice, and by keeping a wine journal of aromas, you will strengthen your aroma-brain connection. 

Directly after giving your wine a good swirl, place your nose inside the rim of your glass.

The way you smell wine is somewhat of a personal choice. Some folks like to take one large and long sniff. Others go for a series of short, small inhalations, and you’ll see some people use both their mouth and nose to smell the wine (i.e. mouth open and taking in air right along with your nose). Whatever your preferred method, once you’ve taken a smell, stop for a moment so that your brain can connect with what’s happening.

Note: I think it is important to wait between smells of the same wine so that the receptors in your olfactory system have time to reset. You’ll find that smelling the same wine again and again without a break will actually lessen your ability to pick up aromas. 


Now things are getting exciting.

Tasting wine is the number one way to decide what your wine preferences are. In addition to what flavors you taste, how you feel about what the wine does to your mouth will determine what you do and do not like. For instance, if you are drinking a red wine, you can pay attention to tannins. Tannins give an acidity and bitterness to wine, similar to that found in tea or coffee. This acidity may be perceived as a fuzziness on your tongue.  

Old World and New World wines do different things to your mouth that are worth paying attention to. A wine from the Old World might totally dry out your palate from its minerality. 

New World wines will tend to leave a juicy feeling in your mouth. Pay attention to these feelings to help you fine-tune your own personal tastes.

Doing so will give you confidence when selecting from a list or shop of unfamiliar wines (i.e. if you like what minerality does, you’ll know to choose an Old World wine). 

You’ll see people doing funny slurping things when they taste wine. They are basically bringing air in to splatter the wine all over the insides of their mouths. The idea that taste buds live in divided areas of the tongue was debunked ages ago. So getting the wine all around makes sure that you are taking advantage of the taste buds and their receptors in every nook and cranny of your mouth. At the same time, drawing air in ensures that your olfactory system is fully engaged and continuing its work to help you understand what you are drinking. If you want to give it a go, here’s what to do. 

  • Take a good guzzle of wine into your mouth  
  • Place your lips in a whistling position and suck in air 
  • If you’re doing it right, you should be making a nice gurgle sound 
  • The characteristics of the wine should be bouncing everywhere, and you have a decision to make. 

Savor (or Spit)

The choice is yours. Step Five is to either savor or spit the wine. If you’re tasting strictly for evaluation purposes or tasting a great many wines, you need to get rid of the wine into some sort of spittoon. If you’re having a glass, savor away! 

Take a few notes in your phone or a wine journal about the wines you’re drinking. It will take just a few moments, but will help you understand your wine preferences and make you a more informed wine buyer and drinker.  


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