How to Taste Wine — Outsmarting Wine

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“I’m not good at wine,” is the sheepishly exasperated refrain I always hear. “I just don’t get all those things — the plums, the oak, the butter — that stuff experts talk about.”

My response: You’re not alone and frankly I just don’t know how some enthusiasts detect things like tomato leaves, sweaty saddle and other exotica in their fermented grape juice. There are, however, useful descriptors that many experts use, like oaky, crisp and soft, that can help you communicate to store clerks and sommeliers what kind of wine you really like. Here are three ways to build your wine-tasting vocabulary.

Drink Simultaneously: That is, pour two or more tastes and see if you can smell and taste differences between them. In the vernacular of a boozy frat guy, “double-fist” it. This is why wine bars that serve so-called wine flights — a series of tastes at the same time — are invaluable for learning about wine. If you just drink sequentially, as we normally do, it is infinitely more difficult to remember the previous wine and appreciate the differences among the wines.

Peek at the Answers: Like glancing at the answer key of an exam book, it helps to compare your own thoughts with those of an expert, whether it’s written on the wine list, or in a blog, magazine or book. While you may not always agree with their assessment — after all, critiquing wine, like art or music, is largely subjective — you’ll begin to build your own vinous vocabulary.

Practice Makes Perfect: Think of tasting wine as the world’s most enjoyable homework. Like learning a language, the going gets easier when you exercise your skills often and mindfully. But unlike logging hours in a language lab, the longer your bottle-based homework session goes, the finer you will feel.

Photo by: Amy Fletcher ©

Amy Fletcher,

Every week, Mark Oldman -- wine expert, acclaimed author and lead judge of the hit series The Winemakers -- shares with readers the basics of wine, while making it fun and practical. In the coming weeks, he'll tell you what to ask at a wine store, at what temperature to serve it and share his must-have wine tools.

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