The Five Ss of Wine Tasting: See, Swirl, Smell, Sip, and Savor

wine tasting

First Up is See

This is a long, but good one about wine tasting. Feel free to print it and continue reading it later. Or, just bookmark this page for future reference. Don’t be afraid to share it either!

So you’re at a party and someone swirls a glass of wine, holds it up to the light and comments on its “legs.”

Should you be impressed?

Heck no. That person clearly came alone and is just trying to get some attention.

The only reason to hold a glass up to the light is because you’re looking for the gnat that fell in.

If you really want to “see” the wine in your glass, tip it over a white surface. Now the color is accurate. If it’s a lighter white or a purpley red, its probably a younger wine. As they age, white wines get darker, whereas red wines get lighter. But both will tend towards brown.

But now your brain is prepared. If it’s a younger wine, you can probably expect fruitier flavors when you taste it. An older wine will have less fruit, more “earthiness”.

Too much brown can also mean the wine is bad. So prepare for that too.

If your red wine has black sludge at the bottom of the glass, it’s because its aged. It’s the result of a scientific process, but since we skipped Chemistry class, think of it as the coloring dripping out of the wine and falling to the bottom. That’s why reds get lighter as they age.

Can you drink the sludge? It certainly won’t hurt you and if you pour us 1945 Chateau Lafite odds are good we’re going to lick the glass clean.

Now We Swirl

Now try to swirl it. Though be careful, you don’t want to be wearing your wine.

Your best bet is to put your glass on a flat surface, slip the stem between two fingers and swirl.

Swirling allows some oxygen to get into your glass. There are over 200 compounds in wine that you can smell, so by letting the oxygen in, you’re releasing them.

You then may notice the wine dripping down the glass. The French call those drippings “tears.” No surprise, we Americans like to refer to them as “legs” – because, no doubt, we’d rather talk about legs than tears.

The more legs in your glass, the more alcohol in the wine.

But let’s be clear — legs do not equal quality — they just equal alcohol.

Now this whole see/swirl process should take about 30 seconds.

If you spend more time than that, maybe it’s you who came alone.

Let’s Smell the Wine

See. Swirl. Smell. Sip. Savor.

We’ve already covered See and Swirl in last week’s newsletter but here’s a quick refresher before we move on to Smell.

Seeing the wine in your glass can be a tip-off that it may be bad but it helps your brain anticipate the varietal you’re about to taste.

Swirling your wine lets the oxygen in so all those fabulous aromas are set free.

And once you “see and swirl,” it’s time to actually stick your nose in that glass and smell it.


Quick science lesson: The olfactory bulb, which is behind your nose, under your brain, takes everything you smell and sends it to your brain.

And that helps determine how things taste.

Hold your nose and then eat or drink something. It’ll taste like nothing.

You need your nose.And to help your nose and further enhance the scents of your wine, Kevin Zraly, one of the world’s greatest wine teachers and founder of the 41-year- old Windows on the World Wine School, even suggests you swirl with your hand over the top of your glass. That will trap those fragrances. (Caution: that’s a lot like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.)

But then when you lift your hand and take a huge whiff, those aromas should be intensified.

So what do you smell?

To start, if the wine smells like dirty socks, it’s probably no good.

If not, make it simple. Do you smell fruits? Or flowers? Or something else?

And you might not know at first. Learning how to smell is a skill you can hone in on.

Just walk around your house and start smelling things.

Everyone seems to have a vanilla candle these days. Smell it every time you pass it.

Or start smelling your fruits. Cut them open, hold them up to your nose and take a big whiff. From your citrus to your berries.

For instance, that blackberries smell? You will start to recognize it the next time you stick your nose in a glass of Merlot.

Or pull out some spices. Anise. Nutmeg. Oregano. Black pepper. Start recognizing those scents.

Cut up a green pepper. Smell it. Your brain will remember that smell and the next time you pick up a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Lots of people talk about the “minerality” in wine. Stand on the sidewalk in the rain and smell it. Actually get down on your hands and knees and smell the sidewalk.

Or lick a rock – seriously — same thing. My dear friend and Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan made me do that moons ago and my brain still remembers the experience – and the smell.

So do it — – and then you’ll recognize that minerality scent the next time you have a Chablis or a Red Burgundy.

If you really want to practice, you can buy an aroma kit. Le Nez Du Vin is one of the best out there, though it’s expensive at $400. But it comes with 54 little vials of essence that cover everything from lavender to leather and can help train your nose.

Because once your nose recognizes what it’s smelling, your brain will get even more excited about what you’re about to taste.

So it will make that sip so much more intense. Which is why we will discuss “Sipping and Savoring” next. Stay tuned.

I hope you’ve been practicing! By now you know how to See, and Swirl.

And you also know that the next step is to stick your nose in the glass and inhale — BIG — so you could try to identify your wine’s Smell.

You did all that to get your brain ready for the grand finale.

It’s Time to Sip and Savor

So thankfully, it’s time to Sip and Savor.

I originally wrote this for The Sip for Bottlenotes. But let’s get to it!

If it’s your first drink of the day, take an initial quick Sip to get your palate ready.

Then take a second sip, that’s about one or two tablespoons, and swish it around your mouth, like it’s Listerine.

Even better, try to pull in some air while the wine is in your mouth, as if you’re sucking threw a straw. (It’s acquired skill, we get it. So beware of the dribble as you practice.)

Then for the next 30 seconds or so pay attention — and Savor — what happens in your mouth.

See if you can answer these questions.

Was there an initial pop? Or did it slip down your throat and disappear?

Does it have acid? Acid is that tartness that balances out the sugar. Think of citrus drinks, like orange juice or lemonade. Acid helps a wine (or your juice) feel crisp and fresh and makes you want to take another sip. Without it, the wine is flat and sour so you might as well dump it out.

Is there a lot of Alcohol? While, you may feel some heat in the back of your throat, alcohol typically adds weight to the wine. It could actually feel heavy on your tongue. It’s like the difference between skim milk, whole milk or heavy cream, says Kevin Zraly, one of the world’s greatest wine teachers and founder of the 41-year- old Windows on the World Wine School. Your big Cabernets will feel like heavy cream, whereas a good Pinot Noir may be more like whole milk and think of a light Rosé as your skim.

Is there sweetness? Do you taste the residual sugar or is it just dry? Can you taste the fruit?

Does it have tannin? Tannins dry out your mouth and make your tongue feel like it can stick to the roof of your mouth. Tannins come from the grape skins, seeds and stems and help keep the wine safe while it ages, which is why you’ll often find them in red wines.

What’s the length? How long does the wine stay with you after you spit or swallow? Generally, the longer the length, the higher the quality.

And finally is it balanced? When a wine is balanced, everything is seamless.

Think of it like fruit at the bottom of a yogurt, says Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine. “Once you mix it up you can’t tell the difference between the fruit and the yogurt.” So everything from the acidity to the alcohol work in harmony and don’t jar your mouth separately.

Some people even take notes. Whatever works.

As long as you keep drinking wine with us.

Cent’ Anni!

Tracy Byrnes has what many might call a dream gig, matching a career as an experienced and well-respected business... More about Tracy Byrnes

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