Wine 101: The Proper Way to Taste (5 S’s)
This blog post is a summary of the first lesson I teach in all of my Wine 101 classes, and some may argue the most important…how to taste wine.
Now there are a thousand ways to taste wine, some proper and some improper. When I’m casually drinking wine, I typically observe no set method, at trade tastings the 5S method, and for formal evaluation I use the WSET approved tasting method (this is usually when I’m taking a test or studying for a test for the WSET). Why are there such formal ways to taste wine? Wine is made primarily to be enjoyed, and unfortunately sometimes during that enjoyment we forget to pay attention to whats actually going on in our mouth. Formal tasting methods help give us a structure about what we should be looking for and how our palette is reacting to a specific wine.
The 5S method is something I’ve used for quite some time. It’s been adapted from a number of articles on tasting methods, input from trade friends and partners, and adjustments I’ve made to make it easier. Simply just follow the 5 S’s…
Begin your evaluation by looking at (and through) the wine. I often hold my wine up to a white background and look for three key things: color and clarity. The color of the wine can give you an indication not only of what grape you are about to taste but the body of the wine, flavor, and sometimes even oak treatments. The clarity will alert you to any sediment in the wine.
Swirling wine is not just something wine snobs do. It actually has a very clear purpose…to break apart the aroma molecules (by hitting them against the glass) so it is easier for us to identify those aromas in the wine.
Someone once told me that everyone has a dominant nostril. I never believed it, until I tried it. My dominant nostril is my right. In this step take a sniff of the wine. Some take on long, deep sniff…others a few short ones. I play around with each wine until I can clearly identify some aromas. My beginners tip is to always shoot for the target, not the bulls-eye when identifying aromas. It is completely acceptable (at any level) to say ‘citrus fruits’ if you can identify if its lemon or lime. Try picking aroma categories: red fruit vs. black fruit, oak vs. spice, mineral vs. earth.
Here is the fun part. First, take a quick sip and then swallow (or spit) the wine immediately without thinking about it. This wakes up your palette and prepares it for the wine. After that, I issue you a challenge. Take a sip of the wine, swirl it around your mouth and pay attention to what happens in your mouth…for a full 30 seconds. Don’t speak, don’t think about anything else except that wine. Is your mouth watering from the acidity? Is the tip of your tongue awakened from the sweetness? Are you gums drying out from the tannins? After you’ve completed your 30 second test, take another sip and try to identify the flavors in the wine. Are they the same or different from the aromas you found?
This is the evaluation part of the tasting. How long is the finish (how long the entire flavor of the wine stays on your palette)? Did you like the wine? Would you buy it again? How much would you pay for it? How would you pair this with food?
Learning how to appropriately evaluate a wine is important for wine connoisseurs at any level. After all, would you continue to buy a particular flavor of ice cream if you disliked it…correct? I’ve found the 5S method a good starting point for formal wine evaluation (and a relatively quick one). But for more detailed evaluations and resources, visit the links below.
- Wine Aroma Wheel: A great tool for identifying aromas and flavors
- WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting: Details on the full scope of formal tasting
- How We Taste: Wine Spectator explains their approach to tasting and rating wine