Recognizing Wine Attributes

One of my favorite wine-centric websites is by Madeline Puckette.  You may be familiar with Wine Folly for it’s creative visual education.

Over a year ago had a post on recognizing attributes in wine.  I did the suggested exercise and wrote about it for a wine column I had when I lived in Washington.  Recently I thought, “Why haven’t I shared this with my DeepRedCellar audience!”  So here you go, step-by-step directions to easily learn the basics of knowing what you taste in wine.

Start by purchasing a mid-range ($10-$15) bottle of dry red wine, a blend would be nice.  Pour five 3 oz. glasses of wine, using the same style glass.  Keep one glass of wine as your untouched dry red wine.  In one glass, soak one black tea bag for 10 minutes, remove the bag and stir to incorporate.  In one glass, squeeze the juice from half of lemon and stir to incorporate.  In one glass, pour 1 tsp. sugar, stir to incorporate.  In one glass, pour 1 tsp. vodka, stir to incorporate.  TO START EACH OF THE BELOW SECTIONS, TASTE YOUR UNTOUCHED WINE BY SWISHING IT AROUND IN YOUR MOUTH THEN SWALLOWING.

TANNIN:  Taste your tea infused wine by swishing it around in your mouth then swallowing.  You will immediately feel bitterness, followed by astringency on the front portion of your tongue, possibly like fine-grained sand paper.

ACIDITY:  Taste your lemon infused wine by swishing then swallowing.  Your mouth will pucker and water.  The wine will taste more astringent and tart, maybe more bitter.

SWEETNESS:  Taste your sugar infused wine by swishing then swallowing.  Pay attention here, the wine will not taste sweeter, but fruitier.  The wine will also have an oily sensation; this may take a second sip to feel.

ALCOHOL:  Taste your vodka infused wine by swishing then swallowing.  The wine will have a thicker mouth feel and may feel spicier and warm in your throat.  The warm feeling will linger.



Crazy Wine Descriptors

You have probably been around someone who uses crazy words to describe their wine. If you drink enough wine, you may be one of those people. So why do we use these terms? Wine descriptors help us put words to our wine. Imagine if someone were to ask you to describe what an apple tastes like. What would you say? It taste like an apple! The only way to describe the apple would be to come up with similarities or comparisons. When someone says a glass of wine tastes like black cherry, plum, dark chocolate and spice you can hear the words and know what they mean when you drink the wine.

So let’s break down some of those crazy descriptors:

Chewy/Furry – the wine has a ton of tannin and dries out your mouth so much that you almost feel like chewing; your mouth is dry to the point of being completely void of moisture and feels furry

Cigar/Cigar Box – usually found in refined red wines and is the presence of the smell/flavor of tobacco or tobacco leaves like a cigar; when it is slightly sweeter and has cedar wood and smoke, this is cigar box

Creamy – white wine or sparkling wine fermented or aged in oak that takes on a creamy feel in your mouth – the term buttery is also used (can be due to Malolactic Fermentation)

Grassy – it is actually legitimate when a person puts their nose in a glass of sauvignon blanc smells freshly mowed grass – that aroma in the wine shares the same chemical compound found in the smell of mowed grass

Green Pepper – some grapes carry the same savory aroma compound (pyrazines) as a bell pepper, especially Bordeaux origin grapes like sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc; the smell and taste will be similar to a cut bell pepper

Jammy – thick, cooked berry taste, smell and sometimes feel in the mouth often used to describe grenache, shiraz, and zinfandel

Leather – found in quality red wine because of tannin present in grape skins, seeds and oak barrels; tannins are also used to tan leather; smell and/or lick your belt or purse, you’ll get the idea

Toast – aroma due to wine being aged in toasted oak barrels; not bread toast, more like barely burnt caramel


The Five S’s of Wine Tasting


Wine is a drink of passion, meticulously crafted, aged (sometimes for years), for one purpose…for you to enjoy. Don’t waste your experience, take a minute to fully taste your wine:


Look at the wine. Color can reveal condition and body. White wine turns darker and browner with age. Red wine turns lighter and browner with age. Browning is caused by oxidation and could indicate bad wine. For body, look down into the glass. A fuller bodied wine is darker colored than a lighter bodied wine.


Before swirling, quickly sniff for an aroma preview. Next swirl the wine a couple times and take a deep sniff or two. Swirling vaporizes alcohol and concentrates aromas.


Smell the wine for aromas, off-odors, etc. The best part of smelling is that scent can trigger powerful memories. Smelling grass in Sauvignon Blanc, for example, may take you back to the summers you spent rolling down the hill in grandpa’s backyard.


Sip then “chew” the wine to coat your mouth and warm the wine. You can even let in a little air. Look for sweetness/fruit, saltiness, sourness/acidity, bitterness/tannin and alcohol. Sweetness/fruit is sensed mainly on the tip of the tongue. Sourness/acidity is perceived mostly on the sides and tip of the tongue. Bitterness/tannin is sensed on the back of the tongue and also on the gums, roof of the mouth and interior of the cheek.  Alcohol warms the throat and chest. What’s your overall impression? Does any component over power the others or are they in harmony? If harmonious, the wine is balanced.


Write down or brain file key traits. Over time, you may be able to distinguish the grape and possibly the country, region, etc. By taking time to focus, you will enjoy and appreciate your wine more.


Questions you wish someone would answer…

I have some great followers on Deep Red Cellar and I appreciate you letting me indulge in spouting off about the pleasures of food and wine.

Scott Pugh, a friend and wine-enthusiast, is one such follower.  He wrote asking questions that have come up as he advances in his personal wine enjoyment.  I thought the questions were good so wanted to answer them on Deep Red Cellar.   I have a hunch many of you have the same questions.

So here we go.  Pour a glass, sit back and enjoy this lengthy but hopefully informative read:

1.  As an amateur wine enthusiast, what should my palate be able to do?

ANSWER:  Simply put, your palate should be able to tell you what you like.  You taste a wine and either go “Mmmm” or “Ewww” or somewhere in between.  You may not think about it when sipping but you probably know the basics such as which varietals (grapes) you like and if you like wines that are crisp, fruity, oaky or tannic.  The next step (which I’ll address in question 2) is being able to discern what those flavor profiles mean.  Keep in mind, everyone’s palate is different so I may say “Mmmm” to a wine and you say “Ewww” – that’s perfectly fine.  Also, your palate will mature as you advance in your wine knowledge – the more you drink the more you learn.   If you want to learn more about the wines of Burgundy, for example, start focusing on drinking wines from that region.

2.  How can I develop my knowledge and palate to be able to make a reasonably good choice in accordance with my preferences whether at a restaurant or wine shop?

ANSWER: Staring at a wine list in a restaurant or the shelves of a wine store can be overwhelming but you can go through a few steps to determine what you like.  I’ll tell you the process I go through (just no way around it, this details of this answer are long) :

  • Determine the country or varietal to hone in on as your starting point.  It would be useful to study up on varietals, the following site may be helpful –
  • Decide the style (see below).
  • Pair with the food you will be enjoying (pairings also below).
  • I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for good wine labels so in a store I often search out labels and then decide if the wine with the cool label is something that meets my critieria.
  • If money is an important factor, an additional tactic would be to point at a price on the wine shelves or on the menu so the wine shop owner/sommelier knows what you’re looking to spend.

Decide the Style (without getting into a dissertation):

  1. Crisp – Crisp wine means acidic wine.  As a general rule, the acidity of a wine has to do with the region where it is grown and the variety of the grape.  To keep it simple, a cool climate usually produces a higher acid wine (think Burgundy, Mosel, Oregon) and a warmer climate usually produces a lower acid wine (think Bordeaux, Rioja, California).  It’s good to know your geography though because grapes grown on a mountain with little sun to ripen the fruit will be higher in acid than grapes grown closer to the sea that have spent hours soaking up the sun.  In addition, barrel aging smooths out wine so wines that have spent little or no time in barrels tend to be crisper.  Words that describe crisp – bright, tart, lively, etc.  Examples of crisp wines are dry Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio.
  2. Fruity – this term is technically not a great descriptor but used so often, I felt the need to mention it.  Some may think of fruity only as sweet but fruity can also mean ripe-tasting, soft or user-friendly.   All wine should taste like the grape it is made with so it may be best to think of the grapes on a scale from lean to lush (ex. lean…sauvignon blanc, to chardonnay, to pinot noir, to cabernet sauvignon…lush).  Examples of fruity wines are often young reds, look for pinot noir from Oregon with jammy qualities and young Napa, Sonoma or Bordeaux blends.
  3. Oaky – this term is used regularly.  Wine professionals often refer to oak barrels as the “wine-makers spice rack.”  Barrels can enrobe the wine with aromas & flavors making them stronger and richer, body making them fuller (full bodied wine – think whole milk or cream) and color making them darker.  Words that describe oaky – butter, vanilla, nutty, tobacco, burnt toast, smokey, etc.  Examples of wines that can be oaky are merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, grenache and zinfandel.
  4. Tannic – tannin is a natural component found in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes.  During production, the juice of the grapes soaks in these elements to receive color but at the same time the juice is  soaking up the tannins.  Tannin is more of a texture than a flavor.  A low tannin wine usually feels silky (ex. barbera), a medium tannin wine feels noticeably drier but still smooth (ex. merlot), a high tannin wine makes your mouth feel dried out, even furry or leathery (ex. cabernet sauvignon).  Since white wine doesn’t come into contact with the skins, seeds and stems, tannin is only found in red wine.  Examples of wines that can be tannic are merlot, cabernet sauvignon, barbaresco, petit sirah, tempranilla and shiraz.


A quick (general) tip if you forget everything else  – when pairing white, high acid wines think:  spicy, lean -fish/poultry, creamy cheeses, fruit.  On the other hand, when pairing red, low acid wines think:  hearty meats & stews, gamey fowl, strong cheeses, bittersweet chocolate desserts.  Keep an eye out here, you’ll see a pattern:

Gewurztraminer:  spicy foods (Asian/Caribbean/Indian/Thai), camembert, cinnamon, cilantro, scallops, turkey

Riesling:  apples & apple desserts, spicy foods (Asian/Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese), ceviche, cilantro, brie, baked ham

Sauvignon Blanc:  veggies, spicy foods (Asian/Mexican/Thai/Indian), sushi, roasted chicken, calamari, brie

Chardonnay:  butter sauces, rich seafoods like lobster and crab, salmon, baked chicken, veal

Pinot Noir:  charcuterie, lean beef, roasted duck, fennel, foie gras, mushrooms, grilled salmon, smoked meat, ahi tuna

Merlot:  prime rib, braised dishes, duck, lamb, chili, blue cheese, gouda

Cabernet Sauvignon:  grilled, stewed, or braised beef, smoked meats, osso buco, pork, game birds, gorgonzola, parmessan

Syrah/Shiraz:  barbeque, braised dishes, chili, duck – esp. grilled or peking, grilled meats like venison, steak or hamburgers with ketchup, mushrooms, aged or hard cheeses like gouda or pecorino

3.  When the sommelier opens the wine bottle and presents me with the cork then a small sip, what exactly should I be accomplishing?


Cork – When the cork is placed in front of you, do with it as you wish.  Some people smell it but that really doesn’t divulge much in regards to the quality of the wine.  If anything you can touch the part of the cork that is stained with color to see if it is moist signifying it was stored properly on it’s side.  I usually look at the cork to see if the red staining goes to the top of the cork – this could signify a wine that is corked or spoiled.  Tasting it will verify this for you.  Personally, if nothing else, when drinking red wine, I look at the beautiful color on the cork for the enticing tease of what is to come.

Tasting – This should not be a complex, nerve-racking event.  Simply smell then sip.  You are not doing this to see if you like the wine (unless the sommelier selected it for you) but rather to see if the wine is in good condition.  NOTE:  If the sommelier did select the wine and you don’t care for it when you sip, then it would be appropriate to be politely honest and say so.

4.  Do sommeliers really have that advanced of a palate that they can nail a varietal, a region and even a vintage?

ANSWER:  Believe it or not if someone has reached the level of “Master Sommelier” or “Master of Wine” they will more than likely be able to articulate varietal, region and yes, remarkably even the vintage!  Besides certified professionals some wine industry experts and even talented wine enthusiasts can pull off some of these traits as well.  There is debate out there whether this keen palate is genetics or lots of practice.  I hope it’s lots of practice since it’s definitely not in my genes (neither of my parents drink).

I hope that answered some questions without boring you to tears.  If like Scott, you have unanswered questions, please feel free to write and let me know.  I’d be happy to answer them for you!

Bottom Line – the more you drink the more you learn so get out there and be a conscious wine drinker!


Soucre:  “Great Wine Made Simple” Andrea Immer Robinson, Broadway Books, trademark of Random House, Inc., 2005