The 5 S’s of Wine Tasting

Wine tasting doesn’t have to be intimidating. Wine tasting should be both rewarding and memorable. It should excite the senses.

Even though many assume that wine tasting is sipping, swishing, and swallowing – many are amazed to find that there is even more to it! 

Wine tasting is an art, and when done correctly, it’s a very engaging activity. Not only will you be able to enjoy the wine more, but you’ll gain an appreciation for it.

Take charge of the wine experience like a master sommelier with the 5 S’s: See – Swirl – Sniff – Sip – Savor

1. See


The glass should be about one-third full. Hold the glass up to a white background in a well-lit room. Give it a tilt so the wine rolls toward its edges. This will allow you to see the wine's complete depth of color. 

The goal is to observe how light refracts through wine and how intense the color is. Color variations can help you identify characteristics such as age, grape variety, and flavor density of the wine you are about to enjoy. 

Color variations of white wine include:

  • Light Yellow or Pale Green — This variation is often almost colorless, boasting high clarity. 
  • Light Gold or Lemon Yellow — Most white wines fall into this color range. We find Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, and Chenin Blancs featuring yellow overtones.
  • Pale golden/deep golden — This hue points to a mature, oaked wine with bolder flavors and low acidity levels.
  • Deep gold, saturated straw gold, browns, amber green and orange tones — cover a broad range of wines, such as sweet wines and dessert wines. However, this color can also mean the wine is past its peak.

The intensity of color within each varietal also gives you an idea of how the wine will taste. Typically, red wines with more intense colors are bolder and richer in tannins than paler ones.

Depending on the age and grape variety, the colors of red wines range from:

  • Purple — indicates it's a very young wine that is fresh, fruity and perhaps floral.
  • Ruby — the wine has an intense red color with a certain level of transparency. A more mature shade but still youthful (aged less than 4 years)
  • Garnet — red wines lose color as they age, turning more garnet with subtle orange or brown hues. The wine's bouquet will be mature with a more complex mixture of flavors and notes.
  • Tawny— the wine takes on shades that are browner than red. This indicates the wine has been aged in oak for many years, probably decades. The tannins have softened over time, resulting in a smooth and creamy texture. It might indicate that the wine has been oxidized and may be past its prime!

2. Swirl

Swirling is integral to aerating the wine and allowing oxygen to "open it up." This reveals a wine's complexities by releasing hundreds of different intricate aromas, which can only be detected with the nose. 

The way the wine swirls will give you the first glimpse into the wine's "texture" (viscosity). A dense sweeter wine will spin more slowly around the glass and leave thick, viscous streaks (called legs or tears) down the inside of the glass.

When done with finesse, swirling will wow those around you. First, don't lift the glass when you swirl.

Set the glass on the table or counter, hold the base down with your index and middle finger, then start moving the glass around in circles. Keep light downward pressure on the glass, so it doesn't fall over.

Repeat this motion several times (there's no specific number of times to swirl). A handful of seconds should be sufficient.

3. Sniff

Wine is primarily "tasted" with the nose. Believe it or not, the complexity of a wine's taste is best appreciated through our nose and not our mouth.

While our taste buds are limited to five tastes: sour, bitter, salty, sweet and savory, our noses can detect a wide array of fruit, earthy, floral, herbal, mineral and woodsy flavors present in wine.

So sniffing the wine is essential. Before sticking your nose in there, you need to define the general categorizations of wine flavors.

"Aroma" is used to describe smells associated with a young wine. It results from the vaporization of certain elements found in grape skin.

In contrast, "bouquet" describes the smell of a wine that has been aged for a considerable period. We define these two terms in more detail in our post: Decoding The Top 5 Most Confused Wine Terms Comparisons.

Assessing a wine's smell can reveal faults such as cork taint, oxidation due to age or overexposure to oxygen and wild yeast contamination. 

How do you properly sniff wine? First, it should be immediately after swirling. Stick your nose into the glass and close your eyes — sure, you might feel silly doing it, but you're going to notice a lot more notes this way. Breathe in deep with your mouth slightly open.

If you are drinking a white wine, can you smell citrus fruit, tropical fruit or florals? Does your red wine smell of red fruit, dried, or black fruit?

Once you have identified a category, try to become more specific. Is the citrus aroma reminiscent of lemon, lime zest, orange peel, tangerine or pink grapefruit? 

Can you distinguish between raspberries, strawberries, cherry or pomegranate when you smell red fruit? 

Remember, your brain can only pick up scents in your memory, meaning the ones you've encountered before. That's why five people can sniff the same exact wine and say they smell ten different things! So there are no wrong answers.

Also, it is completely normal to just smell "wine" at the beginning. Over time, the more different wines you sniff, the easier it will be to distinguish aromas.

4. Sip

The moment you've been waiting for: tasting the wine!

Take a slightly larger sip than usual and let the wine roll around your tongue for 3-5 seconds. You can purse your lips and pull air through that small opening to aerate the wine even more. Exposure to body heat further liberates the flavors.

Assess the taste structure (sour, bitter, sweet) and flavors derived from retronasal olfaction (perception of smells emanating from your mouth when you eat or drink).

Your tongue can "touch" the wine's texture. It can also detect tannins, which cause the drying sensation in red wines.

If it's a white wine, you'll look out for acidity. How much does it make your mouth water? 

Can you taste the same flavors you smelled?. Are they there, or do you taste something new and different?

5. Savor

The final step of your wine tasting experience is where you analyze the finish. See if there's an alcohol sensation (does it make the back of your throat feel warm) and how long the taste lingers in your mouth.

This length of time is called the finish, and it's the sensation you get from actually swallowing the wine. This can be very different from the taste you get on your palate.  

Truly exceptional wines can be tasted on the palate for upwards of twenty minutes! This length of a flavor profile makes certain wines stand out as world-class as opposed to others.

Also, consider the balance of the wine; do any tastes dominate others or is this a well-balanced bottle?

More importantly, take note of whether or not you liked the wine. This will help you discover wines that you enjoy on your wine journey.

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