Wine Characteristics:
What to Look for in Wine

There are several wine characteristics that experienced wine tasters focus on and look for when tasting wine. When learning how to taste wine, these characteristics should be paid attention to not only to assess the wine well, but also to fully appreciate the wine and what it has to offer. In a very general sense, your attention should focus on three main areas, the appearance of the wine, the aroma of the wine (the "nose") and the flavor and mouthfeel of the wine (the "mouth"). This will be a very basic introduction to wine characteristics, covering these basic three areas in a bit of detail to get you started. If you want to delve a bit more into the details of tasting wine, be sure to see our How to Taste Wine section which covers this and more in even more detail.

So here we go, grab a glass of wine and start looking, sniffing and sipping!

Wine Characteristics

  • Appearance
    The appearance of a wine is the first thing you see after pouring a glass, but many tasters, both novices and experienced, ignore it completely. First and foremost, you want to know if the wine is red or white, or rosé (a pink to salmon colored wine, also sometimes called blush). Beyond that, pay attention to the hue of the wine, is it a light red, is it purple or black. Also, how dense is it, almost clear or is it opaque. Holding the glass in front of a white background in a brightly lit room helps to see these things. Also pay attention to the clarity, is it limpid and clean or is there any haze or particulate matter in the wine. Of note, the "legs" of a wine are not necessarily associated with quality, they are often just a reflection of the amount of alcohol, residual sugar and overall viscosity of the wine.
  • Nose (Aroma)
    The nose of a wine can be one of the most enticing wine characteristics. Even before putting the glass to your lips you can be swept away by a beautiful bouquet of aromas that entice you to take a sip. Swirl the wine gently in the glass to aerate it and volatilize the aromatic compounds, making it easier to smell. Then put your nose deep in the glass and take a deep sniff. Pay attention both to the intensity of the aroma as well as its particular components. Try to describe what you smell in terms of other smells you know. Is it fruity? If so, what types of fruits, melons, apple, pear, red fruits like strawberry and raspberry or darker fruits like black currant and blackberry. Are there other non-fruit scents like spices, pepper, earth, and stones (often described as minerals)? Do you detect any wood or toasty aromas from wood aging? Are there any off aromas that are musty, moldy or otherwise off-putting? A great wine has a beautiful blend of seductive aromas that all balance together nicely, without any strange aromas that distract you.
  • Mouth (Flavor)
    Finally, the wine characteristic that culminates the wine tasting experience, the climax and denoument all wrapped into one, the mouth. After the nose has enticed you, it is the mouth that should realize the promise of that nose. For starters, pay attention to the attack, how the wine hits your palate, the first impression. Is it powerful or intense? Or is it slow to build or even flabby and lacking spirit? Next, pay attention to the specific wine characteristics, the flavors you taste. Are they in line with what you detected in the nose or different? Again, how would you describe them? Are they simple or is it a complex melange of different flavors? Now pay attention to the feel and texture of the wine in your mouth, the mouthfeel as we call it. Is it rough and angular or smooth and seductive? Silky or velvety? Chewy or light and ethereal? Finally, the finish, the aftertaste of the wine that lingers in your mouth after you swallow or spit, is the final act of the wine. Does it linger beautifully on your palate, enticing you to take another sip or does it cut off short, or even worse does it leave a strange, bitter or otherwise unsavory flavor in your mouth?

All of these characteristics make up the tasting experience that is wine. While paying attention to these things may bring attention to faults or flaws of some wines, they will help you to appreciate a great wine all the more. And you can then describe why you think it is great to your fellow tasters. For more info, see our How to Taste Wine section. Additionally, on that page you will find a page that supplies Wine Tasting Note Templates which you can view or print out. The beginners template lists many of these characteristics mentioned above so that it can help guide your tasting and assessment of a wine until all these things become second nature.


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