The Intriguing Science Behind Tasting Wine

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Sommelier pouring red wine into a glass.

If you’ve spent any time reading a wine’s tasting notes, you’ve probably noticed some interesting descriptions. Words like citrus, cherries, chocolate, floral, grassy, earthy, buttery, wood, and others might appear out of place, especially since they’re being used to describe a beverage made from grapes.

The thing is that wines are complex, and there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. All the flavors and aromas come from the grapes, where they’re grown, and the wine-making process. There’s also a fair bit of science when it comes to tasting wine.

According to the science of wine tasting, there’s a significant difference between simply drinking wine and truly tasting it. Drinking a glass and pairing it with food is often done out of pleasure. Tasting, on the other hand, is done to evaluate a particular wine and gain a deeper understanding of it. Understanding the scientific elements that go into truly tasting a wine can help to enhance your experience.

Why Wines Can Taste Like Not Wine-Related Things

One of the first things you might think when reading tasting notes is, “How can wine made from grapes taste like anything other than grapes?” Grapes already have flavors in them that likely remind you of other tastes and smells. These flavors are mostly undetectable until the grapes undergo fermentation.

During fermentation, yeast eats the sugars in grapes, leaving behind alcohol, carbon dioxide, and dozens (if not hundreds) of chemical compounds, including esters, terpenes, thiols, and lactones. These compounds are similar to those found in other fruits and a variety of different foods. Different grapes contain different compounds. Mixing them adds more complexity. If you add in aging or fermenting in oak barrels, you add even more flavors, such as vanilla, caramel, spices, and cedar.

The Role of Your Senses in Wine Tasting

Wine tasting is more involved than just taking a sip from your glass. The process involves the use of three of your senses: sight, smell, and taste.


Looking at a wine provides you with a decent amount of information. For instance, the color of the wine gives you a hint of its age. When it comes to white wines, younger ones are more pale yellow, while older ones take on a darker amber hue. With reds, younger varieties tend to be darker, while older ones are more of a brick-red color.

The color may also provide information on the type of flavor you’ll experience. For example, a deep, dark, inky Bordeaux is likely going to be intense and low in acid. A lighter red, on the other hand, is likely to have a lighter, brighter taste.

Another area where sight plays a role is the size of the legs — the trails of wine left on the sides of a glass after you swirl the wine inside — and how quickly they dissipate. Watching the legs gives a clue as to the viscosity, sweetness, and acidity of the wine. Thin legs that disappear quickly often indicate a less concentrated, lighter wine. Thicker legs that linger tell you the wine is more concentrated and likely has a higher alcohol or sugar content.


The next sense to use when tasting a wine is your sense of smell. There are actually two ways to smell: externally and internally. External smelling is when you put your nose to the glass and inhale. Internal smelling involves smelling the wine while it’s in your mouth.

When you swish the wine around in your mouth, you’re actually smelling the flavors that you think you’re tasting. The aromas waft up into your nostrils from your mouth, allowing you to smell the flavor.

There are two terms often used for the different types of flavors you perceive when you smell a wine. The aroma refers to the flavors that come from the grapes. The bouquet, on the other hand, refers to the flavors that develop as a result of the fermentation process.


Finally, there’s taste. Also called gustation, this is what occurs when the wine hits your tongue. Your tastebuds detect the different flavors – sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami. Then there are different textures that your tongue can sense, such as oiliness, astringency, and prickliness. Tasting gives you the perfect opportunity to isolate different components of the wine, giving you a greater understanding of it as a whole.

How to Smell and Taste Wine for Maximum Impact

Now that you understand some of the science of wine tasting, here are a few wine tasting tips to help you get the most out of your experience:

Take a Good Look at Your Wine

Some say that a tasting should be done blind. When you look at a wine, what you see can lead to unconscious perceptions before the liquid ever enters your mouth.

Of course, a blind tasting isn’t necessary, and your vision provides you with a substantial amount of information. Looking at your wine shouldn’t take more than a few seconds. Take in its color and opacity. Give the glass a gentle swirl and watch the legs.

Smell the Wine In Your Glass

Next, put the glass to your nose and take a sniff. Some people prefer to inhale deeply, while others prefer to take several smaller whiffs. Avoid trying to get too specific about what you're smelling, at least at first. Start with broad categories instead.

What you smell will fall into one of three categories: primary, secondary, or tertiary aromas. Primary aromas include characteristics of grapes, such as fruit or floral notes. Secondary aromas are those related to the fermentation and wine-making process. The tertiary aromas come from the aging process, which, when the wine is aged in a barrel, often provides notes of vanilla, tobacco, or leather.

Take a taste.

Finally, taste your wine. Use your tongue to “observe” it. Note the tastes that your tastebuds sense, such as sweetness, acidity, or bitterness. Pay attention to how the wine feels on your tongue. Did it make your mouth feel dry? Did you get a prickly sensation? Also, take note of the wine’s length, or how long it lingers after you swallow.

Knowing a bit about wine tasting science and how to taste properly gives you a much greater understanding of your wine. Using this knowledge, you’ll be able to evaluate the wine’s quality and how it compares to others. The more wines you taste, the better and more informed you become as a wine taster.

No matter if you need a wine to pair with a particular meal or wines for a special tasting, look no further than JJ Buckley Fine Wines. We have wine to purchase for all of your needs. If you have any questions about our wines, what wines to pair with specific foods, or additional wine tasting tips, our consultancy service is here to help. Check out our incredible selection and start your search for the perfect wine to accompany your next special occasion.