How To Taste Wine

You regularly treat yourself to some of the finest wines from South Africa, so you owe it to yourself to savour every drop.  In this article, RAKQ thought a few tips on how to taste a wine would go down well.


While all that swirling and sniffing might look flashy, snobby even, it’s all for a good cause, and it deepens your appreciation of what’s in your glass.  Let’s get to it.



The deeper the colour, the more concentrated the wine.  To assess the intensity of a wine, hold your glass at a 45-degree angle against a well-lit white background, and check how far the colour extends from the deepest part of the bowl to the rim.  If it’s deeply coloured throughout, you can expect the wine to be packed with flavour.  While a lighter or graduated appearance signals a delicate wine.


White wines run the gamut from ‘lemon’ to ‘amber’ and are usually the former.  If there’s a hint of orange or brown, it’s ‘gold’ and if your wine has a distinct level of browning it’s described as ‘amber’.  Some white dessert wines have this look for example.


Red wines cover a colour spectrum from ‘ruby’ to ‘tawny’ with ruby being the most common colour.  Shades of blue means the wine is ‘purple’ and orange-brown hints in a ruby wine mean it’s garnet.  This is a common appearance in wines that have undergone bottle ageing.  Lastly, if a wine is more brown than red, it’s ‘tawny’.


Rosé wines cover every hue from ‘pink’ to ‘orange’ with ‘salmon’ somewhere in the middle.  The colour gives you information on how the wine was made, and how fruity or delicate it will be.  It’s worth noting that some rosé wines are so deeply pink they almost look red – but they’re still rosés!


Just to make it a little more confusing, white and rosé wines tend to get darker with age, while red wines tend to get lighter.  Practice studying colour with a glass of Newton Johnson, Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2021, and see if you can see the pale straw colour with lime green flashes.

Newton Johnson, Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2021


The Nose

Lowering your nose into a glass of wine and taking a short sniff is one of the most exciting parts of the tasting process.  This gives you clues about the character and quality of a wine, and what you can expect when you taste it.  This is called the ‘nose’ of a wine.


To explore a wine’s nose, swirl your glass gently for a few seconds to release aromas then sniff quickly and sharply to best detect what aromas are in your wine.  If the aromas are powerful, you can describe them as ‘pronounced’.  If they’re delicate, the nose is ‘light’.  The middle ground is ‘medium’.


Practice smelling aromas with a glass of Miles Mossop, Introduction Red 2019.  Can pick up the red and black bramble fruit with hints of cedar and tobacco?

Miles Mossop, Introduction Red 2019


The Palate or Mouth

When you taste a wine, you get its full aroma and flavour picture.  In wine-speak, this step is called ‘on the palate’ or ‘in the mouth’.  To taste wine, take a good sip, swill it around your mouth and very carefully (so nothing goes down the wrong way) let it settle, then inhale over it before swallowing.  This enables oxygen to mingle and highlight flavours and features like tannins and alcohol levels (more on that later).


Practice tasting with a glass of Stellenbosch Vineyards, Shiraz 2019.  Do you taste a bouquet of plum, red
berries, and white pepper?

Stellenbosch Vineyards, Shiraz 2019


Aroma and Flavour Characteristics

When you look at a typical wine lexicon, the range of aromas and flavours you can find in wine is astonishing.  Features like stone fruit, spice, and pepper are understandable enough… But did you know that you can taste hints of wet stone, butter, and leather in wine as well?  This is what makes the world of wine so fascinating and enjoyable!


Millions of words have been written about wine aromas and flavours, but we can sum them up here in a few.  The main point to keep in mind is that there are three categories: ‘primary’ which relates to the grape varietal and fermentation, ‘secondary’ which is all about the winemaking process, and ‘tertiary’ which is what happens in the bottle during maturation.


Not all wines have each of these categories of aromas and flavours.  A fresh, early-drinking Chardonnay only has primary aromas and flavours, while a mature Cabernet Sauvignon covers all three.


Primary Aromas and Flavours

Floral, green fruit, citrus fruit, stone fruit, tropical fruit, red fruit, black fruit, dried or cooked fruit, herbaceous notes, herbal hints, and spice.  Features like flint or wet wool come under the heading of ‘other’.


Secondary Aromas and Flavours

These are related to specific winemaking techniques like fermentation and use of oak.  They include biscuit, brioche, cheese, cream, butter, spice, coffee, toast, cedar, and butterscotch.


Tertiary Aromas and Flavours

Finally, tertiary aromas and flavours are connected to maturation and encompass almond, caramel, nutty notes, dried fruit, cooked fruit, tar, petrol, mushroom, spice, leather, earth, tobacco, and meaty savoury hints.


For example, if you have a glass of deeply coloured red and you detect hints of dark fruit, nuts, and tobacco, you’ve probably got an aged wine in your glass.  A medium lemon coloured white wine with citrus and stone fruit plus spice and toast has seen some oak.  A fresh rosé with tart fruit most likely hasn’t been oak treated or aged.



See how it works?  Figuring this out is one of our favourite bits, as it normally requires more than just one sip.  This is where we sit back with glasses in hand, debate and enjoy!


There are other important features to keep in mind when tasting a wine.  Is it sweet or dry or somewhere in between?  How acidic is it?  If your mouth waters, it’s very tart.  How much body or weight does it have?  Does it have a powerful structure (known as “high tannins”)?  Finally, what’s its alcohol level?  As a rule of thumb, anything below 11% is low, medium is 11% to 13.9% and anything above 14% is classed as high alcohol – so it’s best to enjoy these wines with a bite to eat!


People also commonly refer to a wine’s ‘finish’.  How long do the flavours linger in your mouth after you’ve swallowed it?  This can range from falling short to lingering for close a minute – the higher quality the wine the longer the finish.


We hope after reading this quick intro to wine tasting you want to immediately pour a glass from your new South African arrivals and give it a go.  It’s a fun skill to perfect over a cold winter and it deepens your enjoyment of every wine in your cellar.


If you found this article fascinating, please join our South African Wine Club to build your wine knowledge.


This blog was edited and posted by Digital Squeak