Descriptive Tasting

Copyright © Ben Rotter 2001-2011

Below are listed the criteria used to systematically describe a wine.


The appearance of the wine.


Tilting: tilt the glass away from you at a 45 degree angle against a white background (e.g. white paper)
Transparency: attempting to read some text placed below the underside of the glass may assist when assessing transparency
Legs: legs are the `tears' or droplets that form on, and run down, the glass wall after swirling; they indicate alcoholic content (high alcohol causes slower flow and higher viscosity)


Clarityactioncheck for suspended particles
informationthis bears more on aesthetic appreciation of the wine than its quality (first impressions count) but can indicate bad winemaking (clarification and stabilisation), infection, or age (bottle sediment).
descriptorsclear, brilliant, crystal, hazy, dull, faint
Colouractionassess the colour of the wine
informationthis most signifies wine style, fruit variety and ripeness, area of production, method of vinification, and age
descriptors whites: clear, green, yellow, straw, gold, brown, object (e.g. lemon)
reds: purple, crimson, blood red, brown, tawny, object (e.g. brick)
rosès: blue-pink through purple-pink to orange-pink
Intensityactionassess the intensity of colour from a vertical, angled and side eye position; assess the variation in colour from the core of the liquid to the rim
informationrim to core colour persistence indicates quality, rim colour best indicates age
descriptorspale, light, deep, dark, intense
Otheractionexamine the mousse's (bead of bubbles in sparkling wine) size and frequency
informationa smaller bead indicates superior carbonation


Smelling the wine.


Initial nosing/smelling: take a light whiff without swirling first as a first impression
Swirling: swirl the wine in the glass by rotating the wrist, thus oxidising the wine and bringing out the aromas from the liquid
General nosing/smelling: do not breathe in deeply as this will cloud judgement - the human nose becomes `immune' to certain aromas after being exposed to them for a period of time (this may occur at roughly over 2 minutes). (Nerve ends in the nose are activated by certain smells and continual activation causes fatigue and a changed reference point.)
Tilting: tilt the glass toward you at a 45 degree angle and assess the aroma at each position moving your nose vertically from the rim at the top edge of the glass to the rim at the bottom edge


Cleanlinessactionexamine the wine's nose for faults
informationfoul smells such as mouse and wet cardboard may be an indication of microbial spoilage
descriptorsclean, dirty, off, foul
Intensityactionassess the intensity of the nose
informationthe intensity of the nose should be balanced with the rest of the wine's attributes
descriptorssubtle, delicate, light, powerful, concentrated, strong
Aroma and Bouquetactiondefine the wine's aroma by associating it with other aromas, and determine it's complexity, self-integration and balance with the wine
informationsome differentiate between aroma (the smell of a wine's primary unaged aromas due to the original fruit and fermentation) and bouquet (the smell of a wine's secondary, aged or developed aromas)
descriptorsanything you associate with the wine's smell
Some common descriptors include: fruity (lemon, grapefruit, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, black currant (cassis), cherry, apricot, peach, apple, pineapple, melon, banana, dried fruit, raisin, prune, fig, jam, confectionery (artificial)), floral (orange blossom, elderflower, rose, violet, geranium), spicy (clove, pepper, liquorice/aniseed, nutmeg), herb (marjoram, thyme, rosemary), vegetable (cut grass, pepper/capsicum, eucalyptus, mint, artichoke, olive, asparagus, bean, pea, tea, tobacco, hay/straw), nutty (walnut, hazelnut, almond), sugar/caramel (honey, butterscotch, diacetyl (butter), soy sauce, chocolate, molasses), wood (vanilla, cedar, oak, bacon, medicinal, coffee, burnt toast, smoky), earth (soil, dusty, mushroom, mouldy), chemical (tar, plastic, kerosene, diesel, oil, rubber, hydrogen sulphide, mercaptan, garlic, cabbage, burnt match/sulphur, sulphur dioxide, wet wool / wet dog, ethyl acetate, acetic acid (vinegar), ethanol (alcohol)), oxidised (e.g. sherry), microbiological (baked yeast, bread, sauerkraut, sweaty, yoghurt, horsey, mousey). An aroma wheel may assist.


The impression the wine gives in the mouth, including "mouthfeel" and "flavours".
When it comes to mouthfeel, there exist a number of varying approaches to descriptive tasting. It is commonly propounded that "tannin" should be assessed. However, this is perhaps too much of a general term that many tasters are confused by. Tannins may be astringent and/or bitter, and can exhibit varying levels of polymerisation which is perceived as a "soft"/"hard" mouthfeel. However, mouthfeel is also influenced by acidity and alcohol levels. Thus, to isolate tannins in any analysis is a difficult task even for the experienced taster. It would seem more appropriate to talk about mouthfeel, and to talk separately about bitterness and astringency.
Most flavours (not taste sensations - sweetness, acidity/sourness, bitterness, saltiness) are actually (physiologically) "aromas" that are picked up by our olfactory receptors (our "smell receptors"). It is important to distinguish between retronasal olfaction (odours arriving at the nasal cavity by being pushed behind the palate - when chewed, slurped or swallowed) and orthonasal olfaction (odours detected in the nasal cavity having arrived through the nostrils).


Slurping: pass air through/over the wine by pursing your lips and sucking inward - this oxidises the wine inside the mouth and brings out aromas and flavours
Coating: ensure the wine covers all parts of the mouth so that each component can be assessed
Exhaling: keeping the mouth closed, breathe downwards through the nose to transmit the aromas through the nasal passage


Sweetnessactiondetected on the tip of tongue and is physiologically the first aspect to be detected in the mouth
informationsweetness should be in balance with acidity and body in particular, its impression decreases with an increase in acidity
descriptorsbone dry, dry, off dry, medium, sweet, cloying (too sweet)
Acidityactiondetected at the sides of the tongue and with the mouth watering after swallowing
informationacidity should be in balance with sweetness and body in particular, its impression decreases with an increase in sweetness and increases significantly with a decrease in temperature
descriptorsflabby (low), flat, low, medium, high; fresh, crisp, rasping, sharp, searing (high)
Texture / Mouthfeel / Tactile Impressionaction mouthfeel is complex, involving a number of factors such as residual sugar, alcohol, tannins, acidity, dissolved carbon dioxide and extract, but it is important to consider separately from these other components as part of an holistic approach to wine tasting (for example, "a tingle on the tongue" from dissolved carbon dioxide, or a feeling of "chewiness" given by tannins). Mouthfeel may be divided up into the following components: volume, acidity, tannic intensity, astringency, dryness, and bitterness.
informationcarbon dioxide increases our perception of acidity, increased viscosity softens our perception of acidity, polymerisation of tannins results in softer mouthfeel, unripe fruit tannins result in harder impressions
descriptorsany number of descriptors apply and mouthfeel wheels provide an excellent base from which to work (example descriptors include chewy, silky, furry, supple, chalky, spritzy, viscous, luscious)
Tanninactioncauses bitterness (the flavour sensation detected at the back of the tongue) and astringency (the tactile sensation felt as a puckering of the cheeks or a furriness on the teeth, gums and lips (like very strong tea))
informationshould be in balance with the wine, the impression of tannin diminishes with wine age; in modern times tannins have come to be described in further terms than quantity
descriptorssoft, velvety, silky, supple, fine, smooth, moderate, gripping, drying, harsh, hard, firm, chewy, dusty, course, astringent, tannic; green, ripe, fine, tough, wood, grainy
Body actionthis is the impression of weight given by (predominantly) alcohol but also extracts (sugar-free soluble solids such as proteins, tannins) and is perhaps best likened by analogy to the respective lightness or heaviness of water or cream in the mouth
informationbody should be in balance with the wine style
descriptorsthin, watery, lean; light, medium, full (bodied); heavy, extracted
Flavoursactiondetermine the flavours you associate with the wine, and their intensity
informationassess the flavours `across the palate' (from the first impression right through to the finish)
descriptorsas for Aroma/Bouquet
Alcoholactionassess the alcoholic content (this requires experience but may be seen somewhat by the legs and the `heat' of the finish)
informationalcohol gives a sweet and warming impression, an increase in alcohol results in a perceived decrease in bitterness
descriptorswarm, hot, high alcohol, alcoholic (excessive)
Finishactionthe aftertaste (taste after swallowing) of a wine
informationthe flavours and aromas last in the mouth for some time and may change and develop; length and development of finish are indications of quality
descriptorsshort, fleeting, long, lingering

Advanced tasting: beyond descriptive tasting

Tasting beyond descriptive tasting usually involves putting the wine within a stylistic context and considering factors relating to the wine which are beyond the descriptive.

The taster might make the following assessments of the wine:
  • Structural assessment: piece apart the individual components of the wine's structure to better understand how they work in synergy
  • Progressive palate assessment: identify how the impressions given by the wine develop and change as the wine moves through mouth, from the "attack" to the "finish". Remember to assess the wine's width, flavour changes and complexity.
  • Stylistic assessment: assess how the wine sits amongst its peers within the general style
  • Character assessment: identify suitable foods for the wine to pair with - this may be assisted by recognising the wine's character profile (i.e. whether it has an overall impression of being "fresh", "sweet", "savoury", etc)

  • More subjective questions might also be asked such as:
  • does the wine develop in glass?
  • does the wine hold the taster's interest with time?
  • would the wine go well with food?
  • is the wine a good example of its style?
  • would the wine age well (if its style suggests it potentially could)?
  • does the wine have individuality/personality/distinctiveness?
  • at what temperature would the wine best be served at?
  • is the wine's flavour profile complete/lacking/one-dimensional?