Cinnamon? Cherries? Leather? Raw Meat? (Image: supplied).

How to get better at tasting wine? Start by smelling your world

Wine should be fun, not intimidating – all you need is a little knowledge. Yvonne Lorkin, co-founder and chief tasting officer of WineFriend, provides some simple tips to help you empower your palate. 

Even I can get scared by wine. I’m usually super-meek and a tad feeble at high-brow, “industry” wine tastings. However, festivals like Visa Wellington On a Plate let me take on a different character and become someone who can actually get away with the sort of behaviour that would be frowned upon in formal circles. The thing I love about hosting wine tastings at public festival events is everyone comes along looking for a little bit of learning and a whole lot of laughs and it’s delightfully loose. That’s what wine should be about. 

This whole “simplifying” wine tasting gambit an interesting tug of war. On one hand, yes, you want to open up the world of wine to the everyman and woman, hurl the posh curtains apart and show people that appreciating wine is easy. On the other hand, to me, wine is just the most delicious, enigmatic, crazy-tasty result of ancient alchemy that can’t be replicated by any other process and that mystery, that specialness, should be treasured, revered and treated with the ooohs and aaahs it deserves. This is my guide on how to do both. 

The best place to start any wine tasting is with a good glass. Look for a largish, tulip-shaped glass with high sides and a nice, fat “bowl” at the bottom, so that you can get a decent swirl happening once the wine is poured in. Don’t use those poxy, stumpy glasses that you get down at the RSA, or those awful pewter goblets that Nana bought you for your 21st – those things are designed to make all wine smell boring and taste foul. You could splurge on designer glassware, but Briscoes sells box sets of eight Rona red wine glasses for just $59 and they’re the business for any style.

Swirling your wine isn’t about being a dick, it releases a tonne of aromas that enhance your impression of the wine. It injects valuable oxygen that helps smooth and open up the flavours and textures for when you finally get around to popping it in your gob. Then stick your nose right down in the glass and inhale deeply. Smell is everything when it comes to appreciating or rejecting wine. 

Your glass should have a thin rim, not a round, bulky lip. A thin rim is nicer to drink from and helps funnel the wine to the right parts of your mouth to perceive the five basic tastes of sweetness, saltiness, acidity, bitterness and umami – rather than just pouring it directly into the back of your throat. Slurp the wine a little, just once or twice (repeated slurping tends to irritate other people). This isn’t about pretension; drawing air over the surface area of the wine while it’s in your mouth helps push those aroma molecules back up through your olfactory passages from the inside – so you’re essentially getting a “second sniff” while you’re tasting it. 

Don’t take your wine too seriously. You’ll forget it’s fun (Photo: Getty Images)

Not sure how to describe the wine you’re drinking? Think about how the wine smells and tastes, and work through it like an IRD flow chart. Is it fruity? Yes? Then go deeper. Ask yourself what kind of fruit. If it’s citrus, is it lemon, lime, grapefruit or feijoa you’ve found? Tropical notes, it might be mango, passionfruit, pineapple, banana or guava. Stonefruit: peach, apricot, plum or nectarine? Or if you found berries, you’re looking for cherry, blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry, strawberry, blackcurrant, cranberry. 

Or is the wine savoury? Maybe it’s earthy, leathery, meaty and tastes like black olives, soy and smoke. If it’s “spicy”, what kind of spices can you smell and taste? Pepper? Cocoa? Clove? Cinnamon? Liquorice? Nutmeg? Or maybe the wine smells and tastes “green”. So think about green things – grass, herbs, and tea leaves. Or “toasty” notes: oak, pencil shavings, roasted almonds.

All will reveal itself if you just take a smidge of time between sniffs and swallows to ask yourself some personal questions. Be like Madonna. Don’t be afraid to express yourself and invent your own wine language. There are no wrong answers or wrong descriptors. If you think that pinot noir smells like old flax bush out by your letterbox, then say it. That chardonnay might taste like tinned fruit salad, or that bubbles has a whiff of bran muffin. It’s all good.

Practise and concentrate and smell different things all the time. When you’re out walking, how does the air smell, the trees, the plants, the ground, the buildings? When you’re in the supermarket, pick up fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, baking ingredients, confectionery and sniff them deeply, they’ll automatically commit to your memory and you’ll be amazed at how easily you’ll recall those smells in wine. 

Smell that old Driza-Bone hanging in the shed, the leather jacket in the wardrobe, your fruit bowl or those funky sneakers. Remember the smell of wet dog, cat wee, old books and rain on hot asphalt. Tea leaves, cheese, oysters and jalapeños and lawn clippings and liquorice. For one thing, smelling everything keeps your brain pinging on all cylinders, plus it’ll expand your wine vocabulary exponentially. 

Another thing I force people in my wine tastings to consider is length and texture. Is it long and rough, or short and silky? Minds out of the gutter people. Being able to taste the wine for a decent amount of time after you’ve swallowed is a great thing. How does the wine feel as you’re swishing it around and as it slips down your oesophagus? Try to put that into words. 

Length is an essential hidden element. I always feel short-changed by wines that look pretty, smell nice and taste yummy for all of two seconds. Because then you have to keep sipping to keep the thrill alive and before you know it, the bottle’s empty and you’re digging out your old Metalheadz CDs from the 90s to show your eye-rolling 17-year-old son where drum and bass began. Don’t be that person.

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I’m not really any better at tasting wine than anyone else. I’ve just worked out a way of describing what I’m smelling and tasting in ways that other people seem to understand. Putting wine into words isn’t hard, but it takes a bit of practice and awareness. 

That’s our whole aim at WineFriend too. We send you awesome wines that you won’t see in a supermarket. Wines tailor-made for your individual tastebuds and budget. We want you to try styles you’d never choose for yourself, but, based on what I know about your palate, that you might really like it. We gently steer you sideways into new styles to help nudge your knowledge and enjoyment further. 

So get out there and taste whatever wine you can – cheap, expensive, good, bad, sweet, dry. The more you know, the more fun you can have. Get involved. Wine festivals and events like Visa Wellington on a Plate give you a chance to have a laugh while you let your palate do the talking. Pour yourself into it.

This content was created in paid partnership with Visa Wellington On a Plate. Learn more about our partnerships here


Feast your senses this August in a celebration of all things food and beverage. Visa Wellington On a Plate runs from 1-31 August 2019 at venues across the Wellington region.


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