This article is a part of Wine Week—seven days celebrating all things wine—presented in partnership by our friends at Bread & Butter Wines.
Many people enjoy drinking wine without knowing what they like about the taste. These may be wine drinkers but not self-proclaimed “wine people,” who may not have immersed themselves in the details of grape varietals and growing regions. They may—or may not!—know what they like, but they don’t understand why one particular wine hits their sweet spot or know how to put what they liked into words.
The good news is that in the course of ordinary-life wine drinking, with just a few easy steps, you can gain insight into your palate. If you don’t know wine well, or are just embarking on a journey of discovery, understanding what you like will make the shelves in the liquor store less of a blank wall, help maximize your money, and for people who drink a glass with dinner, really enhance the food. The following are eight easy steps to winey self-knowledge.
1. Pause to taste
It’s surprisingly hard to really taste what you’re drinking while you’re talking to people. One half of our spirits-writing duo runs a wine events and education business and, at home, always opens the wine before dinner to taste it before pouring for everyone. You can do that too with hardly an alteration to your evening routine, or if you’re out in a bar or restaurant, try to carve out a moment to take a sip and focus on it. Paying deliberate attention is the first step to learning what you like.
2. Ask yourself: “Do I like this wine?”
This will be obvious to some people—“Of course I know what I like when I taste it!”—but some of us, and not just beginners to wine, are concerned when tasting that we’re supposed to know if a wine is “good” or “bad.” We judge what we’re drinking based on what we’ve been told about it, or other signifiers like the brand or the locale it’s being served in. Throw that out, and instead, ask, “Do I like this?” You might know quite clearly if you do or don’t. Some people might not be sure.
The other half of our spirits-writing duo, a food writer and home cook, would have said for most of her life that all wine was “fine,” more or less, without being able to differentiate. If you already know, the following steps will help identify why you like what you do. If you don’t know, breaking down some of the elements of what you’re tasting will help. And remember, even if a wine is considered good by most any standard, if you don’t like how it tastes, then you don’t like it. That’s not a failure; that’s your palate.
3. Consider the level of sweetness
The biggest general category in wine—though nothing with wine is ever universal or absolute—is “sweet” versus “dry.” An easy first step to determining your preferences (which will work even if you aren’t sure if you “like” the wine) is to ask if the wine seems sweet to you and if the sugar content suits you. This isn’t a question of, “Can I taste any sweetness at all?” because any wine will have some taste of fruit thus some sweetness. It’s: “Is this sweet to me? And do I like that?” The answer can be an indication of whether you’d prefer a sweeter wine or one that’s more dry.
4. Consider the weight of the wine
Another major taste factor in wines is weight, described as “light,” “medium” or “full-bodied,” or as “mouthfeel.” Is the wine you’re drinking more like water going down or does it taste rich and full? Even a beginner can probably determine the wine’s weight and if it’s pleasing to them. The color isn’t an indicator, since some reds can be light-bodied (Beaujolais is an example) and some whites can be full (Viognier), but checking the alcohol content is a good hack. More alcohol creates more mouthfeel. The range is from 10 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) to 16 percent ABV. It doesn’t sound like much, but a wine with 15 percent ABV has, proportionally, 50 percent more alcohol than a wine with 10 percent. That is a significant impact on weight and feel.
5. Now make some generalizations…
One of the wonderful things about well-made wine (which doesn’t have to be expensive) is that it is so tied to the place where the grapes are grown, and there are so many possible outcomes between the place, the grape, and the production method. A buttery, oaky chardonnay from California will taste completely different from a crisp Chablis from Burgundy in France (white Burgundies are 100 percent chardonnay). But then a new wave of California producers are making chardonnays but dialing back the oak and the butter…you really can’t tell.
However, in big, broad strokes, you could say that grapes grown in warmer climates have more ripeness (sugar content), which converts to higher alcohol, more likelihood of oak aging (to balance out the alcohol), and a more jammy taste (and therefore more perceived sweetness). Wines that are more dry are typically aged in little to no oak, tend to be from cooler climates, are more acidic, and are lower in alcohol.
6. …And extrapolate
If you’ve learned that you like “sweet and full-bodied” or “dry and medium-bodied” wines, you can start looking at the other characteristics that go with that flavor profile. What’s the acidity of the wine you’re drinking? Does it taste sour or sharp or zingy or slightly carbonated? That’s acid. Is it flat, smooth, immediately delicious, and smells like vanilla? That’s oak. If you find yourself liking these characteristics, you can now tell wine store staff or a server you’re looking for oak or acid, which will impress them and make them more likely to engage intelligently with you.
Moreover, you may be ready to start considering the region, since you know what climate is associated with the wines you like. This is tricky because you can’t judge a wine based on what you think is the climate of an entire country—Australia may be having severe heat problems these past number of years, but there are cool mountainous wine regions there too. But a little research can find you regions that are the right fit.
7. If in doubt, think coffee, tea, or another morning beverage
If you caffeinate in the morning, you’ve probably given much thought to how you prefer your coffee, tea, or other beverage, and that can be a good indicator of your palate. One of your spirits correspondents drinks strong coffee with whole milk, a choice with a lot of flavor, a fair amount of acid, some medium-weight mouthfeel, and little sugar. She tends to like drier, colder-climate, more acidic wines, but not if they’re too sour and light (she needs the milk in the coffee, so to speak). Your other spirits correspondent drinks tea, hot or iced, plain or with some lemon, and he especially loves sparkling wines, the lightest and most acidic choice available.
8. Last, enjoy the process
Ultimately, wine is supposed to be fun. So have fun!
What’s your go-to wine to buy? Let us know in the comments.
This article was originally published in April 2020 but was updated by our editors in May 2023.