Become the Ultimate Wine Connoisseur—In 4 Easy Steps

The process of choosing a bottle of wine—say, for an upcoming holiday party—can be daunting.

What’s the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, anyway? (Answer: They're made from the same grape, but Pinot Gris is produced in France, while Pinot Grigio derives from Italy.) And is it really possible to pick out an affordable bottle of wine that doesn’t taste, well … cheap?

Eager to become an educated wine drinker and shopper? So were we, which is why we turned to an expert for the best advice: Leslie Sbrocco, author of “The Simple & Savvy Wine Guide: Buying, Pairing and Sharing for All.”

Sbrocco walked us through the “4 S’s” of wine tasting and how to get great value at the wine store.

The 4 S's: Seeing, Swirling, Smelling and Sipping

“The most important way to learn about wine is to taste as much of it as possible,” says Sbrocco. But you can’t just drink a bottle of wine each night and expect to breeze your way through a conversation with a sommelier.

That’s where the “4 S’s” come in. By breaking up the tasting process into four components--seeing, swirling, smelling and sipping--you’ll start  to properly identify the different components of a wine. This, in turn, will help you to eventually figure out your personal tastes, as well as what to look for when choosing a wine.

Step 1: Seeing

Once you’ve poured your wine into a clear glass, examine the color. As a general rule, white wine will be darker if it’s older, while red wine will be lighter if it’s aged for a longer period of time. The color can also tell you about the process used to make the wine: Chardonnay, for instance, will be golden due to its aging process, which typically occurs in oak barrels.

Step 2: Swirling

Move the wine around the glass gently, aiming to coat the sides of the cup. This will release the aromatics of the wine, which will help you to better identify scents.

Step 3: Smelling

“If initially you simply smell ‘red’ or ‘white,’ that’s fine!” say Sbrocco. Keep sniffing in order to identify the following scents:

If it’s a white wine ... See if you can identify citrus notes, like grapefruit, lemon and lime; or ripe, tropical fruits, such as pineapple or melon. Cooler places will generally produce more citrusy or tangy-smelling wines, while ripe smells indicate warmer locales. Additionally, some white wines may produce aromas of vanilla or oak.

If it’s a red wine ... Most red wines will either have red berry scents, like cherry and strawberry, or darker, riper smells, including blackberry and plum. Wines produced in cooler places will tend toward the red berry side of the spectrum, while warmer locations will lend themselves to a darker, riper scent. Red wines can also have earthier aromas, like coffee, smoke or chocolate.

  • LeeLee

    Concha y Toro is a great pick!  So glad to see it on the list of affordable gems.

  • ranavain

    I’m a bit sad that the Pinot Noir location isn’t Oregon, which holds the annual Pinot Noir festival and is the Pinot capital of the world! Also, are those spectrums really accurate? I can’t imagine that Riesling is lighter or juicier than Moscato, but maybe I’m just thinking of sweetness? I was also surprised to see Zinfandel on the bottom of the red side, but I have a lot less experience with Zins.

    I love wine, but I didn’t use to. A friend bought me a semi-sparkling Moscato, knowing that I like sweet drinks, and it was the perfect introduction! Now I’m a big fan of everything, red and white. It’s well worth a little experimentation, and having a friend who can select something based on your other tastes is a great way to go.

    Also, definitely buy cheap! I lived in a town with a Grocery Outlet, and they had a pretty good selection of wine, including $3-$5 bottles. It’s a great way to just try everything and become familiar with all the flavors.

    • Leslie

       you’re exactly right about oregon pinot. i’m a big fan having spoken twice at the IPNC festival in mcminnville. we just didn’t have room for all the wonderful wines to talk about! cheers and happy holidays. leslie sbrocco