In the U.S., we consumed nearly one billion gallons of wine in 2020 and there are over 11000 US wineries, each producing a few to many different types of wine. When you add in the rest of the world’s countries, it’s no wonder it is difficult to decide on your favorite wine. You may think you like Chardonnay wines the best, but are they the ones that are heavily oaked, and/or buttery from malolactic fermentation, or steely crisp from the Sonoma Coast or Chablis, France. Or do you prefer your Chardonnay as a sparkling Blanc de Blanc from Napa or Anderson Valley California?
While you may think you have a favorite grape variety wine (varietal), what you really have is a favorite wine style from that grape variety. Different wine regions, winemakers, and climates produce a wide variety of tastes using the same grape. If you like a hefty Cabernet Sauvignon are you likely to favor one produced at high altitudes in Napa or one from the hot Central Valley of California? If you really like Riesling wine, should you buy some of the sweeter ones from Mosel Valley, Germany, drier ones from Alsace, France, or fruiter ones from Washington State?
Why is it important to know what style wine you prefer?
If you know your wine style, it opens up a whole, new world of different wines you may like because they are, or can be, produced in the style you like. If you dislike oaked, buttery Chardonnay, there are still plenty of Chardonnays in the dry, cool, crisp style of Chablis. And if you like that style after trying it, other wine styles such as dry Chenin Blanc, Viognier, or even a dry Riesling may excite your taste buds. If you think you like full-bodied red wines, does it matter if they are high or low in tannins or in alcohol? In short, you need to define your personal wine tastes for high or low sugar, acid, tannins, alcohol, and oak because those are the elements that often vary in a wine and define a large proportion of wine style for any fermented grape juice.
Taste for a wine style is no different than food taste in which you have preferences for high or low salt, sugar, garlic, citrus/vinegar, and fat. Those food tastes were probably determined before you are old enough to drink wine. And they can slowly change over time. It’s the same for wine.
Many long term wine lovers have favorite styles within varietals. They don’t like all Pinot Noir wines, just those from certain regions or wineries. With experience, they learn to appreciate even smaller variances within styles. This is just as true for wines as it is for spaghetti sauce, different brands of butter, or pizza. If you know what characteristics define your preferred wine style, you can save many dollars and bad taste experiences by reading descriptions about, or hearing the comments about a wine from someone who has recently tasted and critically evaluated that wine.
How to pin down your wine taste preferences and dislikes
Let’s start with the next 25 wines you will drink. First of all, you should consider tasting them like a competition wine judge does:
- Don’t even sniff the wine first. This will bias your judgement because unconsciously with the first aroma smell you are already deciding whether you like or dislike it.
- Just take a small sip and swish it around in your mouth to clear residual tannins, acids, sugars and other chemicals that you have had in your mouth recently. You should spit out that small sip, but if you don’t want to do that, swallow it without thinking about how it tastes.
- Smell the wine to make sure it doesn’t have any bad aromas such as strong barnyard, dirty socks, garlic, onions, sulfur, spoiled apple, vinegar or nail polish. You can quickly assess that because most commercial wines won’t have any of those smells.
- Take a second sniff. Hold your palm over the glass opening, swirl the wine in the glass and then smell the concentrated aroma accumulated in the bowl of the glass carried upward by the alcohol in the wine. If all you smell is alcohol, you may have a preference for lower alcohol wine. If the wine was made within the last 3 years, you should be able to identify floral smells, fruit smells such as apple or citrus for white wines; red fruit such as strawberry, cherry, cranberry, red raspberry, red plum or blackberry, black currants, black cherry, black raspberry, or sometimes blue fruit like blueberry in red wine, or even a mixture of red and black fruit. While you may have a preference for red fruit or black fruit, don’t be surprised if you like all identifiable fruit smells. If you do, you may have a preference for young wines. If you can’t identify specific fruits but only unidentifiable white, red or black fruits, the wine is probably between 3 and 5 years old. If there are no identifiable fruit smells, but only what are called tertiary smells such as honey, toast, nuts, baking spices, vanilla, leather, tobacco, etc., then the wine is probably more than 5 years old. You may discover that you like all of these different aromas or only certain ones but you need to identify them in your next 25 wines to see if and what you prefer.
Now, Identify your Preferred Balance of Taste and Mouthfeel
5. Taste the wine, hold it in your mouth, and savor it. Do you taste sweetness? If so do you like it? Do you taste mostly acid like grapefruit or lemon juice or tartness like a Granny Smith apple? Is that acid taste low, medium or high? Which amount do you like? Does the wine taste high in alcohol like a cocktail, more savory like a beer or milk, or somewhere in between? Again what do you prefer? You may have different acid level preferences for white wines and for red wines. That is common.
Tannins, especially in red wines may give you an astringent mouthfeel like a strongly brewed tea. They coagulate your saliva and may make your mouth feel dry like fine sandpaper. Is that good or bad for you? They may even make a wine seem too bitter to you. And finally the heftiness of the wine, the “body” may be too heavy or too light. You decide what you like and again, your preference may vary with whether it is a white, red or pink wine.
6. Swallow the wine. Experts try to assess “aftertaste”. How a wine finishes consists of two components: whether the lingering taste is pleasant, i.e., not too astringent or bitter, too sweet, too acidic or too “burning” from alcohol, and how long it lasts. Everyone prefers a lingering taste that they like, but some also want it to last longer rather than disappear almost immediately..
Your Identified Style Preference
You have extensive homework with your next 25 wines. But it pays off for decades in the future. In your next 75 wines (to hit the 100 mark for characteristic preference identification), try as many different grape varietal wines as you can. You will be surprised at the different wines you like. I always tell wine lovers that they only need a three category, personal wine rating system: No Way, OK, and I’ll Pay (if the price is right).
Once you have identified your own wine style preference, if you ask friends that you are entertaining, “what wine am I likely to find on the counter or in the refrigerator at you house”, you will know in an instant what wine style they prefer. You can then pull a wine out of your personal supply that can please them as well as you, or at the least, know what not to serve them.
Tastes Change as Time Goes On
Your taste in wine changes as you experience drinking more wine. It is especially true if you constantly practice identifying the characteristics you like or don’t like. You begin to experience subtle differences. It has to do with small magnitudes of differences in taste. It is like what the renown wine writer Matt Kramer has said:
“Why did you swing on that pitch and not the other one?” you ask the pro baseball player. He shrugs and says that the other pitch wasn’t quite as perfect; it was a quarter of an inch too distant—or so it seemed. A magnitude of difference.
All the great baseball hitters are connoisseurs of pitches. To us, a pitch’s magnitude of difference seems minor, even undetectable. But it’s really not. It’s the same with wine.”
Unfortunately there can also be detrimental changes in your ability to smell and taste any wine, or even food, as you age. Disregarding medical conditions such as chronic allergies, nervous system diseases, medication or toxic chemical side effects, long term Covid-19 effects, and exposure to radiation therapy in the head and neck among others, your threshold for detecting smell rises after age 60. By age 80, some smell and taste thresholds for detecting food and wine characteristics can go up 2-9 fold.
That is, it can take two to almost ten times as much chemical in a wine or food in order for you to perceive it is present.
Wines to Savor Alone, Wines to Serve with Food
At first I thought I should have mentioned this secret at the beginning of the article, but having read this far, you are now ready for it. This article ONLY applies to what I call “meditation wines”; wines that are already in balance for your personal tastes. Meditation wines are the ones you want to sip and savor while relaxing on the veranda or in your easy chair at home. They do not need food to bring the wine into balance for your preferences. In fact food may change your favorite wine into one you don’t like.
Food changes the taste of wine
Only about 5% of wines available on the market are meditation wines. The other 95% of wines are “food wines”, i.e., they need specific types of foods to make a wine that you may not normally care for, into balance for your taste preferences. This is where the concept of wine and food pairing comes into play and it is an extensive subject that you will benefit from learning and will broaden your wine tasting experiences even further.
Check out our Food and Wine Pairing Guidelines.
Take a Quiz if you are not sure what your favorite wine style is.