Photo: under CC license from Flickr user slack12

I’ve wanted to learn more about wine and how to choose a good one for a few years now, but have been reluctant to actually do it. What if I stop liking $10 bottles of malbec? I can’t afford to refine my palate, I thought.

Nevertheless, when I saw that Northside Social (a coffee shop/café/wine bar in Clarendon that I love) was offering a $25 wine-tasting class, I couldn’t resist signing up. (Full disclosure: the class was a few months ago and I forgot to post this until now!) The class was designed not to help people learn to choose a good wine from a wide selection of bottles (which requires knowing what you like and perhaps some memorization of which regions, vintages, and climates produce wines that suit your tastes), but rather to teach us what you can tell about a wine just by looking at it, smelling it, and tasting it.

The small group of participants sat down at the bar, three unmarked glasses of white and a page-long table with space for filling in different aspects of each wine’s appearance, aroma, and flavor in front of each of us. (Three reds came later.) Northside’s sommelier and general manager, Alison Crist, walked us through the process beginning sommeliers use to determine the vintage (age), varietal (type of grape), and region of an unknown wine.

For instance, if you swish a wine around in its glass, take note of the liquid residue it leaves behind on the sides. Wines that are high in either sugar or alcohol leave behind a slick that sticks to the glass for some time. This is called the “legs” of a drink. Tip a glass of wine to the side: slight color changes from the center toward the rim, e.g. fading from red to pink, indicate an older wine. Red grapes with thinner skins (tempranillo, nebbiolo, pinot noir) tend to produce wines with less intensity of color than do thick-skinned grapes (like syrah).

We tend to see wines described in terms of pleasant flavors like fruits, honey and spices, but when you sniff a wine, let yourself be open to whatever scents come through. Upon first sniff of one red, I got a big whiff of plastic. I thought something must be wrong with either my nose or the wine, but Alison backed me up. The more sunshine grapes are exposed to as they develop, she said, the more of something called volatile acid they contain. This can give the wine they produce the faint aroma of nail polish remover or, indeed, plastic. This is one of the hallmarks of some wines from hot and sunny places like Italy and southern Spain.

Like most cheeses, wine is produced through fermentation, so it makes sense that some of it might smell a bit funky. One of the reds we tasted smelled to me like goat cheese, another like parmesan. Wines aged in old oak barrels often take on smoky scents of tobacco and leather while those aged in newer oak barrels might contain hints of vanilla and baking spices like cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.

When you finally taste a wine, you can tell still more about its alcohol content and the climate the grapes were grown in. Take a sip and swish it around in your mouth a little, then swallow. Open your lips slightly and see how much saliva forms on the sides of your mouth. If there’s a lot, the wine is highly acidic, which indicates the grapes were likely grown in a cooler climate. If your mouth remains fairly dry, you can bet the grapes were grown somewhere warm.

Do you feel a slight warmth or burning near your lungs after swallowing? That’s the alcohol: you’ll notice the sensation most with highly alcoholic wines (14% or more). Grapes grown in warmer climates tend to get bigger and thus contain more sugar than those from cooler climes. During fermentation, this sugar turns to alcohol, so wines from sunnier regions tend to be boozier than their more temperate counterparts. Temperate climes lead to more temperate wines.

Now think about the flavors you pick up: sweeter red fruits or tarter black fruits (if you’re drinking red wine)? In whites, are the flavors more citrusy, tropical, appley, or mild like stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, apricots)? Don’t forget about rarer options like pomegranates, figs, prunes, and dates.

Don’t stop at fruits: there might be vegetable notes like green pepper, hints of wood or spices, and earthy or “barnyardy” flavors you may not tend to associate with something you enjoy drinking—minerals, grass, tobacco, rain against stone. One professional wine writer I’ve read described a Virginia wine he tasted as “potatoey, in a satisfying, earthy sort of way.”

As sommeliers develop their palates, they might be able to distinguish between two closely related wines grown in similar climates under similar conditions based solely on subtle differences in flavor. For the rest of us, however, this exercise serves as an opportunity to taste mindfully. When you slow down enough to compare the flavor of what’s in your mouth with the memory of something else, your perceptions heighten and tastebuds sharpen. Drinking wine can thus become not simply relaxing, but even meditative.

In the end I gained a more nuanced appreciation of the layers of flavor, texture, and aroma that make up a well-crafted wine. I don’t think it will limit my enjoyment of budget-friendly table wines so much as expand my appreciation for more complex ones.