Bottoms Up to Wine Tasting!

By Kate McLelland

“Honeydew melon…a little smell of cream…it reminds you of lying in bed upstairs and having a tiny waft of someone marvellous having made you breakfast downstairs. You get that smell of toast and butter…”

These are the words of wine expert Jilly Goolden, describing the aroma of a Chenin Blanc wine to a Guardian reporter at the launch of the wine-tasting courses she runs at her Sussex home. While some readers may find Jilly’s descriptions a tad over the top, most wine lovers would probably admire her ability to find so many different sensations packed into one sniff of vintage white. Since she first appeared on our TV screens in the 1980s, Jilly has waxed lyrical about wines of every age, colour and price. She believes that drinkers who simply quaff a bottle without dwelling on its finer points are “probably missing out 50% of what it [the wine] has to say to you.”

What does wine tasting involve?

Wine tasting is the practice of using the senses of touch, sight and smell to evaluate different wines. It is believed that the first wines were produced in Mesopotamia – an ancient region that included present day Iraq and Kuwait together with parts of Syria and Turkey – between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. By the time of the Roman Empire, the production of wine had spread throughout the Mediterranean, even as far as the British Isles.

The ancient Romans were particularly passionate about their wines, realising that the more a wine was allowed to mature, the better it tasted. They were also the first to introduce wooden barrels, glass bottles and corks to preserve the precious liquid. It’s more than likely, therefore, that the first wine tasters were slaves employed by their masters to check that wines were drinkable (and also, possibly, to ensure that they hadn’t been poisoned by their enemies!)

Although unofficial methods of wine tasting have been around for thousands of years, it was not until the 14th century that more formalised ways of sampling and evaluating wines began to emerge. The rules put in place at that time have since evolved into a craft with its own precise language and methods. If you’re taking up wine-tasting as a hobby, you won’t be obliged to use the specialised terminology employed by today’s professional wine-tasters and sommeliers, but you will need to follow some basic rules to help you identify the particular characteristics of the wine you are sampling.

The four stages of wine tasting

The first phase in the four recognised stages of wine-tasting is appearance. The liquid is examined to see how well it reflects or refracts light, whether it is cloudy or clear, and how much the process of oxidisation over time might have affected its colour.

The wine’s smell (also known as its “nose”) is then judged. Tasters must attempt to describe the perfume it gives off, as determined by its “aromas” and “bouquets”. “Aroma” refers to the smell of the specific grape – or combination of grapes – used, while “bouquet” refers to the scent created as the wine matures.

To judge the taste, swirl the wine around your mouth so your taste buds can do their work. As well as teasing out the specific flavours of the wine, you’ll be considering the amount of sweetness and/or tartness you find. You might also want to judge the amount of astringency (bitterness caused by the tannin in grape skins) you can detect. Overall, you’ll be looking for “balance” in the wine, deciding whether all its components are in harmony.

The final part of the process is to consider the impression left on your tongue when you have either swallowed or used a spittoon to clear the wine from your palate. At this stage you’ll be able to tell a well-made wine by its crisp, clean finish: poor quality wines often leave a watery and insubstantial aftertaste. The best quality wines leave a “long finish”: that’s a flavour that remains in the mouth after the wine has gone.

How do I start?

If you’re not sure how to kick off your wine-tasting hobby, an online search will lead you to a number of excellent courses, taking place nationwide. On the jobs and training website run by the Reed Group you’ll find a short online course costing £97 (visit the Hospitality and Catering section at for details), alternatively Jilly Goolden herself runs wine-tasting afternoons under the title “The Wine Room” at £125 per person, taking place in the Ashdown Forest, East Sussex (telephone 01342 822251 or email

As you develop confidence you’ll be able to explore some of the 400 or more commercial vineyards that operate in the UK. Visit England has a list of vineyards, many of which are open to the public, offering luxury on-site accommodation in B&Bs and self-catering accommodation so you can relax and make the most of your wine-tasting experience ( Whether you’re planning to become the next Jilly Goolden or simply someone who loves to explore the subtleties and complexities of wine, you’re certain to find a course or vineyard experience to suit. Bottoms up!

Bottoms up – Let’s toast this terrific tasting hobby!

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