Wine Tasting Skills: Oz Clarke’s How to Taste Wine, Part Four

Wine Tasting with Oz Clarke

Discover wine tasting skills from the Three Wine Men experts and make drinking wine an even more rewarding experience, one step at a time. Practise these skills at home or with friends and be raring to go at our wonderful wine tasting events! Find out more about our events at

Over to Oz, for part FOUR…

“Palate is the taste of the wine in your mouth. Call it taste if you prefer.”


All wines have some basic elements in common:

Acid and sugar are present in the juice of the grape. The sugar is turned into alcohol during fermentation, but some can remain. A lot of leftover sugar makes for a sweet wine. Acid sounds unpleasant and aggressive, but when present in the right proportion it makes the wine intense and refreshing. All wines contain acid, as do all fruits.

Tannin is the stuff in red wines that stains your teeth and dries your mouth, but in the right amounts can do marvellous things to the flavour and texture of the wine. White wines don’t have noticeable levels of tannin. Tannin and acid both have the added benefit of acting as preservatives, and wines with high levels of either (or both) have the potential to last for many years in the bottle.

Alcohol isn’t just there for the sake of getting you lit up. It balances other flavours, for example softening the attack of the acid, and makes the wine feel richer in your mouth. And without it, you’d just be downing a glass of grape juice.


Nose is the name for the smell of the wine. Alternative terms are aroma, usually used of young wines, and bouquet, usually used for mature wines. But hey, smell will do.

Palate is the taste of the wine in your mouth. Call it taste if you prefer.

Sweetness or the lack of it is the first sensation as the wine hits the tip of your tongue. Sweetness always needs to be balanced by acidity or it will be cloying. All but the very driest of wines will have some sensation of sweetness.

Acidity makes wine taste crisp and refreshing. You notice its effect on the sides of your tongue. It must be balanced by sweetness, alcohol or body: if a wine has too little of these, too much acidity will taste unpleasantly tart. A wine with too much sweetness, alcohol or body and too little acidity will taste flabby and flat.

Tannin is the mouth-drying substance found in red wines. It mostly comes from the skin and pips of the grapes. When it is balanced by good fruit flavours it adds enormously to the mouthwatering, savoury character of good red wine. Too much and the wine will taste hard and bitter. Not enough and it can taste as soft and innocuous as fruit juice.

Alcohol is found in all wines, but levels vary from as little as 8% for a light German Riesling to maybe 15% for a rich, ripe Aussie Shiraz – and higher for fortified wines. High alcohol levels make wine feel rounder in your mouth.

It is possible by scientific methods to reduce the level of alcohol in wines by a degree or two without ruining the flavour, but too much de-alcoholization leaves a drink that is devoid of alcohol’s round, warming texture and usually tastes like a less interesting version of grape juice.

Fruit flavour in wine comes from the grapes, yet wine seldom tastes of grapes. Indeed, most wine grapes don’t taste of much until fermentation transforms them. Then the resulting wine can develop hundreds of flavours, but we have to borrow language from elsewhere to describe them. Often we use fruit flavours – plums, strawberries, blackberries, limes and many others. But we also find flavours like nuts, coffee beans, chocolate and fudge, biscuits and bread, herbs and leaves, coal dust and smoke – honestly, the number of flavours in wine goes into hundreds – and they’re borrowed from every walk of life.

Weight or body describes the different impressions of weight and size wines give in the mouth. This is what is referred to by the terms full-, medium- and light-bodied. Different wine styles will be at their best with different body and weight. And more is not always better.

Length is the flavour that persists in your mouth after you’ve swallowed the wine. A flavour that continues or even improves for some time after the wine is gone is a mark of quality.

Balance is the relationship between all these elements of the wine: sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol, fruit and body. An unbalanced wine will taste as though it is lacking something – and it is.

Extracted from Oz Clarke’s Let Me Tell You About Wine, published by Pavilion Books. Image credit to Pavilion Books, RRP £14.99, available to order from all good bookshops and online retailers including Amazon here

We hope you enjoy practising your wine tasting skills!  The next couple of posts will give you 50 ways to describe wine…

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