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Appreciating the Delights of Wine

Six strategies for making wine memorable

How can you develop your wine palate? Given all the complexity in the world of wine, the first answer is remarkably simple: Drink.

In moderation, of course, but on a regular basis. As with most perceptual learning, developing an appreciation for the distinctive aromas and flavors of wine begins in experience and then proceeds by interleaving the experiential and the didactic. Drink, read, watch, listen, write, drink some more.

Here are six strategies for learning to appreciate wine – and for getting more enjoyment out of each glass.

1. To taste wines more fully, drink them at castle temperature – the temperature of a typical basement (from now on referred to as a cellar). Too much refrigeration can chill away the flavor of wines. In fact, try no refrigeration – for any wines, except sparkling. You may be surprised at how much more flavor that Chardonnay has. Store wines in your cellar and bring them up when you’re ready to drink. If you don’t have a cellar, keep your wines in the coolest place in your apartment or house, away from any sources of heat.

2. Learn the categories of taste experience: tannin, oak, acidity, sugar, alcohol, and fruit.

Tannin comes primarily from the skins of grapes and provides the structure for red wines. It can be astringent and potentially bitter. It is also abundant in tea, so to experience a direct dose of tannin, brew very rich black tea – steeping it a little too long – and drink it slowly, letting it coat the inside of your mouth. Oak comes from the barrels that the wine ages in and often shows itself as a hint – or a dollop – of vanilla. Acidity, which provides the structure for white wines, tastes tart and tangy. Bite into a lemon or a grapefruit and experience the acidic structure of white wines. Sugar, of course, tastes sweet. Alcohol is always in the wine glass but is often balanced with the fruit. If there’s too much alcohol and it’s out of balance with the fruit, it can leave a burning sensation on the finish, like the aftereffects of tequila. Which leaves the flavor profiles of the fruit – often the most complex experience in tasting wine, including fruit flavors but other flavors as well.

3. Watch wine movies. Begin with Sideways (2004), a road trip through Santa Barbara’s beautiful wineries and vineyards. Then move on to Bottle Shock (2008) about the early days of California wine making, which culminates in the dramatic 1976 wine tasting in Paris when California wines went glass to glass with French wines for the first time. Then finish with the 2012 documentary, Somm, about four sommeliers trying to pass the almost impossible Master Sommelier exam. The first two movies present the archetypal pairing of expert and novice, allowing viewers to identify with both. The third is a view of those at the zenith of wine tasting expertise.

4. Take notes. External memory is more reliable than internal memory – and also enhances internal memory. Write what you see, smell, and taste. And feel free to be poetic. Anything goes, as long as you’re honest with your experiences. Writing notes helps in distinguishing the different aromas and tastes, in communicating these observations to others, and in remembering the different flavor notes.

5. Pair wines according to similarity, contrast, and contiguity. Going with similarity, light wines complement light dishes (Sauvignon Blanc with white fish); weightier wines complement weightier dishes (Cabernet Sauvignon and steak). Going with contrasts, pair sweet and spicy, crisp and savory. Try a slightly sweet Riesling with spicy Thai food. For very hot dishes, try Champagne or Prosecco. As for contiguity, learn where your dish comes from and pair a wine from that region. Choose wines that are grown in the same regions that the dishes come from. Burgundian coq au vin goes well with the red wine from Burgundy, which is made from Pinot Noir.

6. Drink slowly and savor. When drinking wine, take your time and don’t be concerned about making noises. Smell wine in short intense sniffs. Taste slowly, aerating your mouth as you hold the wine in your mouth. While smelling and drinking the wine, think of familiar, fruits, berries, nuts, and vegetables. Pay attention to the initial flavors (the attack), the flavor as the wine moves through your mouth (the mid-palate), and the lingering tastes after swallowing (the finish). A garden of earthly tastes waits to be detected and appreciated.

All photos are in the public domain and provided by wikimedia or wikipedia.

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More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.
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