Read this to learn how to taste – and recommend – red wine
By Dan Bignold
Sep 17th, 2020
Do you feel confident tasting and talking about red wine? What about guests looking for something full-bodied – can you help? Here’s the know-how you’ll need to start the journey towards wine service confidence.

Wine tasting is the foundation of being able to enjoy, and therefore recommend, wine. Guests will often ask for a recommendation based on their taste preferences, or a suitable pairing (in terms of taste) for their meal. And with wine being such a huge and complicated subject, understandably lots of hospitality staff find this part of the job terrifying.

However, even if you’re not training to be a dedicated sommelier, at the very least, you need to broadly understand how flavour works across different red wine styles. If asked, you need to be able to translate a guest request into an actual recommendation. And that starts with learning how to taste wine yourself.

To help, this article (which is a summary of parts of Small Batch Learning’s Tasting & Recommending Wine Level 2 course) sets out a straightforward method for tasting wine – in terms of flavour and what we call “feel”. It also explains the best way to use that knowledge to ask guests what wine they're looking for – with just three questions.

At the end of this article, panic over! You’ll be ready to talk about red wine with confidence and start recommending like a pro.

Step 1: Tasting wine

Let’s start with three taste qualities – acidity, sweetness, dryness – that are present in all red wine, but at different levels. Getting these levels right is what makes a good wine: sweetness appeals to our animal instinct equating sweet flavours in a food source as something good (sugar gives energy); acidity prevents sweetness from becoming too cloying, and triggers salivation (preparing us to eat and drink); and dryness balances the first two, as well as adding structure and depth. Different combinations of these three levels will decide a wine’s style.

The diagram shows how these qualities work together on your taste buds. When it comes to taste, sweetness, acidity and dryness should each balance the two qualities opposite on the triangle. So actually there's also a fourth quality, which isn't exactly a taste, but is simply the result of those first three working together in a pleasing way: balance.

If, after assessing each of the three levels, a wine’s overall flavour sits anywhere outside the circle, the wine is unbalanced. For example: too much sweetness, or even too much sweetness and acidity, with no dryness, places the wine too far away from at least one of the qualities. Specifically, red wine should display both acidity and dryness, and even a little bit of sweetness, all at the same time. As mentioned, the circle in the middle of the triangle is where we find balance – and is where all wines that are for sale in your venue will (hopefully!) sit.

You’ll notice the diagram also gives further descriptions at the points of the triangle associated with each of the three taste qualities. These descriptions could be both the tastes on your tongue (known in winespeak as the wine’s “palate”) but also aromas (sometimes called the “nose”). Taste and aroma work together to create the overall flavour profile for a wine.

In flavour terms for red wine, we’re going to focus on primary fruit flavours (not secondary flavours such as spice and earthy notes). We think this is the fastest route to getting confident about describing what you taste in wine – and therefore the fastest route to being able to recommend. Fruit flavours also have the benefit of syncing quite nicely with the other concepts of acidity and sweetness (which also make more sense when tasted in terms of fruit).

Let’s look at red wine’s associated flavours in more detail to explain:

1. Sweetness

  • Cooked fruit: Fruit aromas and tastes are present in every wine, and can be identified first in terms of the type of fruit (eg, berries) and then also whether they are fresh or cooked. Cooked fruit tastes sweeter.

2. Acidity

  • Fresh fruit: The same as for sweetness, but fresh not cooked – the difference between fresh strawberries and strawberry jam.
  • Crispness: A softer version of tart, this describes balanced acidity (white wines might even show sharp citrus flavours, but that’s another article). In general, red wines showing acidity are better for pairing with food because they trigger salivation.

3. Dryness

  • Not sweet: In white and rosé winemaking the concept of dry simply means not sweet. That definition applies to red too, just sweet reds are relatively rare.
  • Tannins: In red wines (but also rosé wines, to a lesser extent), these are organic compounds transferred from either the grape skin and pips during fermentation. Tannins help to make a wine more dry – a drying sensation in your mouth when you taste the wine (see more below).
  • Oak: Ageing wine in oak can impart vanilla, burned butter and toasted nut flavours, but can also increase tannic flavours.

So. Now it’s time to pick up a wine glass, and pour some red and start thinking about dryness, sweetness and acidity – especially in terms of fruit flavours explained above. Ideally do this with your colleagues, to hear and share opinions.

If you’re a manager, give your guest-facing team a chance to taste your house pour wines and wines by the glass – these at the very least. Sniffing the wine's aromas, taking a sip, and discussing what they’re tasting might not turn them into wine experts overnight, but will rapidly improve their ability to offer guests the expected level of service. And good service means good business.

Part 2: Recommending wines

It all starts with a short conversation with the guest – which only needs you to remember these three questions:

  • Colour: Red, white or rosé (or something sparkling)?
  • Dry or not? And in 95% of cases people will say dry.
  • Body: Light, medium or full?

1. “Colour?”

The first question is really very easy. Most guests know what colour they feel like drinking. And if they don’t, answering the next two questions is going to give you a decision anyway. But in this article we’re focusing on reds.

2. "Dry or not”?

Particularly for reds, dryness means the drying sensation from tannins (which enter the wine’s taste from the grape’s skins, pips and even stems). Some people use the word "astringent", but that's not going to help you in front of a guest! Better to imagine drinking a cup of tea (black, green, with milk, doesn't matter – but unsweetened is better), and your saliva stops flowing momentarily. This is a different sensation to, say, the sweetness and acidity of lemonade. If you were to imagine those two drinks side by side (especially really strong tea) you will understand what dryness means in red wine.

Now, a totally dry red wine would mean almost no sweetness and almost no acidity. It wouldn’t be very nice to drink (and would sit outside the circle on our diagram). So, when a guest says they “want something dry”, what do they really mean?

  • Fruit: Likely they are still happy with a little sweetness (although they probably won’t say it) and definitely expecting some acidity. The easiest way to find out how much (that is, what their “dry” request actually means in terms of taste preference, either towards acidity or sweetness) is to ask what kind of fruit qualities they’re looking for – for example, raspberry jam (ie, cooked, so sweeter), or fresh raspberries (fresh, so more acidic). These descriptors apply to smell too, so talk up aromas of any wine you have in mind to further help guests decide.
  • Oak: Since tannins from oak ageing will add to any “drying” quality already imparted into red wines from the grape skins, pips and stems, if you know a wine has a definite oak character, it’s likely to also increase its dryness (especially on the finish). So, go for these wines when people request something “really dry” – but do make it clear they have an oak character, as some people don’t like oak’s associated flavours (vanilla, sweet spice). Remember that most reds usually undergo some oak-ageing, so we’re talking about a spectrum of dryness here, not an oaked / un-oaked contrast (which you get with white wines).

NOTE: Californian cabernet, Australian shiraz or Spanish rioja are all examples where it’s common (but not guaranteed) to find a bigger oak influence.

3. “Body?”

Now time to back up that flavour discussion (read: fruit discussion) with a quick check about body – or what we might call "feel". When tasting wines, think: does it feel thin, closer to water? Or does it feel viscous? Not syrupy exactly (you'll only get that in liqueurs, not even in fortified wines or dessert wines), but heavier than water, like milk?

Some guests will have a clear idea of the type of body they're looking for. So with red, your clues to giving them the right wine are:

  • Alcohol level: The lighter the alcohol, the lighter the body. Roughly speaking, under 12-12.5% abv is light-bodied, between 12.5-13.5% abv medium, and above 13.5% full. So, use the abv on the bottle to guide you.
  • Region: Since body is related to alcohol, and since high alcohol comes from lots of sugar… which you get with very ripe grapes… which comes from hot climate regions… bear with us… you can use region as an indicator of the sweetness of the fruit, and therefore the level of alcohol.
  • Varietal: All grape varietals produce different bodied wine. This may also be linked to alcohol level (some grapes produce relatively more sugar, therefore more potential for alcohol production – regardless of which climate they grow in), but there also differences in body achieved by each varietal’s tannin level. Thin-skinned grapes produce less tannin than thicker skins, and that tannin will have at an impact on body (although less than alcohol level). See this guide to different varietal's body.

WAIT! Most reds are usually medium- to full-bodied. But there are light-bodied grapes, including the gamay grape used for France's Beaujolais wine (although not all Beaujolais is light-bodied). Pinot noir can also be both light- and medium-bodied.

  • Oak: Back to oak again. Tannins are less important than alcohol level when it comes to adding body, but they still have an influence – just more on “structure” and “texture” rather than body. A big oak character will add structure, especially towards the finish. It could also make a wine feel “chewy” (usually alongside very ripe or cooked fruit flavours, and high alcohol).

But there's more – why else is body important? Well, just like flavour, body can help you recommend the right wines – based on mood, occasion or even food – to guests who don't know what they want. Don’t worry, you’re not expected to master all this now (this article isn’t claiming to train you up as a sommelier), but here are some examples:

  • Fuller-bodied wines, with lots of sweeter cooked fruit flavours, might not suit a warm evening aperitif. Imagine the transition from fresh cherry to cherry jam. But ask the guest! Maybe that’s what they love drinking on a warm evening!
  • If someone wants something “full bodied, but quite silky”, try to find a wine with tannin but not a big oak character. Perhaps young red wines that haven’t spent a long time in oak.
  • Heavier-bodied, especially hot-climate reds will probably have higher alcohol levels which may add more dryness and less acidity. Since acidity is useful when pairing wines with food, because it balances the oiliness in most cooking, very oily foods may not pair well with high-alcohol wines.

Ok, that was the race through the recommending theory. Coming up is a guide to flavour and body in four of the world’s more famous (and common) red grape varietals.

Part 3: Flavour and body in four famous red grapes

1. Cabernet sauvignon

  • Dryness, acidity, sweetness: Dry, both in terms of not being sweet, and also because most cabernet sauvignon is aged in oak barrels, the wine picks up a lot of tannins (it also has thick skins, which contribute to the tannic structure). However, it retains some decent acidity, which means despite its dryness, it has always been considered a good food wine.
  • Body: Cabernet makes dark, full-bodied wine – above 13.5% abv. Because of its acidity though, it still works with food, especially heavier meals (cabernet is the go-to wine for steak and other red meat). Unless very late in the evening after food, or in very cold climates, it may feel too full-bodied to drink by itself. 

2. Pinot noir:

  • Dryness, acidity, sweetness: All are made dry, but the grape shows natural acidity, especially as young wines, and much fewer tannins than cabernet, even when it’s aged in oak.
  • Body: Light, although in warmer climates that can push to medium as alcohol levels increase.

3. Syrah / shiraz (same grape, two names)

  • Dryness, acidity, sweetness: All are made dry (not sweet), but the grape naturally develops medium tannins and medium acidity. Where it delivers big is fruit: unctuous and jammy, with blackberries, black cherries and cassis notes helping it to feel less dry.
  • Body: That fruit-forward style is also down to the warmer climates where syrah is most at home, and the ripeness means lots of alcohol and therefore full-bodied wines.

4. Merlot

  • Dryness, acidity, sweetness: Medium acidity and tannin (from thinner skins), which means in warmer climates, where the juice and ripeness increase, you need more oak to create more structure. In terms of fruit, red and black berries are balanced, putting merlot between camps when it comes to fresh, or cooked darker fruit flavours.
  • Body: Medium-bodied, with occasional full-bodied examples in very warmer growing regions.

Remember, to become confident in recommending wines to guests, try to master just a small amount of relevant information for just a few wines. A good place to start are the wines on your venue’s winelist. Ask your manager for a tasting, to actually get these wines into your mouth, then start discussing the wines with colleagues in terms of what you've read in this article. Actually tasting is the surest way to start meeting guest expectation, and losing any fear you still might have talking about wine.

If you can understand everything in this article, and be able to talk about (and recommend) the wines on your list in these terms, you will already be ahead of 90% of people in the industry. The next 5% may take five years of dedicated study, and the final 5% would take a lifetime – but, hey, what a fantastic life it would be!

With lessons covering wine, beer and spirits tasting, giving teams the service know-how needed to recommend drinks to guests, find out how Small Batch Learning can unlock confidence at work by contacting us here