Our ultimate guide to tasting French wine

If you’re thinking of booking a wine tour and tastings while you’re in France, you’ll want to get the most out of your visits.

As well as meeting local producers, learning about the local terroir and discovering how the wine is made, any good wine tour should include the opportunity for you to taste the wine.

But why do I need to know how to taste a wine at all, you may be wondering. Surely it’s just a matter of putting it in my mouth, enjoying the flavours then swallowing (or spitting if you are not on a guided tour!).

If you are happy doing that, then fine. And don’t let anyone else tell you that you’re doing it wrong.  French wine is there to be enjoyed. It’s up to you how you drink it.

But if you really want to make the most of your wine tour and drink in the full complexities of the world’s most wonderful tipple (and impress your friends when the waiter next pops open a bottle of French wine) then take hold of your corkscrew and read on…

How you taste wine is more complex than you may think…

Before we go into the nitty-gritty of tasting French wine, let’s take a look at which of our senses are in play when we taste wine.

Most of us would agree that the most dominant senses that we use to taste wine are smell and taste. While smell and taste do certainly play a big part, a study in 2001 seemed to show that the colour of the wine can have a real impact upon how we actually taste it.

In the study, students at the University of Bordeaux used descriptions usually associated with red wine, such as prune and chocolate, to describe a white wine which was dyed red. Interestingly, the white wine in question had previously been tried by the students and had been described very differently (they used words such as ‘lemon’ and ‘honey’).

Another study found that changes in sound and colour in our surroundings can affect the taste of the wine by almost 10%.

According to the research, red light and ‘sweet’ music increased how much the participants enjoyed the wine by up to 9%.

So next time you’re tasting a wine that you really love or, conversely, aren’t particularly enjoying, take a closer look at your surroundings. Is there a reason why the wine tastes so good?

It also might explain why that local tipple you brought back from your last holiday, which tasted so good while you were sitting at the sun-soaked local pavement café, may not taste quite the same when you get it home…

How to taste wine in 4 simple steps:

  1. Look at the colour of the wine

  2. Smell the aromas

  3. Now, it’s time to taste

  4. Write down what you liked and what you didn’t – this will help you decide which wines to go for in the future

Wine tasting step 1: Look

After a guided tour around the vineyard where you will learn about how the wine is produced and have a walk through the vines, you will probably by dying to have a taste of the wine.

But now is the time to be patient. Believe us, you will be rewarded for it in the end.

When your guide gives you your first glass, before you take a sip, take a good look at the wine. As we talked about above, the colour of a wine can really influence the flavours you’re going to taste.

The best way to really see the true colour of the wine is to hold it against a white background, such as a tablecloth or even just a piece of white paper.

What do you see?

Red wines

The colour of a red wine can vary greatly, from lighter ruby-red tones right through to more orangey hues.

The colour of the wine can provide us with clues about everything from the age of the wine to what types of grapes may have been used to make it.

For example, Gamay (one of the three grapes that can be used in the Châteaumeillant AOC) generally makes lovely light-coloured red wines that are easy to drink (often when they are still young) and light bodied. Sometimes, though, it can make some surprisingly full-bodied wines that have a much deeper colour.

More orangey tones in a red wine can be a sign that it is older.

White wines

White wines can be anything from a really pale straw colour to a deep yellow/amber.

A really light, green-tinted white wine can be a sign that it is a young wine and that it is going to be very light bodied. Wines made out of Pinot Grigio often look like this.

Light golden-coloured white wines are usually medium bodied and are made from grapes like, for example, Sauvignon Blanc.

A deep-gold hue can often indicate that a white wine is more mature and will have much stronger flavours, like, for example, an oak-aged Chardonnay.

Rosé wines

Rosés can be an extremely light, cool pink at one end of the spectrum and a very deep pink, almost light red, at the other end.

The colour of a rosé wine largely depends on how long the grape juice stays in contact with the grape skins during the fermentation process. Châteaumeillant’s rosé gris, for example, is generally a very pale pink, because the skins are removed immediately after the grapes are crushed.

Other things to look for in your wine:

Is the wine transparent or opaque?

Look at its viscosity (or legs). Wines with a higher alcohol content tend to leave more ‘legs’ on the side of the glass when you tilt or swirl it than those with a lower alcohol content.

Wines that are on the sweeter side will also have ‘legs’ that move more slowly back to the bottom of the glass.

Wine tasting step 2: Smell

Now you’ve studied the colour of the wine, you’ll be starting to get an idea of what you are going to be tasting.

Next, it’s time to take your first sniff of those wonderful aromas.

First, you need to get the wine moving, so all those lovely flavours can be released. To do this, simply place your glass on the table and give it a little swirl.

Then, bring your glass up to your nose and put your nose into it. Yes, you need to put your nose as far as you can into the glass, so you can really pick up all of the aromas. Then take a gentle sniff.

Try to think in categories of smells rather than specific things. At this point, think about whether the wine is, for example, more floral or more fruity, more earthy or more herby. 

Next, it’s time to do it all over again. Swirl your glass then bring it back up to your nose and take a second sniff.

Now’s the time to try work out exactly what you’re smelling.

Are those fruity notes more apples or pears? Those floral aromas more elderflower or lavender?

Let your imagination run wild and don’t be worried that your answer is going to be wrong. When it comes to wine, there really are no wrong answers. It’s what you are getting from it that’s important.

Again, the aromas that you smell in the wine can help you to guess how old it is and what grape/s it may be made from.

Wines made from Gamay, for example, are known for having strong fruity aromas, like ripe berries.

You should also be able to smell if a wine has been aged in oak barrels. Clues that this could have happened include the wine having vanilla or chocolate aromas.

Interestingly, it can make a difference to the aromas you smell as to whether you swirl your glass to the left or to the right. Give it a try and see if you notice any differences…

How to smell wine: a quick summary

  1. Put your glass on the table and give the wine a swirl to release the aromas

  2. Bring the glass up to your nose

  3. Take a gentle sniff

  4. Note the aroma ‘categories’ that you can detect (floral, fruity etc.)

  5. Repeat steps 1-3

  6. Now try to be more specific (apples, pears, honeysuckle and so on)

Wine tasting step 3: Taste

This is what you’ve been waiting for. Now is the time to taste the wine.

First, take a ‘slurp’ of your wine. Try to ‘pull’ it into your mouth with a little air, in order to release even more of its aromas.

Don’t worry if you can’t do this at first – your tour guide will show you how. It does require a little practice to get this technique to work. And let’s be honest, anything involving the words ‘practice’ and ‘wine’ doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

Now, swirl the wine around your mouth. Do this for around 15 seconds. After this, you can either swallow it or spit it out (if you are on a guided wine tour with us, you won’t need to worry about designated drivers, so if you think spitting out wine feels oh so wrong, then you don’t have to do it).

Next, using a process called retronasal olfraction (this is simply ‘smelling’ the aromas through your mouth, rather than your nose), try and find even more aromas in the wine that you may have missed when smelling the wine in step 2.

Now is the time to repeat the tasting steps, first taking a ‘slurp’, then holding the wine in your mouth, then swallowing/spitting it.

Think about about how acidic (sour) or sweet the wine tastes. Wines that are more on the acidic side will make your mouth water.

Is it high in tannins (these cause your mouth to feel dry)? Tannins can come from both the seeds and skins of the grapes (different grape varieties have different levels of tannins), as well as from oak, if the wine was aged in this way.

How alcoholic does the wine taste? If it is higher in alcohol, you will probably experience a warm feeling in your mouth and throat.

Next, does the wine feel more full-bodied or more light in your mouth?

Also take note of how long the wine flavours last in your mouth once you have swallowed/spat it out. How long the wine lasts, can signify if it is good quality or not.

A good wine’s flavours should ideally stay with you for more than 7 seconds.

Finally, consider if the wine seems balanced. Does one flavour dominate or do all the flavours work well in a kind of harmony together?

A good wine should have flavours that are balanced and work well together.

Wine tasting step 4: Do you like it?

Now’s the time to decide whether or not you like the wine that you’ve just tried.

If you do, great! Note down what you enjoyed the most (and what you enjoyed the least).

If you didn’t like the wine, that’s also good. Keep a note of which elements you didn’t like and why. This way, you will know what types of wine to go for in the future – and which ones you’re not so keen on!

Now you’re ready to go…

As we said at the beginning of the article, tasting wine in this way is not a must. It shouldn’t be a chore but something we do that can (and does) add enormously to the pleasure we get from drinking wine.

Taking the time to pick out the distinct aromas, flavours and colours of the wine you’re drinking and understanding why it tastes as good as it does, can not only add to our enjoyment of this wonderful drink but also change the way we view it forever.

Santé to that.

Have we inspired you to try some wine? If you want to take a wine tour around Châteaumeillant, a relatively-unknown AOC and one of France’s best-kept secrets, then what are you waiting for – book a vineyard tour with us today.