From how to identify a dry wine to how to taste wine at a restaurant, sommelier Victoria James answers our most pressing wine-related questions. 

By Katie Holdefehr
September 25, 2018
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I love to drink wine, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm not sure how to drink wine. That moment when a waiter offers me a sip of wine to taste fills me with fear. Do I sip, do I swirl? What do I do if I don't like it? By the time I've made it through the anxiety-invoking tasting process, I could really use a glass of wine. To help answer these and several other wine-related questions, we chatted with sommelier Victoria James, the author of Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rose (from $12; amazon.com). She helped solve our wine confusion and walked us through the tasting process, sip by sip. 

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How do you taste wine at a restaurant?

According to James, when they pour you that little tiny taste of wine at a restaurant, it's not to see whether or not you like it. "It's just to see whether or not it's correct," she explains. Once you take a peek at the label and confirm it's the bottle you ordered, you're ready to taste it. "You're checking for cork taint and for other flaws as well," says James. How can you tell if there's cork taint? Before you take a sip, take a whiff of the wine. Some people say that cork taint (a.k.a. wine that's "corked") smells like wet cardboard. If all you smell is berries, plums, or well, wine, then you're ready to take a sip. If the sip also passes the test—again, not for how much you like the taste, but just that the wine isn't "corked"—then you're ready to accept the bottle. 

What is trilling? 

If you've ever been to a fancy wine tasting, you may have noticed people sucking in air as they take a sip of wine, creating a little slurping or gurgling noise. "It's a way to aerate the wine," James explains. "So essentially you're sucking in a little bit of air to just expose more oxygen to the wine in your mouth." Go ahead and try it—just try not to drool. 

How can you tell if a wine is young or old?

Just take a look in the glass. If you can almost see your reflection and the surface acts as a mirror, it's a youthful wine. As the wine starts to age, the surface will appear duller. 

If a wine is dark in color, does that mean it's full bodied?

"The color has nothing to do with whether it's full bodied," says James. A light colored wine can actually be very full in body, like a Grenache, it just depends on the color of the grape skins. 

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What is dry wine?

Technically speaking, James tells us that a dry wine means whether or not a wine has sugar in it. But when we refer to a dry wine, we're typically talking about the presence of something called tannins. "Ninety-nine percent of red wines are dry—there's no sugar in them," says James. But dryness, or when you take a sip of wine and there's almost a dryness in your mouth, is the result of tannins, a bitter-tasting organic substance found in wine. James compares it to the taste when you let a cup of tea steep for a little too long and it's astringent. If you're looking for a dry red wine, then you want a tannic red wine.