Tasting Exam Advice

Many students and fellow Master Sommeliers (including me) consider the tasting exam to be by far the most challenging of the three segments of the overall examination.  With that I’ve coached an untold number of students taking the tasting exams at both the Advanced and Master’s level over the years.  Here’s a summary of advice and suggestions I’ve commonly given to those preparing for the exams.  I hope you’ll find it useful.


Using the grid:

  • Consistency: the grid is your mantra and your security blanket.  Use it the same way every time for every wine so it feels like a routine. 

  • Be disciplined about how your use the grid: fellow Master and good friend Steven Poe has a saying about tasting drawn from his military career: think long, think wrong.  I couldn’t agree more.  Be concise with your assessment and description of a wine and stick to the grid.  Mistakes are almost inevitable once stream of consciousness starts to creep into your thinking and description. 

  • Bundle your descriptors in groups accordingly as several for fruit, non-fruit etc.

  • If you find yourself leaving out important parts of the grid or using it inconsistently it’s useful to practice talking through wines out loud (see below on associated rehearsal) so the grid becomes complete and automatic.


  • Overall: get it out of the way in 20-30 seconds.  Everything you need to say is literally right in front of you.  Get through the clarity, brightness and color quickly but accurately.

  • Color: hone in on the difference between straw and yellow in white wines (think legal pad or taxi for the latter) and ruby red and garnet-reddish brown for reds.  Yellow and garnet denote possible age in a wine.  Note it these colors if are there and don’t be surprised to find some evolution in the glass as in the dried fruit and non-fruit qualities from either extended barrel age or bottle age.  The appearance of a wine helps set up the rest and also helps you connect the dots.

  • Secondary colors: look for green and sliver in whites that denote youth and/or cool climate.  With reds be sure to differentiate between the color of the core of the glass vs. the edge or rim.  Give both colors and be aware that the color at the rim is practically always going to be lighter and more evolved than the color at the center of the glass.  Rarely will you find the opposite.

  • Viscosity: this is one of the two or three times during the four minutes and ten seconds of tasting a wine that you should pause and wait for something to happen (tasting to assess sweetness/dryness and the structure are the others).  When checking the viscosity swirl the glass, hold it and wait for at least 3-5 seconds.  Allow time for the wine to set up on the sides of the glass and the tears/legs to begin to fall.  If swirling the glass doesn’t seems to work rotate the glass slowly in your fingers for several seconds then slowly turn the glass upright.  That should do the trick. 


  • General: because you’ve gotten through the appearance of the wine quickly you’ve allowed yourself a lot of time to smell the wine—and that’s a good thing as the nose of the wine is the main event, the most important aspect of tasting.

  • Initial impression: many times when first smelling a wine something leaps out of the glass and really gets your attention causing that little internal voice to say that “this wine is X!”  If that happens by all means thank the internal voice, register the idea and then park it in your internal field.  However, don’t immediately try to force the wine into the mold of whatever the initial impression is or you might suddenly find yourself in Albuquerque as in the completely wrong place.  Jump to conclusions suffer contusions. 

  • Fruit descriptors: expand your descriptors and make sure that you’re using all the fruit groups.  For white wines look at apple/pear, citrus fruit, tropical fruit, and stone or pit fruit. For red wine the groups include red fruits, black fruits, blue fruits and dried fruits.  While everyone’s impressions and memories of fruits can vary individually, be as specific as you can. 

  • Advice: if you’re having trouble identifying a particular fruit aroma, try making it something totally different and unrelated as in a non-fruit or earth component.  You’ll often get a very quick and accurate impression by simply contrasting an aroma with something it’s not.

  • Quality of fruits: be as accurate as you can with the quality of the fruits as in tart citrus vs. sweet citrus or fresh fruit vs. dried fruit vs. cooked fruit.  Also be aware that fruit qualities for both white and red wines often change between the nose and palate.  The ripe mango and other tropical fruits on the nose of a Pfalz Riesling often become tart and under ripe on the palate.  The same goes for red wines: the ripe black fruits on the nose of a McLaren Vale Shiraz often turn to tart cranberry and red raspberry on the palate.  Lots of variations are possible here so be aware the qualities of the fruit and if they change from nose to palate. 

  • Non-fruit descriptors: to me non-fruit is one of the two most important elements in terms of being able to identify a given wine (structure is the other). As with the fruit descriptors, be sure to consider the entire list when smelling a wine.  These include floral qualities, pepper spice and brown spice notes (the latter probably denoting oak), herbal and vegetal notes, botrytis on white wines (a combination of honey and stone fruits) and others.  Also be aware that these qualities, like the fruit, can and will often change from nose to palate.  If so, be sure to note.

  • Earth and mineral: it’s important to distinguish between inorganic and organic earth—literally the difference between rocks and dirt.  Make the distinction and don’t be surprised to find both in the same wine.  If so, note it and as with the fruit and non-fruit elements be sure to mention if the minerality/earthiness changes from the nose to the palate.  It often does.  Also, earthiness in wine is usually accompanied by other components such as damp leaves, forest floor, mushroom/truffle and more.  If you find earth in a wine look beyond to these other related aromas and flavors—they’re probably there and important. 

  • Wood: with wood the major goal is really just to see if it’s actually present in the wine and if so, whether the wood is used or new.  Be sure to note any and all wood descriptors together as a group and also make sure to repeat any that are important on the palate. 


  • Overall: tasting involves two goals: confirming what you’ve already smelled in the glass and calibrating the structure as in the acid, alcohol and tannin as well as the finish.

  • Sweetness/dryness: for me the true measure of a wine’s sweetness or dryness is the finish.  Taste the wine, wait a few seconds and then see what you have on the finish.  It should be obvious.

  • Confirmation: go through the fruit, non-fruit, earth and oak components of the palate of the wine methodically.  Quickly reassess and note the things you’ve smelled previously.  If something is new by all means mention it.  This is also the time to be aware if the qualities of the fruit, non-fruit or earth/mineral have changed from the nose to the palate. 

  • Structure: while some individuals have no problem calibrating the structure of a wine quickly many others (including me) find that the structural elements including the acid, alcohol, and tannin, are a delayed physical response.  As mentioned above, I strongly advise retasting the wine and waiting for at least 3-5 seconds before trying to describe it.   Be as precise as you can as you can only provide one specific answer.

  • As a side note, most experienced tasters have an internal visual scale they use to confirm the precise level of acidity, alcohol, tannin and the finish; literally a visual device to help confirm what they’re tasting and sensing. 


  • First impression: this is the time to go back to that first impression if one popped up and see if it still makes sense.  If not, chuck the idea or use it to compare or contrast possible grape varieties or appellations.  However, if it still makes sense in the context of the wine be sure to at least mention it in your initial conclusion.  

  • In terms of deducing a specific grape variety I find that more often than not it’s useful to go through a mental quick check list of what the wine is NOT, eliminating grapes and narrowing the possibilities of what it can be. 

  • Avoid at all costs basing your conclusion on a single element that you’ve seen, smelled or tasted in the wine.  One thing is rarely, if EVER, enough on which to base a conclusion.  Use the entire grid to make your conclusion.  Evan Goldstein MS calls it “CSI”-like work where you’re building a case throughout the tasting process as to what the wine could be.  I couldn’t agree more. 

  • Match non-fruit qualities to structural elements: most semi-aromatic white grapes and thin skinned red grapes have very similar fruit profiles but very different non-fruit qualities.  Combine the non-fruit and the structure of the wine and you have a lot of information on which to base a conclusion. 

  • Reset!  Once you’ve finished a wine in a tasting or exam reset to the beginning of the process and start completely anew each time.  If you have trouble with one of the wines in the flight get through it as completely and thoroughly as you can, make the best conclusion you can in the moment and then move on.  Whatever happens, don’t allow one challenging wine to throw you off your game for the rest of the flight.  Be disciplined, be focused, and be confident that you have done it many times before and can do it now in the moment.   

Practicing tasting: associative memory and rehearsal

It goes without saying that any student must practice individually and also be part of a tasting group to be successful in the tasting exams.  Both are invaluable and irreplaceable.   However, after many years of coaching a lot of students I’ve come to believe that associative rehearsal, especially for those experienced students taking the Master’s Exam, can be just as useful as physically tasting wine.  That’s simply because once a student gets beyond the Advanced Exam odds are they’ve tasted a great deal of wine and have a considerable, and sometimes remarkable, database of memories from previous wines. 

For these students—and all students for that matter—the exam is all about memory, specifically olfactory and palate memory.  Improving memory does not require having a glass of wine in hand.  I strongly believe that someone at the Master’s Exam level needs to be able to mentally call up the complete experience of a classic wine—as in how it looks, smells, tastes and feels on the palate—almost on command. 

With that I recommend students preparing for an exam regularly make time to mentally mock up a flight of six classic wines in an exam-type setting (again, all of this in terms of visualization) and then talk through the wines out loud using the MS grid just like they would during an examination.  During this rehearsal the student needs to remember and experience each wine as completely and intensely as possible; seeing the wine clearly in their mind’s eye, smelling it completely and accurately, tasting it fully and noting the flavors and structural elements accurately, and then concluding the wine perfectly while feeling really confident.

Practicing tasting using associative rehearsal accomplishes several things simultaneously: it connects one to their previous memories of various specific components found in wine as well as their overall impressions and memories of classic wines as a package of sight, smell and taste; it also builds recognition in terms of describing a wine perfectly through auditory cognition and recognition.  Finally, practicing talking through wines out loud helps to build an inner comfort zone for students in terms of having confidence using the language of the grid and speaking aloud in front of examiners.   

I can’t recommend practicing with associative rehearsal strongly enough.  So much of the tasting exam is about having confidence with one’s own internal experience, sensitivity, calibration and memory.  This is a great way to improve it all.