Intimidated at the prospect of attending a wine tasting? No worries. While a lot of people that go to these have all sorts of irritating affectations, I honestly think it’s just a cover up for most people who are trying too hard not to sound–or look–like idiots.
So why go? Wine tastings can be fun and informative. Plus, they can provide you with an opportunity to try a type of wine that you might not otherwise be able to experience. Also, it can broaden your tasting range and provide you with more experience to judge your “normal” wines with.
While you can taste wine however you want (in fact, I recommend doing just that), the general “steps” in a wine tasting are posted below. Although it is certainly optional, most wine tastings involve taking notes at each step. Otherwise, by the time you’ve tried two or more wines, you will probably confuse which impressions went with what wine!
a. Hold the glass by its stem and take a look at the wine’s thickness (called “viscosity”).
b. Swirl it in the glass to see how it clings to the sides (called “legs” or “tears”). The thicker or longer the legs, the richer and denser a wine will be.
c. Inspect the edge of the wine where it meets the glass. This is called the wine’s “meniscus”. Generally speaking, the darker the meniscus, the more full-bodied a wine is expected to be.
d. Inspect the color to determine the wine’s age: in white wines, the hue actually darkens with age while in reds, they often lighten.
e. Inspect the color in terms of the type of grape: in red wines, a deep, rich red is often seen in a Cabernet Sauvignon while an even darker, almost purply hue can be noticed in lots of Shiraz. A Pinot Noir is usually a brighter, red color and not as thick. In white wines, a Sauvignon Blanc tends to be almost clear with a slightly greenish hue and Chardonnays often have a golden cast. Noting the color and variations in color between a wine of the same grape from another can be quite interesting.
Honestly, I still can’t bring myself to do this step as I just feel too silly. Nonetheless, to do a “proper” wine tasting, it is said that you must swirl the wine in the glass (pretend like you’re making a mini tornado in the bowl of the glass). By swirling the wine in this manner, you expose more of the liquid to air, thereby releasing more of the wine’s aroma.
3. Smell the wine.
I like to do this step, but I still have problems when people stick their whole schnauzer in there like the guy from Sideways. (Although most wine tasting how-to’s actually recommend this as it is said your nose picks up the released aromas from the swirling optimally.)
In any case, smelling the wine can be an interesting experiment as it will often give you a good indication of the wine’s taste (although I’ve found this to not always be true). For information on specific aromas frequently found in wine, see antiwinesnob‘s article on Understanding Aroma and Flavors in Wine.
Caveat: When engaging in this step, you may hear utterings of the wine’s “bouquet” or “nose” being pronounced in irritatingly condescending tones.
At last, the best part! And if you are surrounded by the typical crowd of wine-tasters, you’ll probably need a little nip by now, just to calm the nerves and keep from smacking the wannabe’s around you who’ve waxed poetic on Indian rubber and rambutan.
So, how do you properly taste the wine? Still holding the glass by the stem, you take a small sip. Let the wine roll back on your tongue and linger in your mouth. For lack of a better phrase, I recommend that you almost chew the wine, letting its flavors hit against the different areas of your tongue. The first sip is the most important as your taste buds notice the flavors more. After the first sip, your tongue becomes accustomed to the wine and you will not be able to pick out its characteristics as well.
At this point, you’ll hear comments involving “palate” or “mouthfeel” -both of which refer to the weight, texture and flavor of the wine in your mouth. When discussing the palate or the mouthfeel, the full gamut of metaphors–from fruit, vegetable, mineral, gaseous, and chemical flavors (real, imagined or just plain staged) to personality types–are utilized. Descriptions of the wine’s acidity and tannin levels are also noted here as both of these elements dramatically affect the wine’s weight and structure and character. For more information on this, see antiwinesnob‘s article on What’s the Difference Between Tannins and Acidity?
Often, you’ll also see tasters inhale through their mouth while the wine is on their tongue (not recommended to try in public if you’ve never done this before unless you like red stains on your shirt). This exposes more of the wine to oxygen and releases more of its aroma.
I prefer to actually swallow the wine at a tasting. If I am tasting more than two or three wines, I just make sure I don’t take more than two sips from each of the samplings. That said, I’ve never been to a tasting where I’ve sampled more that six different wines. If I had, I probably would have tried the spitting method for obvious reasons. Don’t worry: if you are at a wine tasting, there should be a glass or other receptacle available to you to discreetly spit your wine into.
Whichever method you choose, make sure to note the lingering flavor of the wine in your mouth after you’ve disposed of it. This is called the wine’s “finish” and the general rule is, the longer the finish, the higher quality of wine. That said, I’ve had some lousy wine that seemed to linger for hours, so, I’m not so sure if I buy into this philosophy!
Most tastings will supply you with crackers or other palate-cleansing substances such as lemon sorbet to clear the mouth and prepare it for the next sampling. There are lots of opinions out there on the best “cleansing” substance to use, but if nothing else, I recommend at least taking a sip of water and cleaning your mouth with it before moving on to the next wine. Otherwise, the finish from your prior wine will interfere with your ability to sample the next.
Salud! And happy tasting.
© 2008 antiwinesnob