I used to be a wine tasting skeptic. I wondered as I went through the motions, why so many steps?! In my mind, there should be two: 1. Pour and 2. Drink. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the finesse that goes into getting to know a wine. On the surface, it may seem like all of the others, but the more you know, sometimes the more you appreciate what you’ve got. To me, the fact that wine shares a common ingredient, yet yields so many different tastes is pretty incredible and taking the time to be more mindful about the nuances, can broaden the taste spectrum even more. Here are the five basic steps for wine tasting and why they’re worth doing:
- See: Many of us are visual creatures so take some time to size up your wine. Hold your glass by its stem and up by the light or against a white background so you can get a good look. The color of the wine suggests its age, body-type, and origin. White wines tend to darken as they age, whereas red wines typically lighten over time. Look at the color of the wine where it meets the glass (called the meniscus). The darker the meniscus, the heavier, or more full-bodied, the wine should be. Also, the color is associated with the grape that the wine is made from. For example, a Cabernet Sauvignon is a rich red, versus a Shiraz which tends to be more purple and a Sauvignon Blanc tends to be almost clear with a greenish hue while a Chardonnay is more golden.
- Swirl: Take your glass for a spin and check out those legs. The legs (where the wine clings to the side of the glass) are good indicators of the wine’s viscosity and alcohol content. The thicker and longer the legs, the more body and alcohol the wine should contain. Dessert wines also show a lot of leg because of their sugar content. Swirling the wine also aerates it for the next step.
- Smell: If you are a swirl skeptic, then the smell may make you a believer. Smell the wine before you swirl and then smell it after you give it a good swoosh and see if you notice the difference. Stick your nose in your glass and give it a good whiff. Oxygenating the wine helps to release all of its aroma. The difference between pre- and post-swirl may vary based on the wine, but the smell is why I swirl. This is the part of the tasting where you may pick up on a few scents including notes of grass, chocolate, grapefruit, or even tobacco. Usually, the information they provide during the tasting will give you an idea of what to expect, but sometimes I pick up other familiar smells. Besides taste, smell is one of my favorite parts of wine tasting and it can be disappointing when a wine smells incredible, but doesn’t deliver on taste.
- Sip: Ok, so by now you’ve had some time to get to know your wine and you may have already formed some opinions about what to expect. Give it one more good smell and take a sip. Let the wine roll around on your tongue and hit all of your tastebuds. Draw in a little air through your mouth and breathe out through your nose–this part isn’t for everyone as it sounds like you’re slurping your wine, but it helps to aerate the wine more. This is where you may taste berries, citrus, or tropical fruits or something that doesn’t seem food-related at all like oak, leather, or smoke. If you noticed a lot of leg during the swirl, then it’s likely the wine easily coats the inside of your mouth. If it’s a red wine then you may taste tanins, which tend to be bitter (think plain black tea). They give the wine structure and tend to mellow with age. White wines tend to exhibit more acidity, or tartness, especially those not aged in oak. Lighter-body reds can also have some acidity, but generally, if you like tanins go red and if you’re looking for something more acidic or citrusy go white.
- Spit (or Swallow): This is a personal choice, but once you make it, the tasting doesn’t end there. Notice how the flavor lingers (or doesn’t). Generally, higher quality wines linger on the palate, but that isn’t always the case. For me, if a wine smells great and then evaporates once I swallow it, then this is a real let down.
Between each wine, you may want to cleanse your palate with a sip of water or a cracker. You can also rinse your glass with water, but hardcore tasters insist on washing their glasses out with the wine from the next tasting. Needless to say, you can do as many or as few of these steps as you like, but each one reveals a little more about what you’re drinking.