So you have been drinking wine for years. You know your favorite types of wine, favorite wine regions and feel confident in your ability to hold your own during a discussion with the snobby neighbors (who have been to Napa Valley TWICE, mind you) from down the street at the holiday cocktail party. Hosting wine laden dinners for family and friends is a point of pride for you. You regularly attend wine tastings in your area (hopefully without embarrassing yourself). Perhaps you have even been lucky enough to travel to a wine region and taste at a winery. But have you ever truly learned what it means to taste wine?
Now you are thinking ‘Ha ha! Jokes on you! I just took a sip of my Pinot Noir and tasted it. I have been successfully tasting wine for years! My technique has been perfected over decades of careful and diligent practice!” First, allow me to applaud the time spent developing your wine knowledge. Wine, like life, is a journey and not a destination. We learned this from Aerosmith if not from our own experience.
Part of the journey of wine is in learning more about it, becoming more in tune with what each grape varietal, each region, even each bottle is all about. Of course wine regions and grape varietals are very different from each other, but those differences pale in comparison to the unique journey each individual bottle of wine takes before it winds up in a glass sitting in front of you.
Think of it like dating. You see someone you think you find attractive, so you start a conversation with them. In wine this translates to seeing a sexy/classy/cute label that draws you in to pick up the bottle to learn more. You decide to ask your crush out, or in the case of wine you decide to purchase the bottle. Once you are on the date you learn more and more about this person as you both grow more comfortable with one another. A bottle of wine will open up throughout the evening and will evolve into something very different than when it is first opened, much like someone on a first date. Each bottle of wine, like each individual person, has taken its’ own distinctive path to become something/one unlike any other on the planet. And it has put itself directly in front of you at that exact moment in time. Clearly, it’s fate. The very best way to get to know a bottle of wine is to go through the tasting process. By going through this very specific, but simple, process we are not just drinking wine but evaluating it, learning about its secrets and nuances.
Drinking wine is all well and good if your goal is to relax after a hard days work, but that experience will be as one dimensional as a one night stand. If you really want to get to know your wine it pays to put on the brakes and take things slowly (long romantic walks on the beach optional).
The first step is simply to look at the wine. Just like prospective love interests, you can learn a decent amount about a wine by the way it presents itself to the world. The best way to do this is to pour one to two ounces of wine into a wine glass and then hold it at a 45 degree angle away from you against a white background. The white background is especially important, as viewing the wines against any other color will, of course, effect your perception of the color of the wine. A highly technical tool to use for this purpose is a white sheet of paper. Be sure to do this in a well lit area!
What we are looking for here is to get an initial impression of the wine. You will want to start by identifying the core (or the center, the darkest part) and pay attention to how the color changes as it gets closer to the rim (or edge) of the wine. This is called rim variation.
The next step is to evaluate the color. Is it clear or opaque? The opacity of a wine can tell you quite a lot about it. If you can read words through the core this gives an indication of the age and grape varietal used. As an example, if it is bright, shiny and see through then the wine is likely younger. If the color of the wine is leaning more towards brick or orange that can be an indicator of age or potentially winemaking technique. And be sure to be on the lookout for bubbles or effervescence. With the wide variety of sparkling wines, the size and persistence of the bubbles can give an indication of the technique used.
Our next step is to smell the wine. Gently swirl the wine in the glass before each sniff.
Do you smell fruit of some sort? Good. Otherwise the wine could be flawed.
Before going in to the layers of aroma it is important to learn to identify flawed wine.
Although there are several ways wine can be flawed, the most common flaw is a corked bottle. This does not mean a wine that has been sealed with a cork or that has bits of cork floating in it. Corked wine is wine that has been contaminated by a substance called TCA. It can be as easily identified as the person with the horrific body odor wearing a tank top next to you on the subway. However, the characteristics of TCA are not as pungent as B.O. TCA smells like wet dog, moldy newspaper or a dank basement. It is not dangerous to drink corked wine, but the smell will be off putting and the flavor of the wine will be dull, muted and will lack fruit characteristics. Think about it like a date who seemed interesting when you asked them out, but after the first dinner you realize they have the personality of a slug.
The next (and most fun) step is to (finally) taste the wine! We do this in a very specific and hilarious way. Take a sip of about one ounce of wine and then suck a little air into your mouth at the same time. Feel free to be noisy about it, especially when showing off to those snobby neighbors down the street. The noisier you are the more obvious it is that you know more about wine than anyone else. (You should probably disregard that last statement).
While the wine is in your mouth, swish it around like mouthwash for about 20 seconds. Make sure it hits your entire mouth; top, cheeks, gums, under your tongue. After you swallow pay attention to what happens next.
When we swallow wine (or food) the way we taste occurs through a process called retronasal inhalation. After you swallow the aromas travel back (retro) up through your nasal (nose) cavity. Combined with swishing the wine in your mouth, THIS is where you really learn what a wine tastes like.
Focus on the flavors and finish. Are the aromas you smelled previously confirmed on the palate? Do you get any new flavors that you did not identify on the nose? Does the wine finish quickly or slowly (aka do the flavors dissipate quickly or slowly)?
When we are going through this tasting process we are looking for three tiers of aromas and flavors. Primary aromas/ flavors are fruit. Aside from identifying the color or type of fruit (red, citrus, stone, black, etc) it is also important to consider if the fruit it fresh, baked, stewed, etc.
Detailed wine aroma wheel from www.winefolly.com
Secondary aromas and flavors are those imparted by the winemaking process. So, if a wine has been aged in oak it may exhibit not only oaky notes, but bakeshop spices like vanilla, clove or cinnamon. Or for wines aged in stainless steel the true expression of the grape will shine without hindrance.
Tertiary aromas and flavors are those given by the terroir where the grapes were grown. For example, Chablis will exhibit a distinct crushed oyster shell aroma due to the Kimmeridgian Limestone in which it was grown. Or reds from Bordeaux are identified by a distinct earthiness.
It is the combination of all these aspects that make each bottle of wine unique. Just like people, a bottle of wine is the sum of all the influences put upon it up until the point in it’s life when it crosses paths with you. And as special as it is to learn more about a date who captivates you, each bottle of wine also has its own story to tell. It is worth exploring the options and continuously trying new wines to see how your individual palate adjusts.
A fun experiment to see the difference between simply drinking wine and tasting wine is to try the two side by side. Take a quick sip of the wine without going through the tasting process and then with the next sip immediately go through the tasting process. There will be a night and day difference. The more you taste the more you will learn and the better your wine knowledge will become. So, practice with many different types of wine- work hard at it. And who knows? Maybe by the time the next neighborhood holiday party comes around you will be able to one up the snobby neighbors with your impressive evaluation of wine.
Courtesy of Sommelier and Guest Blogger, Meghan Vandette