Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Basics of Wine Tasting – How to Win(e) Friends and Impress Your Taste Buds!

A great wine movie
Miles and Jack, tilting and tasting
If you saw the wine movie Sideways, you may remember the scene where Miles shows Jack how to taste wine.  That’s pretty much how you do it!  Snob or not, there are five simple steps to remember in order to get the full benefit from a glass of wine, and they’re easy to remember.  They are called the Five S’s of Wine Tasting!

Wine glasses with tapered sides
Oyster Crackers
But first, a few basics - use a clean wine glass with the sides going slightly inward at the top.  (This helps with S#3, the sniff.)  Hold the glass by the stem so that the heat of your hand does not warm up the wine.  Start with the lightest colored wine first – this is usually the driest, (having very little sugar.)  Try the whites first, then move on to the reds, again, light to dark.  Have some crackers handy, or water, to clear your taste buds between different wines, so you can taste each wine on its own merit.

The 5 S’s
There are five steps to tasting a wine to really experience it.  And an easy way to remember them is by the five S’s.  The first S is:

Tilt the glass so you can
see into the wine
1)  See – Hold your glass up to the light, tilt is slightly and take a good look. With a white wine you’re looking for clarity, brilliance, cleanness.  No floaters, no cloudy substance, nothing dull that detracts from a clear wine.  Some people suggest you hold your glass up to a white or lightly colored wall to see it better.

For a red wine, check for the tell-tale brownish ring at the top – or a brownish tinge throughout - that means it’s oxidized and past it’s prime.  If you find this, chances are when you do the sniff, (#3) you'll smell oxidization, or prunes - this means it’s a dumper.  This could indicate that the wine is past its prime, or that it was hurriedly prepared and bottled i.e.:  “Quick, get it on the shelf before we run out!”  This means that it was not a labor of love and the flavors are catch-as-catch-can.

Also note the color of the wine – a white wine should always look fresh and clean.  Even chilled, it should look welcoming.  White wines range in color from pale, pale yellow, to straw-colored, to golden, to a robust yellow, (found more in sweet wines.)  All are acceptable; the difference is due to the grapes or fruit that were used to make the wine.
With red wine, it’s a bit easier.  Reds can be blush colored, ruby, garnet, deep purple, to almost black.  If the red is consistently the same color– you’re typically in good shape.  Reds should also look welcoming – something you anticipate putting in your mouth.

2) Swirl – When learning, this is best done by placing the base of the glass on a table or hard surface and giving the glass a good rotation, ‘swirling’ it.  Do this for ten to fifteen seconds to allow the air to penetrate the wine’s surface and get some oxygen in there, releasing the aromas.

3) Sniff – Yes, this looks pretentious, but if you want to truly enjoy all aspects of wine – give it a go.  You will be amazed by the different aromas that you can identify.   As soon as you finish the swirl, stick your nose in the glass. Now, just so we’re all on the same page, do not stick your nose in till you touch the wine with it!  Do not snort and make other noises to entertain your friends and appall the table next to you.

On the other hand, do not just wave the glass under your nose or hold it several inches away.    You’ll know you have it right when you can breath in the wine’s aroma and only the wine’s aroma.  Quick sniffs or longer, it’s your choice.  Try both and see what works for you.  Once you get past feeling odd – and yes, you do at first, the experience will tempt you to try again.  Aromas that you’re looking for include floral, fruity, spicy, nutty, oaky, the smell of earth, mushrooms, cedar, smoke, asparagus, tar….the possibilities go on and on.

The Wine Aroma Wheel
In fact, now’s a good time to tell you about the Wine  Aroma Wheel.  Created by University of California/Davis professor, Ann Noble, the Aroma Wheel was created to help us ordinary wine drinkers put a name to what we were tasting and smelling.   Check it out at  This is one of the best tools out there to help you start to name what you smell. When you can do that, you can start to understand more about where the grapes or fruit came from and how they were grown, fermented, and crafted into wine.  As odd as some of the smells on the wheel seem, if you taste enough wines, you’ll eventually discover each of them.  Just have fun with it!

Sipping the Wine
4)  Sip – Note I said sip, not guzzle it down.  My rule of thumb – the first sip does not count.  Swish it around your mouth and tongue, and swallow.  Is it sweet?  Dry? (What a wine is called with minimal sugar.) Somewhere in between?  The second sip, and on, are where you will start to identify the flavors.  Some people ‘chew’ their wines when tasting – as if chewing a piece of food.  Others open their mouths slightly and draw in air to mix with the wine in their mouths, (called aerating the wine.)  Both ways help you get the full flavors at the back of your throat and nasal passages. Do what's comfortable for you.

Tasting on the Tongue
A truly good wine will have several flavors. We actually have four taste receptors on our tongues for sweet, salty, bitter, and sour flavors. The diagram at the left explains the taste receptors on the tongue and that where you place the wine in your mouth will effect what you taste.  The inner sides of the tongue identify sourness and acid, the outer sides detect saltiness, the tip of the tongue registers sweetness, and the back of the tongue perceives bitterness and alcohol.
Wine Aroma Wheel can be used
to identify flavors

Now, grab that aroma wheel and see if you can identify the taste that goes with those smells.   Also notice how long the flavors remain in your mouth after you’ve swallowed the wine. This is call the wine's ‘finish.’ Once you’ve had fun with that, sit back and …….

Having fun with wine
5) Savor – Because in all honesty, this is why we drink wine, to share it with friends and enjoy.  So, go ahead, pour a glass of your favorite and indulge.  After all, that’s the whole point!
Celebrate with wine!

So there you have it - See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, and Savor - the 5 S's of Wine Tasting!  Following these steps can make you look lie a wine pro, and feel like one ; )  Just remember that in the end, what it's always really been about is finding what YOU like and want to drink!

Next Wednesday, pairing the right wine with chocolate! ; )