The Hows and Whys to Tasting Wine
(By Sebastian Schwarz)
When wine ceases to be just a method for inebriation, and becomes somewhat intellectually stimulating, you know its time to learn to taste like a pro. There are a number of things that we’ve seen wine experts do when they taste wine. Some seem snobby, some actually are snobby, but some are absolutely necessary to fully experience what the wine in your glass has to offer. With this guide, we’ll show you what to do, and what not to do when tasting wine with 5 simple steps. The 5 s’ to wine tasting: Swirling, Sniffing, Slurping, Swooshing, and (maybe) Spitting.
But first, a little disclaimer: When speaking of “what not to do” we don’t really care that much. Quite frankly you can do whatever you please, we most certainly won’t judge. However, we will debunk myths and comment on general wine tasting etiquette. Take it or leave it, the point is to teach you the elements to wine tasting that will make a positive impact on your intellectually stimulating, inebriating experience.
Without further due, the 5 S’ to wine tasting:
Swirling, is somewhat of a really awesome looking ritual that takes place before you immerse yourself into a sip of wine. There is something sensual about the way this wonderful beverage slides along the sides of your crystal-clear glass. The “stain” and “pronounced legs” will speak of thick-skinned grapes like Cab Sauv and Shiraz; they will speak of a hot climate like Osoyoos or the Barossa Valley. Otherwise the light viscosity will speak of delicacy and elegance; maybe a cool climate, like Burgundy, Bourgueil, or Lake Country. Furthermore, it will encourage evaporation of the volatile compounds that are meant to stimulate your mind. The aromatics that naturally occur through fermentation will concentrate inside the glass getting ready for the next, and one of the most important steps, Sniffing. While it’s true that swirling aerates the wine, we won’t go into much depth about it because most wines don’t need to be aerated, and the ones that do, will benefit little from a couple of swirls and should for the most part be decanted (Post on decanting and aerating coming soon). If you have trouble swirling the wine it is acceptable to use a table or any surface to make it easier. Practice makes perfect.
Sniffing is the epitome of tasting wine. As grape juice goes through fermentation, an important bi-product is a variety of aromatic compounds that are chemically identical to the smells that we experience in our lives. Primary aromas consist of citrus like lemon, orange and grapefruit, and are very common for white wines. Also, warmer climate whites showcase riper fruit aromas like peaches, mangoes, and pineapples. For reds, berries are the main focus. Red fruits like red cherries and raspberries for cool climate wines, and darker fruit like blackberries, cassis, or plums for warmer climates. The different primary aromas vary depending on climate, grape varietal, region and other factors. Primary aromas can also be accompanied by secondary ones, which are imparted by oak, lees contact, or MLF (malo-lactic fermentation). Some examples of secondary aromas include vanilla, spice, and toast (oak); Cream, yogurt, brioche (lees); butter, butterscotch (MLF). Finally there are tertiary aromas that come with age. Hazelnuts, dried apricot, wet stones, pistachio, wet wool (white). Or tar, mushrooms, forest floor, leather, tobacco, and smoked meat (red) are only a few examples of the complexities that a wine can develop with a few years in the cellar. Some of these aromas can sound off-putting, but the most experienced tasters long for these complexities in every glass they drink. Whether you look for this complexity, or fruity and primary aromas (or anywhere in between), sticking your nose deep into the glass, sniffing hard, and trying to distinguish these aromas will help you find what it is you like, and where it is you’ll find it. Maybe you like a peachy and floral un-oaked white like a Viognier, or an earthy, leathery and complex Meritage blend. Just remember not to get too confident, our nose is a tool that needs thorough training in order to distinguish the subtleties of wine. Taste, keep learning, and be opened to other people’s opinions; you never know what you’ll discover.
Here’s a fun one. Have you ever seen the slurping? If you have you’ll know how ridiculous it can look. Some people are even loud and obnoxious about it, and to this day, my mother still tells me not to play with my wine when she sees me do it. There is although a very important function for this rambunctious and shameless “inward bubbling noise”. Speaking of encouraging the evaporation of volatile and aromatic compounds, a lot of that takes place. But something really important also happens. All of these aromas travel to what is known as your Retronasal cavity. The part of your mouth responsible for water (or wine) shooting out of your nose last time someone made you laugh. Through this cavity, you can smell a whole lot, and since the wine is already in your mouth, it’s like smelling and tasting simultaneously. It’s imperative in order to get the full experience. If you have never done it, grab a glass of water and practice for a second. There are already enough stories of people choking, or even worse, making a fool of myself by spilling it all over a white tablecloth in front of two business partners and a cute waitress (did I say myself?). The good news is that it is a very easy process and you will nail it within about 25 seconds of practice. And if anyone ever gives you a weird look or asks why you’re doing it, just say the words “retronasal olfaction” and be acknowledged as a true connoisseur.
We were going to show you an image of the retronasal cavity but its pretty gross so here’s a photo of puppies instead.
Swooshing is very simple and very important. While it is not true that you can only taste sweet with the tip of your tongue and bitter with the back. It is true that different parts of your tongue are more sensitive to different flavors. In order to really taste, every part of your mouth has to be in contact with the wine. The other important element is structure. Structure is a quintessential term in wine vocabulary, and refers to the general mouth-feel of the wine, the balance (or lack there of) of sugar, acid, alcohol, and tannins. A wine’s structure is the most important element to food pairing, and can be a decisive factor to whether you like the wine or not. While we won’t elaborate on quality, as it takes a lot of training and theory knowledge to be able to assess quality objectively. It is very important to pay attention to a wine’s structure to assess if we’d like another sip or not, if it will go well with tonight’s dinner or not, or if you want to spit or swallow. Oh yes, on to the drunkard’s proverbial sacrilege:
Let me put it this way. Say you are going to 5 different wineries, and each winery will pour you six 1oz pours. That adds up to more than a whole bottle of wine, all to yourself in only a few hours. While it’s sometimes fun to be sloppy by 4pm, the wine that was poured in the last 2 wineries you could no longer evaluate. The question here is the following. Do you taste many different wines to get drunk for free? Or do you do it so you can find a wine that you will enjoy while you learn about the topic as well as the region that you are visiting? If you’ve gotten this far, I think it’s safe to assume your answer is either the latter, or both (which is totally fine). So how do you taste 40 different wines in 3 hours without losing the classy vibes you started with? You do it by spitting (some of it). This is how you do it. Every taster is good for about two sips; I always swish, sniff, sip, slurp, swoosh, and spit the first. That way, not only did I really taste the wine (and cut my afternoon wine intake in half), but also the person that is pouring the tasters, now understands that I care about the wine. They are more likely to let me try “the good stuff”, pay more attention to me, take my questions more seriously etc. Then there’s the second sip. This one is the best sip to evaluate wine because you’ve just washed your palate from the previous one. So you do the 5 S’ again and while in the midst of slurping and swooshing you make a choice. Is this wine worthy of taking you one step further away from sobriety? Sometimes the answer is a no-brainer; sometimes I reach for the spit cup and end up putting it right down. What you do with that sip, no one will judge because you’ve already established that you’re not trying to get sloppy. If you don’t feel comfortable spitting, practice with water for a few minutes when no one is watching, trust me, it is a very valuable skill. And if you think spitting is weird, you’re absolutely right; spitting is weird, but it is important and certainly gets better with time.
Now that we’ve established the importance in distinguishing drinking from tasting, we have to put a line somewhere in between and find a balance of the two. Where you put that line is entirely up to you, but here are some of my personal guidelines to get you started:
- If you’re at a wine tasting event, do the 5 s’ with every wine. Find the one you like the best and then spend the last 30 minutes of the event drinking it. By the time you get sloppy, its time to move the party somewhere else.
- If you’re drinking a bottle of wine, evaluate the first sip, and do it at least 4 more times sporadically as the bottle progresses. It’s quite fascinating to taste how a wine changes in the bottle from the first glass to the last.
- If you’re out hitting the vineyards, spit every first sip and then decide if you want to swallow the second. Make this decision based on the quality of the wine and/or your preferred level of inebriation.
I hope this post has a positive impact on your wine tasting experience. Please share any questions, comments, concerns, and shout-outs in the comment section below. Happy tasting!