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(The Very Basics was supposed to be the title, but the alliteration was just too annoyingly perfect to pass over. Plus, it’s a little more obvious as to what this post is about, no?)
What do you do with the wine in your glass?
Drink it, obviously.
But if you’re at a winery you only get a little sample! Clearly, what you choose to do with that wee nip can greatly affect your impression of the wine. If you follow these steps consistently when tasting, over time you’ll begin to get more from each experience than just a pleasant buzz.
So here’s the very basics of wine tasting. And if you think you’ll feel silly doing this at a winery?
Get over yourself. Quit your worrying… but maybe have a friend over and “practice” at home first (especially if you plan to participate in the “spit” part. Trust me on that. We’ll get to those details later.)
Start with a clean and clear wine glass. Please, nothing painted or colored or plastic (GAG). If you want to get fancy, check out Riedel. (They’re considered the best, but they’re expensive.) Save the “pretty” glasses for serving water at a dinner party (because from here on you will only serve wine in clear glass!) and stow away the plastic glasses on your boat so you can help bail out water if you’re sinking, because you wouldn’t want to dump out the delicious wine in your glass glass to help rescue the ship.
Ok. You’ve got your glass. Now, pour your wine into it, but only about 2 fingers worth (ie. not a lot because otherwise you will spill it on yourself).
And we get to step one. Stare! This can be the one bit many people feel silly about, and you probably won’t get much out of it right at the start, but just spend a minute and gaze into the depths of your glass. If you tip it to the side (not so far that you dump it out, please) and hold a piece of white paper behind it you’ll get a clearer view of the wine. For starters, just observe… Is it red or white? (Hey, did I not say basics?!) Is it a transparent and easy to see through? Or more opaque? (If it’s downright cloudy… might I suggest a different wine?) Is it the beautiful pale red of a Pinot noir? Or the rich gold of a late harvest Riesling?
Step two! Hold the glass (by the bowl or stem or base, whatever you’re comfortable with) and give the wine a swirl around. Some people do this and then dump it straight down their gullet… I have a friend who says that’s doing nothing more than taking your wine for a ride, and he’s right! The basic point of the swirl is to aerate (mix air and oxygen! into the wine) and help release aromas. There are things you can do at this point that make you look fancier, like checking out the wine streaming down the sides of the glass (inside the glass = good… outside the glass = not so good… or you poured too much. I warned you…) those are called the “legs”… but your legs can get a bit scraggly if your glass isn’t pristinely clean and if we really talk about what the legs mean then we’re going too far into alcohol and sugar and things’n'stuff in the wine that take us so far beyond the BASICS that we’re shooting for here that we’ll get off topic and really confuse the issue at hand which is…
(Deep breath! Literally!)
Sniff! Step three! Tip the glass up towards your face and tuck it in under your nose and inhale! (Yet another point where you’ll be happy if you didn’t over pour because I’m confident wine-in-nostrils is not an effective wine-experiencing technique.) Your nose will tell you a couple things about the wine- you may pick up sweetness or a higher alcohol content, and you might even start to catch aromas of fruit or flowers or oak or any of the many things that you’ve seen on either the back side of bottles or on tasting sheets at wineries that winemakers have written to romance their products. These blurbs are great as guides and suggestions, but don’t worry if you don’t smell the subtle spice or leathery undertones or seaweed (…I kid.)… because at the beginning? You’re looking for what your nose tells you. That’s all.
Which brings us to sipping, step four. Go ahead and take a small swig (ie. if you’ve poured a decent amount and not spilled it all over yourself at this point we’re talking maybe half a mouthful)… and hold it in your mouth for a moment. These next few steps come in pretty quick succession, but pay attention to what you taste at each point!
On to step five, and here’s where things may start getting sloppy… for your first time, just try and swish the wine around in your mouth. Maybe not as vigorously as you might with mouthwash, (Dad, I’m talking to you because I’ve seen you do it!) but get the wine around to all areas of your tongue because you sense different tastes at different parts. (You knew that, right? Because we don’t have time for lessons in anatomy… and that’s really not something that I know anything specific about anyway.) If you’re feeling saucy, try opening your mouth slightly and slurping in some air, which will aerate the wine a little more and hopefully open up more flavors. Keep thinking about everything you taste…
And our trickiest step is six. Spit or swallow? (Quit snickering! Wine is serious!!) How many wines do you plan to taste today? Do you care to know as much about the last wine you’ll taste as you do about the first? If the answer is no, then swallow! But spitting is a well respected practice, and if you plan to taste many wines (and drive?) then it’s a good idea. You may want to “rehearse” a little at home before doing it out in public though… think like spitting when you finish brushing your teeth, or if something tastes bad and you need to get it out of your mouth as quick as possible, or pretend you’re in the wild west and spit like a cowboy aiming for the spittoon in the corner by the tavern door or (although spitting at a distance is probably not practiced- and no one that works at a winery will appreciate it if you start aiming for the potted plant in the corner… because, let’s face it, you’re not going to hit it and it won’t be fun to watch. Or clean up.). All tasting bars will have spit/dump buckets (DO NOT dare/ pay your friends to drink those!) (EW!). Just pick it up and spit your wine into it.
But wait! We’re not done! You need to repeat steps four through six! This is why you only took a small sip on your first go ’round- you’ll always want to go for a second one. Typically your second taste will be a truer taste, and give you another chance to check out the flavors. And during both tastes, are you finding fruit flavors? Or maybe butter? Chocolate? Start to see what flavors you find, and some other time we’ll talk about what flavors are commonly associated with different grape varieties.
One little side note when sampling many wines- you’ll typically go from drier wines to sweeter, white to red, finishing with dessert or fortified wines. If you do jump around, have a saltine cracker and a sip of water- but don’t rinse your glass with the water! All that results in is watered down wine. If you need to rinse just pour a very small amount of the next wine you plan to taste into your glass, swirl it around, and dump it into the spit/dump bucket.
Now, congrats! You are equipped with the very simple steps to wine tasting and should never feel uncomfortable about going to a winery and checking out the bounty they offer. If you really want to start being serious, consider keeping notes- whether in a simple notebook or a special wine journal- because that way you can begin to compare different vintages and regions and all that fun wine stuff.
The goal of tasting is not only to allow you to experience different wines and educate your palate, but to help you find good wines to purchase and have at home (rather than just buying it blind off the shelf because the label is pretty or if it comes in a bottle in the shape of a cat). And how do you know if it’s a good wine? Well that’s simple. It’s a good wine if you like it.