Long stare, smooth swirl, big sniff, swish, gurgle, gulp…
This ritual has become so engrained in my approach to a glass of wine, it is only when I am amongst company who looks at me like I am a creature from the zoo when I realize this is, well… strange. Evenso, it is difficult to resist the urge. The thing is, there’s logic to the looniness called ‘tasting.’ A bunch of wine geeks didn’t just sit around and brainstorm even more ways to alienate themselves from the public with unnecessary emblems of oenological elitism.
No, no… there is a reason.
Wine is a sensual pastime. That’s essentially the intrigue—the captivation and invigoration of every sense. Start with sound—the squeak of the cork or pop of Champagne. Anticipation sets in.
Observe the liquid in the glass. Is it cloudy and containing sediment? It is likely unfiltered, if so. Does it add richness, character, grit? Do you like that? Perhaps it is the palest rose you have ever seen. Or maybe it is so inky purple, you wonder if dye was added? Is there a slight fizz of effervescence? Is the wine quite aged and therefore displaying an orange-ish rim around its brownish red bodice? Is there a particular hue you consistently favor without ever having noticed before recording these wines (you will, of course, begin to record the wines you drink now, right?).
Then, the touch of the delicate stem (always use a stem—keeps wine from warming with hand, facilitates swirling, and keeps you from leaving unappetizing fingerprints all over the glass).
After swirling, you will unleash an array or aromatics. Don’t be shy. Stick that nose in and take a big whiff. The act alone accounts for 80% of what you will taste. Does it burn your nostrils? Perhaps the alcohol’s a bit high. Are the aromas what you would expect from that varietal (is the Viognier quite floral, the Cab a bit bell peppery, the Syrah a tad gamey or peppery), or is completely unlike any you’ve had? What might be the reason? The region or perhaps the way the winemaker chose to make it? If you’re not sure what I am talking about, ask your local wine salesperson for an oaked California Sauvignon Blanc, such as the 2008 Sawyer Cellars from Napa ($14). Not your typical new world Sauv, that’s for sure. In fact, my Chard customers were all over that one, proclaiming they don’t typically like Sauvignon Blanc.
Finally, ahhhh…the palate.
It’s harder to explain, but basically take in a small mouthful, aerate it using a kissy-face whilst breathing in, give the wine a little swish swash gurgle (you want it to hit all your taste buds), then swallow. First, notice if it made you cough while sucking back the air before swallowing. If it did, again, the alcohol might be high or simply out of balance. Then, focus on the structure (does it have some grip? angles?), the tannin (does it leave you thirsting for water?), the acid (is your mouth watering, cheeks a little warm?), the fruit (berries, currants), earth (dirt, herbs, mineral), oak (vanilla and baking spice is French oak, dill weed is American), and the finish (does it last a few seconds? a minute? two?). All these factors not only tell one if a wine is of higher complexity and ageworthiness, they are questions that also allow you to get a better sense of your palate’s likes and dislikes.
Go ahead… keep a little geek pad on your kitchen counter. THIS is how you really get to know wine. I will warn you, though, the more you get this routine down, the pickier you will become. No, this does not mean you will spend more necessarily. I blog all the time about wines under $20 that are solid values. Are they harder to find? Perhaps. But that’s MY job. Your job is to find a wineseller you trust that will listen to what it is that your palate likes and dislikes—a differentiation your palate will learn to articulate via the geek pad.
So go, taste. And please, do tell!