Wine tasting is a tactile experience, as well as a visual and olfactory one. Three senses out of the five get put to work often during a typical wine tasting excursion. Very often, we call upon them to work in tandem. Let’s explore how sight, smell, and taste won the lottery on this one.
Sight: The first of our sense to be called upon is sight. It’s important to see the wine. Look at it’s color. Obviously, if you’re sampling a white wine, it should be light and see through. The color could be a very pale yellow or green, or as dark as amber, depending on the varietal. Likewise, with a red, a range of colors, from barely red to almost black. Even a rose wine will have a range of pink tones. Hold it against a white background and look at the color. Try to see through the color. As you gain experience, this first step of looking at color can help you to narrow down which grapes you may be sipping. Is it clear or cloudy? A slightly clouded wine, particularly in reds, may indicate some sediment or perhaps non-filtering, but it could also mean that wine has faults (which is one reason you will soon smell it!). The clarity of your wine can also help to indicate age – in whites, they get darker as they age, and the reverse happens to the reds – they get lighter in color as they age. Does it have “legs” when you swirl the glass? This is an indicator of a wines viscosity, as well as it’s alcohol and sugar content.
Smell: Used on it’s own and in tandem with the tasting part, your sense of smell is of great importance in a wine tasting. How to sniff seems like such an obtuse question, but try sniffing in different ways to get a sense of how you sniff affects what you sniff. Regardless of whether you short sniff (short rapid fire inhalations) or long sniff (one long deep inhale), you’ll have to put your nose into the glass. Try also to smell the wine from the bottom of the glass, where you’d put it to your lips, versus the top of the glass, while holding it at a 45 degree angle. Think of these as ‘top’ notes and ‘bottom’ notes. NOW, go ahead and swirl the glass. This a form of rapid aeration, opening up the volatile aromas and releasing the flavor compounds. To truly appreciate the wine, smell it before AND after you’ve swirled. You may or may not get anything out of the smelling experience, but if you have sniffed and are now ready to swallow, at least you can surmise that the wine has no obvious faults.
Taste: Smelling and tasting go hand in hand, really. Remember how hard it is to enjoy food when you have a cold? Not only is it hard to smell the food, but your sense of taste is altered, too. There exists a small thin membrane called the olfactory epithelium, which allows for a transference of what is in your mouth to be perceived by your nose as it passes over that area. As you take in a small sip of wine, swirl it in your mouth, exposing all parts of your tongue to the liquid, as well as your gums and the roof and base of your mouth. It’s like elegantly rinsing with mouth wash. Swallow, and part your lips just enough to take in a small draw of air. Note how it feels, and what flavors you are experiencing. Now do it again – you can’t get a true sense of what your tasting on the first sip. What is your first reaction to the wine? Is it crisp? Creamy? Sharp? Acidic? Heavy? Woody? Syrupy? Tingly? Fruity? What are you tasting? Berries? Citrus? Menthol? Tobacco? Chocolate? Cherries? Spice? Remember, there are no wrong answers to what YOU are perceiving about the wine. You may not agree with, or get everything listed, in the tasting notes, but that doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. What you taste in a wine is dependent solely on your own palate experiences. You can only know if the viognier “exhibits notes of lychees” if you know what a lychee tastes like!
Once you have seen, swirled, sniffed, sipped and swallowed, consider for a moment if the wine is still ‘with you.’ This is the finish of a wine. The finish can be long and lingering or disappear right away, or be somewhere in between. Some wines will vanish immediately, while others will remain on your tongue for a couple of minutes. How you like your wine to finish is up to you. It can vary depending on the varietal you are drinking. Again, no right or wrong answer to this element.
One last note: to dump or not to dump? If you are out visiting several wineries without a designated driver, dump it after two swallows. If it tastes off or bad, dump it. If you simply don’t enjoy it, dump it. No tasting room host will belittle you for tossing that wine. If you were not fond of any of the wines, pay the tasting fee and leave politely. If there was a wine or three that you enjoyed, purchase them! If you liked everything, join the wine club! We’ll talk about joining wine clubs in the next article.