I love wine – pure and simple. I love the smell. I love how the same grape changes flavors depending on where it is grown and how is it treated during and after fermentation. I love that it is a changing, living thing. A bottle of wine from the 2009 vintage will taste one way in 2010, and will continue to change, tasting different in 2015, and then again in 2019. I love that not all wines will age the same way. I love that there are rules about the consumption of wine with food, all to be thrown out the window with the knowledge that ultimately, the best wine for a food is a wine that you enjoy.
Let’s enjoy a glass together. I’ll teach you how to slow down, sip and evaluate your wine.
Drinking wine is a full sensory activity
First, make sure you are in a room with adequate natural light, or a bright light source. You will also need a piece of white paper preferably with some text on it.
Select a wine glass. Make sure your glass is clear, washed, and has a stem. Make sure the cup or bowl of the glass is larger with room for swirling. Ideally, the bottom of the cup is wider than the rim where you will smell and sip the wine.
Next, select your wine. In this exercise, choose anything you like – red or white. I’ll walk you through tasting it regardless of what it is of where it comes from.
Pour some wine into your glass. Only fill it about 1/4 of the way. Don’t worry, you can drink more later.
Does everyone have a little wine in their glass? Great, let’s begin.
What does your wine look like in the glass? Hold your glass up to the light. What does the wine inside look like? Can you see through it? What color is it?
If you are tasting a white wine, hold it against the white paper. Does it have a color? Some white wines are nearly colorless like water. Others are lightly colored like lemon, straw or maybe even a hint of green. Other white wines might even have a golden or honeyed hue.
Perhaps you chose a red wine. Hold your glass against a white sheet of paper with some print on it. As you look at the wine, can you see the text through the wine or is the wine inky and opaque?
The color is an indication of how heavy a wine is as well as an indication of how youthful or old a wine is. White wines typically go from very light and they darken to gold or honeyed after many years.
Red wines tend to begin their life with purplish hues, changing to ruby, garnet, brick red, and lastly orangish brown.
A good guide is the wine color chart on WineFolly.com
Does your wine have stuff in it? The fancy term is flocculation. Stuff can be from cork – did you Break the cork as you opened the bottle? As white wines age you may see sugars in the bottom of the bottle. As red wines age, the tannins break down and form sediment.
Now, swirl the wine in your glass and watch the liquid drip down the sides. Afraid? Don’t worry, when I first tasted wine I was afraid that I would spill wine all over my carpet too. A good trick is to put your glass on the table and move the base of your glass in small circles while you look at the wine inside. Professional wine swirling achieved!!!!!
Let’s examine the wine running down the sides of the glass, also known as the “legs” or “tears.” How long is it taking for the wine to drip down the sides? Do the legs form immediately and drop quickly? Is the wine clinging to the sides and refusing to roll down? The legs are an indication of the amount of sugar in the grapes before fermentation, thus an indication of how much alcohol may be present in the wine. Remember, sugar + yeast –> alcohol + CO2.
OK! Next up? How does our wine smell
The nose refers to what a wine smells like. I’ll start by saying this will depend on what you have been exposed to. If you’ve never smelled an apple, how would you know if something smells like apple. The next two sections are things we are not usually taught. Growing up, we are taught to observe the difference between sky blue, teal, indigo. However how many of us are really taught to observe the difference between lime, lemon, yellow grapefruit, pink grapefruit and pommelo?
The point is, smell your wine. What does it smell like?
Wine? Good! Because it is wine! If you said wet cardboard or newspaper, there could be a problem with your wine.
Is the smell faint? Try swirling your glass again – sniff.
Need help? If you are drinking a white wine, name some fruits whose flesh is lighter in color. Lemon? Lime? Apples? Pears?
If you have chosen a white wine, where is your wine from? Is it from a cooler place like Germany or New Zealand? Imagine the flavors of fruits that are cultivated in cooler climates like green apples, pears and peaches.
Is your white wine from a warmer place like California? Think of sweeter or more tropical flavors like sweet apples, nectarines, passion fruit or mango.
Maybe your wine was cultivated closer to the ocean or in soil with lots of limestone or fossils. Do you sense brine?
Do you get citrus?
Do you smell flowers or tree blossoms?
Ok, perhaps you are working with a red wine.
When I smell red wines, my mind automatically goes to deeper, red fruits, like berries, plums, prunes. I also think of forests, mushrooms and earth.
Don’t be surprised if you are smelling a red wine and you think, “Cigar box” or “pencil shavings” or “leather”.
Everyone has different life experiences and are exposed to different smells. Picking out the flavors in wine takes practice. The more you practice smelling, the more you can pick out different scents. A fun challenge to do with your friends or significant other is to taste wine and share your thoughts on the smell. You will learn from what others smell.
When we talk about the palate of a wine, we are talking about how we experience the wine when it is in our mouths. We took so much time to smell the wine because about 85% of what we experience as “flavor” actually comes from our noses, not our mouths. Our tongues can only experience 5 flavors – sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. It is up to the nose to tell us whether or not it is sweet peaches or unripe, sour berries.
OK – now take a small sip of your wine and swish it all over your mouth. Make sure that the front of your tongue experiences the wine as well as the sides, top and back. The front of your mouth is where you will experience any sweet, the sides will give you sour/acid, the back – bitter.
A big pet peeve of mine is when someone takes a big gulp of wine, slams it back and says, “I hate wine, it’s bitter.” Well, if the back of your tongue is the only place you experience it, it will be bitter.
Now that you have swished the wine, pause…. What are you experiencing? Is your mouth watering? That’s the sign of good acidity in wine. Wines with higher acid are good to pair with food. Are your teeth or gums rough? That’s the sign of tannins – which you may find with red wines. If you feel tannins, you can soften them by eating a piece of cheese or another fat with the wine. It is the same concept as putting milk or cream in your coffee or tea.
Take another a sip of your wine, swish it around like mouthwash and swallow. Now breathe deeply. What are you experiencing now? Do you remember the aromas or flavors you identified earlier? Are you experiencing those flavors now? How long does it take for the flavors to disappear?
NICE – You just tasted wine like a pro!
Now, just for fun, refill your glass with the same wine and quickly take a swig. Don’t worry about going through the steps above. How is the wine different? How is the wine the same?
Next time you want to try this exercise, get a group of friends together and try several wines. It often helps to have other people contributing when identifying aromas and flavors. Many times, a tasting partner will call out a scent, and as if by magic, I can smell it too.
Make it a true tasting/food pairing party with different cheeses, fruits, crackers and chocolate. After you have experienced the wine in your mouth, take a bite of some food, then taste the wine again. How has the flavor changed? Do you like the changes? Are there some fruits or cheeses that worked better or worse with the wine?
It is easy to become knowledgeable about wine. It just takes mindful consumption. Learn about the product you are consuming. Where was it cultivated? Find it on a map. What type of foods do they eat in the region where the wine is from? What are the flavors and aromas you are experiencing? Write down your observations. If you do this every time you meet a new wine, in time you will notice patterns. You will enjoy wine just like the professionals.