I admit it – I enjoy the vino. Jason’s cousin is a winemaker in California, and we’ve been a member of his quarterly wine club for a few years now, so every few months we get a box of wine in the mail. YUM. And when we’re invited to a party, we pick up two bottles of wine – one for the party host and one to take home. DOUBLE YUM. Our friends even started a monthly wine club (which has been on hiatus for a bit, unfortunately), and we’d bring roughly a bottle per person to plow through while consuming copious amounts of soft cheeses. ALL THE YUMS.
But even with all the wine drinking I’ve done, I still have no idea what makes a wine “good.” I can certainly tell when a wine is bad, because my face twists into an uncomfortable scowl after one sip and I look for the nearest vessel to spit into. And when I’m happy with the taste of a wine, I tend to buy it over and over rather than branch out and try something new. I’ve always wanted to go to wine tastings, but… would I enjoy tasting wine after wine without any nuance to my opinion beyond the “yum” and “yuck” extremes? I’m not sure. It’s time to learn more about what to look for when sampling wine. And what better way to spend a Tuesday evening than drinking wine?
There are five sensory steps commonly used to evaluate wine, and they conveniently all start with “S”:
1. See. Before plowing into that tasty, tasty glass of wine, take a good look at it. If you have a white wall or a piece of paper handy, hold the glass up in front of that light-colored solid background and note how clear or dark your wine is. Does your wine have a cloudy look to it? That could be sediment. Is your white wine on the amber side? It probably tastes pretty sweet. Is you red wine terribly dark? Focus on the edges to see how brilliant and clear the wine’s color is. Be sure to look at your glass from all directions – top down, from the side, at an angle. Really give it a good look.
2. Swirl. Holding your glass up and swishing it around in circles is a pro move; if you’re new to swirling, it’s recommended that you keep your glass on a flat surface and move the glass in circles without letting it take flight. There are two objectives to swirling: 1) to oxidize the wine and release its flavors and aromas, and 2) to check the wine’s “legs.” When you swirl the wine, it crests up the side of the glass; the little trails of stray wine coming back down the sides post-swirl are the legs. The longer it takes the legs to return to the main wine reservoir, the more full-bodied the wine will taste.
3. Smell. Yeah, I had no idea what people meant when they talked about a wine’s “bouquet” either. But smelling your wine is a two-step process. First, take a little whiff with your nose above the glass to get a general first impression of your wine. Then stick your nose waaaay in the glass and take a big ol’ sniff. See if you can identify the smells of individual flavors – fruits like apple, lemon, fig; spices like cardamom, pepper, ginger; other foods like chocolate, coffee, vanilla; the not-so-great smells of sulfur (hi, rotten eggs!) and cork. Can you smell wood or smoke? Keep taking big sniffs; pretend you can drink through your nose. The longer the wine has contact with air, the more its innate flavors and scents will be released. If you’re out with friends and everyone managed to get different wines, try passing around glasses to see how different varietals smell. Commonalities should begin to emerge.
4. Sip. I am the least classy alcohol drinker ever. I tend to chug and gulp, even wine. So slowing down to sip will be one of my challenges. For the best chance to taste all of the wine’s goodness, only take enough wine into your mouth so it’s about a third full; then you have room to swish things around. “Sipping” might also be a bit of a misnomer. In this case, “slurping” can be beneficial because you’ll bring in air with the wine, and letting the wine mix with air in your mouth brings out more of the flavor. You also need to swish things around because your tongue’s flavor sensors – specifically the sensors for sweetness, sourness, and bitterness – are in three different places. You want the wine to make contact with all of them. A wine’s sweetness will register on the front of your tongue. Bitterness registers on the back of your tongue. And acidity and sourness register on the sides of your tongue. So – move that wine around! You’re practically gargling in there! Want to take things to the next level? Swirl the wine while smelling the glass again. Sensory overload!
5. Savor. This is the part where I get to chug, right? Alas, no – this is when we continue to swirl things around and note the subtle flavors in the wine. Feel free to open your mouth a bit to let in some more air so the wine is good an oxidized. Eventually, though, you’ll have to swallow that wine (unless you’re hardcore and spit like the pro tasters). Once the wine leaves your mouth, take note of how long the taste sticks around and what tastes replace it after the good stuff drifts away. The longer you can taste the good stuff, the better quality the wine. If it burns going down and immediately leaves you with the taste of grass in your mouth… probably not the best wine out there.
Every wine will taste different to every person. It’s just the nature of our palates. But there are some common flavors to keep an eye out for (or would it be a tongue?) and some red flags that tell you a wine isn’t going to be so great.
- If it smells like nail polish, the wine has gone bad. It probably doesn’t taste much better than nail polish, either.
- There’s “leathery” smelling wine (good), and then there’s wine that smells like you left your saddle out in the rain for a week before going riding and getting your crotch sweat all up in it (bad).
- If your wine smells like burnt matches, swirl it a bit and let it air out; the smell comes from the gas used to bottle the wine, and it just needs to literally blow away.
- Younger wines tend to smell more like yeast – so more like beer – than older wines.
- When tasting a wine, you’re looking for balance – sweet should balance out salty should balance out bitter. A young wine that’s out of balance isn’t going to get better with age, and an older wine that’s out of balance is past its prime (if it had one).
- It’s typically easier to identify specific flavors in younger wines than in aged wines; it takes time for all the flavors to mingle together into a big melting pot of awesome. If you encounter a young wine that you like the taste of but that presents a flavor identification challenge because they’re so comingled – buy more bottles. Or boxes. I take all comers.
Okay, friends – go forth and pour! I’m certainly going to do my best to appreciate our wines for more than just their alcohol content. Wine savants – what are some of your favorite varietals or bottles? I need some new vino to test my tasting skills on.
[Featured photo: My sister-in-law Melissa sampling an early batch of Middle Ridge wine, circa 2007.]
For the month of October, I’m attempting to learn one new skill each day. Follow along, won’t you?