Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Complex Drinking Tour - The Steps to Tasting Wine - Part I

This post was one of the first I considered writing, but then thought better of it since there are oodles of posts on this exact subject.  Also, every wine book I’ve ever seen devotes a section to the topic of wine tasting.  
Now What?
But as I write about visiting wineries for wine tasting and write wine reviews for this blog, I can’t help but wonder if a little more information on each step of wine tasting (and why the heck you should do each step) might be helpful.  I hope I'm right - as this will be the first of a two part tome on the wine tasting process.
Mmmm... Wine
There is absolutely no requirement to go through the whole tasting process to drink and enjoy your wine. Just filling up a glass, sitting back and sipping is perfectly acceptable.  In fact in social settings where you are hanging out with friends at a party, or when you are having dinner with your significant other or with friends is probably not the best time to go through an über-structured wine tasting process. If you do you may find your invites to such occasions greatly diminishing!  I will also say that I go through these steps in some degree for all the wine I drink, but try to do it more subtly, and without whipping out my notebook to take notes, in more social situations.

When you are visiting a winery, attending a wine tasting, or enjoying a bottle with like-minded winos who relish the thought of following the tasting process and discussing their impressions about each and every facet of a wine - do take the time to go through all the steps.  I hope to explain the value of each step in this post, so you have a good reason to go to the trouble and are not just submitting to peer pressure from all us other winos! 

Taking a bit of time to understand and perform each step will reap benefits in evaluating and enjoying your wine. Each step is designed to help you experience what the wine has to offer, and also to determine if there are any faults or issues with a particular bottle.  A bad bottle of wine doesn’t necessarily mean a bad wine. Something may have happened to a particular bottle, but another bottle of the same wine and vintage may be just fantastic. 

Alright then, enough delay - now on with the steps!  The process below is suitable for red and whites wines.  Sparkling and sweet wines are tasted basically the same, just some other things to look for - but we'll tackle that topic another day.

The “S”s of wine tasting (my variation at least) are the following:
  • Sight
  • Sniff #1 - Pre-Swirl
  • Swirl
  • Sniff #2 - Post-Swirl
  • Sip
  • Savor
  • .....and.... Repeat! (Not an “S” I know, but a good step and my favorite step so I made an exception).
Sight.  Start off by taking a look at the wine in the glass preferably against a white background so you can see the wine clearly. Your goal here is to look for clarity and color - just like a diamond, but hopefully better tasting! 

Clarity. Evaluating clarity is a matter of checking if the wine is cloudy or hazy - think of bottled apple juice vs apple cider. A cloudy or hazy wine is not necessarily a bad thing if the wine was bottled “unfiltered” (typically identified on the wine label), but if not unfiltered it may be a sign of a problem with the wine. A very hazy/cloudy wine may be from a wine bottle that was exposed to too much heat or had something go wrong in the fermentation process. The only way to know if there is an issue is to forge ahead with the tasting steps - any issues will be obvious in the smell and/or taste of the wine.

Color. Now take a look at the color of the wine. Tilt the glass to about 45 degrees and look at the color through the side of the glass (vs. looking at it from above). Note the color of the wine at the center or “core” as well as the color of the wine at the outer edge or “rim” of the wine.  
Tilt Your Glass to Get a Good Look at the Color of the Wine
The color of a wine can give hints to its age, grape variety, and other aspects of its origin and the winemaking methods. All wines will start to turn more brown with age, in fact if left to age long enough (and way past the point of being drinkable) white and red wines would both end up the same basic brown color.  

The Evolution of Wine Color from Aging - Reds Get Paler in Color, Whites Deepen in Color - and Everybody Ends up Brown!

For red wines, a vibrant red or inky purple color in the “core” with a water-white rim denotes a young wine, while a wine with a more brick-like  color (red mixed with brown) and a more yellow rim denotes a wine with some age.  Ruby/orange highlights in a red wine often denote a high level of acidity, while blackish blue highlights can denote a low level of acidity. As you start gazing into more wines, you will start to notice the different colors and intensities based on the grape variety. Pinot Noir wines are reddish and somewhat transparent, while Syrah wines are often deep  purple and opaque.
Younger Wine (Left): Bright Color, Water White Rim...Older Wine (Right): Less Bright, Yellowing Rim 
With white wines very pale colors and hints of green denote young wines or wines made in cool grower regions where the grapes may not reach full ripeness (e.g. some German Rieslings).  Deeper, more golden colors can denote a white wine with some age, a younger white from a warmer region where the grapes get nice and ripe, and even a wine that has spent some time barrel aging (e.g. a barrel aged Chardonnay).

A Younger White
An Older White

Sniff #1 - Pre Swirl. Swirling your wine will help to release its aromas (compounds called esters), but if I also like to sniff the wine prior to the swirl (I’m just wild that way). I like to get a sense of the intensity of the wine's aromas, and what specific aromas are present before any aeration from swirling.  Put your nose right down into the glass and inhale deeply, but not like you are going to hold your breath. You will find that our nose will tire quickly and not be able to detect subtle aromas. At some wine bars you may see coffee beans - smelling them are a good way to reset your nose so you can better detect aroma. If you find your nose has tired, just give it a rest for a couple of minutes and try again.

If there is not much happening with the wine’s aroma, I know I need to get my proper swirl on to try and coax the aromas out.  A bit of time investing in the initial swirling can provide a better taste experience with your wine. 

This “Pre Swirl” sniff is also a chance to look for any signs of problems with the wine. If your wine smells like wet cardboard or a damp basement, your wine may be “corked” by a substance introduced to the wine by the cork. At one of the first formal wine tastings I attended, the host opened a fresh bottle of wine for the table I was at, and we were the last table to get our wine.  As the host sniffed her glass and described aromas of fresh strawberries and cherries, all those seated at the table with my wife and I looked at each other puzzled. To me, it smelled just like I stuck my head in a wet cardboard box. Someone at our table was brave enough to share “Hey, this smells like my grandmother’s basement!.” Our host took a sniff of his glass and said “Wow, that bottle was definitely corked!”  I have seen stats that nearly one bottle out of 12 have some impact of cork taint - which may or may not be strong enough to be perceptible.

The Evil Cork!
Wine Myth Busted #1 - Smell the Cork.  Other than validating that your cork smells like a cork - smelling the cork from a wine bottle won’t do anything for you.  I like to look at the cork to verify it is in good shape - but even when handed a cork at a restaurant from a bottle you’ve purchased, don’t worry about smelling it. After all, how many goods things in life happen after some says to you “Here, smell this”??? I do sometimes like to sniff a good screw top cap - but I do not recommend it for anyone else.  

Swirl. OK - you’ve gazed longingly at your wine, you’ve given it a quick “pre-swirl” sniffy and now you are ready to help coax out more of its aromas and flavors by giving it good swirl. If your pre-swirl sniff didn’t have much in the way of aroma, you may need to swirl for a couple of minutes to really get things going.  Beginners should keep the base of the glass on the table or bar while brave souls (or those with some Oxyclean handy) can pick up the glass to swirl. I don’t usually share such personal details, but about 95% of my swirls are on a table or bar, I seldom choose mid air swirls.

Wine Myth Busted #2 -  Nice Legs.  Ever heard the someone talk about a wine with “Nice Legs” or the legs of a wine?  The legs of a wine are the streams of wine that drop down the side of the inside of the glass after swirling (also referred to as wine “tears”).  The appearance of the legs, and the speed that the drops head back toward the bottom of your glass are impacted by alcohol and sugar level in the wine - but in no way can be used to judge the quality of a wine.
It's Got Legs!
Please stay tuned next week for The Complex Drinking Tour - The Steps to Tasting Wine - Part II.  In the mean time you are only allowed to look at, sniff, and swirl your wine!  OK, you can drink - but please proceed with caution!

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