We have been asked by many people as to why wine tasters look at, swirl and smell the wine in their glass before tasting it. Here are the 4 S’s to follow that will help explain the importance and benefits of each:
A wine’s color can explain a lot about what is in your glass. Wine gets its color and tannins from the skins of the grapes. (Tannins are a family of antioxidants found in the skins of the grapes. They are the ‘healthy’ component in red wines. Tannins can also cause wine to taste dry. Think of drinking strong tea or eating a very dry walnut. Strong tannins tend to give you that pucker sensation.) After harvest, the grapes are sent through a de-stemming process before going into the fermentation tank, or barrel, to be fermented. After fermentation begins, the juice is extracted and the skins eventually rise to the top. During this time, and for the duration of skin contact, the juice will continue to receive color and tannin extraction from the skins. The longer the skin contact (or soaking period) the deeper the color. Once it makes its way into your glass, the best way to examine the color is to hold your glass at a 45-degree angle against a solid white background.
You will encounter wines that are light red, or rosé, all the way to very dark wines that are deep purple and dense. With both white and red wines, the deeper the color the more likely they have also spent more time in barrel. White wines that appear to be very light in color, almost clear, typically haven’t seen any time in barrel. When evaluating the wine in your glass, you will want to examine everything. You will be looking for clarity and evaluating the color. In some wines, you will encounter some sediment. (There is nothing wrong with a wine with sediment. More than likely, that wine is unfined and/or unfiltered. Think of a micro-brewed beer versus a Budweiser beer.) I consider the sediment to be the ‘love’ in the wine. Also, you will notice the outer rim or edge of the wine in your glass called the meniscus. This is where the wine’s concentration and/or maturity is evaluated. Young wines will have a clear meniscus where aged wines will show color to the outer edge of the meniscus. Once you are satisfied with your sight evaluation, you are now ready to open the wine in your glass!
Oxygen can be both friend or foe to wine. The right amount of oxygen will soften, or break down a wine to make it more approachable. This is called ‘opening up’ the wine. On the other hand, too much oxygen will damage your wine and cause it to taste flat or bitter. An example of this is an open bottle or unfinished glass of wine left out overnight. This is called oxidation.
Side Note: Regarding wine legs, they look nice but they do not matter. They do not relate to the quality or the viscosity (body) of the wine. Legs in a wine glass are the tears that stream down the side of the glass after you swirl it. The way the legs fall usually has to do with the level of alcohol in the wine and the speed at which it evaporates, which means, in easier terms, that thicker and slower legs can indicate a higher alcohol level. That’s it. That said, no one can know for sure the true level of alcohol in a wine by reading the legs.
Swirling your wine in the glass helps to open the aromas while slightly softening the tannins. Think of an unopened rosebud. If you were to hold one in your hand and smell it, you wouldn’t be able to smell much. If you were to hold one that is completely open, you would benefit from its full aromas. The same holds true for wine. The more you swirl it, the more it opens. Just picture a rosebud opening in slow motion. For those of you that aren’t experienced in swirling a glass of wine, I will give you the best beginner’s technique that will save some of your favorite clothing articles from those dreaded wine blotches you see on so many wine tasters, including myself! Keep your glass firmly planted on a smooth hard surface and make a few small circles with the base. Younger wines need some vigorous swirls. Just practice to where you find your own personal technique.
This is a very important step. Without our sense of smell we wouldn’t be able to taste much. 80% of taste is through smell. Smelling prepares your brain for what you are about taste. To me, smelling wine becomes an adventure. I like to compare this to the beginning of a novel. This begins the story of the wine that you are about to enjoy. It explains the fruit characteristics, terroir, (or growing region) the root stock, and if the wine spent time in barrel or not. You can simply close your eyes and take yourself on a mental vacation. It suddenly feels as if you are where the vines are planted.
The best way to get the aromas of the wine is by sticking your nose all the way in the glass. Try to keep your nose either in the middle of the glass or at the top by resting the top of the rim on the bridge of your nose. Just do not smell at the bottom of the glass. Alcohol fumes are heavier than the fruit aromatics so, you will predominately pick up alcohol by smelling at the bottom of the glass. Try both, it’s fun to evaluate the differences, and you will see why it’s difficult to get a ‘true’ nose from the bottom of the glass. Once you have your nose in place, you will benefit more by taking a series of short quick sniffs versus one long inhale. This maximizes the impression of the aroma. A good practice for picking up scents in certain wines is to study up on what type of characteristics are typically found in certain wines. At home, fill your fruit section and spice rack with these items. Each week, place a fruit item and a spice item on your kitchen counter. Every time you enter the kitchen, pick up each and smell them. After a week, switch them for another. In time, you will begin to describe the wines that you are smelling.
Along with trying to pick up certain nuances of the wine, we are also trying to determine whether or not something is wrong with the wine. Some common examples are: corked, Volatile Acidity (VA) and oxidation. All examples have unpleasant smells. Corked wine smells similar to wet newspaper, wet dog, wet rag or a moldy dank basement. VA smells similar to vinegar, nail polish remover or acetone. Oxidized wine smells stale, nutty, like stewed fruit, a burnt marshmallow and similar to a sherry. It’s usually brown in color, as well. For all examples, I just like to say that they smell nasty! Once you have evaluated the nose to your satisfaction, you are ready to taste.
Our palates have five taste receptors. They are sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. When you take your first sip, introduce the wine to all of your taste buds. You can swish it like mouthwash or you can pretend that you are chewing on something soft. The idea here is to allow the wine to sit on your palate long enough for you to think about it. As mentioned above, your sense of smell will strongly come into play here. Again, oxygen is the key component to opening up a wine. You may have witnessed some experienced wine tasters make gurgling sounds as they evaluate the wine they are tasting. This technique takes practice. You will tend to cough or choke a little, at first. The best way to try this is by pointing your head down at a 45-degree angle, hold the wine in your mouth and slowly inhale through your mouth. As the air passes by the wine, it creates that gurgling sound. The oxygen opens the wine on your palate and increases the characteristics and nuances. The wine really ‘pops’ on your palate! An easier way to introduce the oxygen is (after you have allowed the wine to sit on your palate long enough for you to think about it) to take a deep breath through your nose and hold it; swallow the wine in your mouth and keep your mouth completely closed; then slowly breath out through your nose. There isn’t any choking or coughing involved with this method. Both ways will allow the wine to ‘pop’ on your palate.
Structure is another fun evaluation. Think of the shape of a football. The wine should start at a point and fully round over your palate before finishing at the back of your palate, at the end point. Concentrate on the front middle and back of your palate. Are you picking up the same consistency in all areas? Is there a long finish? The world’s best wines all have long finishes. It’s better to evaluate for integration more so than balance. This definitely comes with practice.
The beauty of wine is that we all enjoy it in our own way. We all have our own unique palates which means that you can never be wrong when tasting wine. A few things to remember are the following:
- The first sip is not always reliable. Some first sips will shock your palate. Always give the wine a few chances before making your evaluation.
- Think of the viscosity (body) of the wine like the consistency of milk. You have skim, 2%, whole and half & half.
- White wines get darker in color as they get older, and red wines get lighter in color as they get older.
- A systematic approach to tasting will give you the best understanding of the wine and the best ability to remember what you tasted. Sight – Swirl – Smell – Sip!
Wine tasting is fun and adventurous. Don’t feel intimidated as your personal palate will never let you down. In time, you will be describing aromas and flavors that you never thought you could. Just have fun and enjoy!