Fill a room with a gaggle of wine geeks and you’ll witness behavior that seems strange and unorthodox, maybe even a bit perverted and downright antisocial. Where but at a wine tasting will you find folks gargling, spitting, sniffing and sloshing with impunity? And, hey, they’re not even drunk!
All this fidgeting and fussing might come across as affectation, and sometimes it is. But, really, there’s a method to all this seemingly impolite madness: Above all, serious wine drinkers are consumed with how wines taste. But understanding how a wine tastes isn’t as simple as it might seem. It takes more than just the tongue.
First things first: It’s your money. You’ve bought a bottle of wine, and you can do whatever you like with it. But, to really get your money’s worth from a bottle of wine, you might want to take a few tips from wine experts to better understand and appreciate what’s in your glass. Don’t just slop the wine into a tumbler and guzzle it; you need to pay attention.
It is said that we eat first with the eyes. How food looks is a critical component of how we taste it. Ditto for wine. So before you start slurping, take a good look at the wine in your glass—preferably against a white background like a tablecloth. A wine’s color can tell you a lot. It can reveal the wine’s grape variety, for example. Even rookie wine enthusiasts can easily discern a reddish-orange Pinot Noir from a neon purple Zinfandel or even a pale, cool climate Chardonnay from a darker, warm climate variety. Imagine impressing your friends by recognizing an almost-black wine as Nebbiolo, even before you smell or sip it!
A wine’s hue can also tell you something about its age. That’s because while red wines generally lose color and get lighter the older they are, white wines tend to get darker. French Sauternes, for example, begins its life in a lemony-gold cloak but deepens into an amber color with age.
Why is that pompous jerk swirling and sniffing his wine? Well, swirling wine around in a roomy, not-too-full wine glass infuses it with oxygen and allows the wine to “open up” or “breathe.” This encourages both the wine’s fragrances (the “nose”) and its flavors to come up front—to blossom. If you don’t believe me, just try this simple experiment. Pour two glass of wine. Swirl one and leave the other alone. Then smell and taste them. I guarantee that the swirled wine will taste more pronounced, complex and distinct than the other.
After you’ve swirled your wine, give it a good sniff. Stick your schnozz right down into the glass, take a whiff, and consider what aromas you are smelling. Raspberry? Cherry? Grapefruit? Wet dog? The smell or “bouquet” of wine can tell you loads about it. Even the most casual wine geeks I know can identify a wine’s varietal with a combination of simply looking at it, followed by smelling it. By the way, don’t smell the cork. Smelling a cork from a wine bottle tells you nothing—but it might tell your wine pals that you’re a wanker.
Now for the really fun part: Taste the wine. Take a sip, but don’t swallow. Not yet. Let the vino slosh around on your tongue for a bit and think about the flavors coming at you. Think also about the weight, or “body” of the wine. Does it feel light or heavy? Is it velvety and silky? Does it make you pucker? Does the flavor last long after you’ve swallowed the wine? Most important: Did you like it? If so, repeat often.