Posted on | April 26, 2012 | Written by Annie Davis | No Comments
A packed room of purple-tinted lips, furrowed brows and faces buried forehead-deep in the bowls of wine glasses: this is the sight commonly found in any room occupied by wine professionals engaged in a tasting. The air is dense with intrigue and wonder at the recent vintage release, the newest vineyard bottling, the up-and-coming enologist. Getting the chance to speak with wine cognoscenti about the wine you love while you’re actually tasting it–this is a rare treat that comes around only so often, but many people don’t know how to glean the most from these mystical moments. Now is the moment to utilize the long practiced art of the swirl, sniff and sip.
The tasting of wine is called for in many different instances, not just at the rare importer, distributor, or producer tasting. In these scenarios, people usually make use of the spittoon, something that in and of itself takes practice. Spitting the wine after tasting leaves the palate–and the sensibilities–a little more intact than if you were to taste and swallow twenty-five different wines in one afternoon, but devoid of the spittoon, the same exact practices apply when you are tasting a wine after uncorking a bottle at a restaurant or in your own home. A few simple tricks will help you enjoy the wine you drink, wherever and whenever you drink it (regardless of whether you swallow or spit).
These days, wine is chic and more people are learning the wonders of wine exploration; therefore most of the reasoning for the swirl, sniff and sip is common knowledge. I’m still surprised, though, to find that many people see this protocol as snooty. These people will open themselves to the real depths of what wine has to offer when they unbutton and give it go, as awkward as it may feel for them, as it certainly felt for me, the first few times.
Swirl: The actual physical act of swirling wine in a glass does not come naturally, but this is a crucial step. We swirl the wine in the glass to aerate it and vaporize some of the alcohol, thus releasing the height of its aromatics; it’s like a pre-taste. Not only can we discover the aromatic nuances of the wine and of its terroir, but also any improprieties in the wine will make themselves more easily detectible after aeration. The action of the “swirl” seems very unwieldy in the beginning. When you’re first teaching yourself how to taste wine, using the aid of a flat surface on which you can keep the base of the glass as you swirl it in circles is extremely helpful. After a while, you will get a feel for the centrifugal force of a glass’s rotation, and it becomes second nature.
Sniff: Many people may argue that the “sniff” portion, which comes immediately after swirling, is just as essential in understanding a wine as the “sip.” A friend of mine recently (inadvisably) attended a wine tasting while sick with the flu. Bringing the glass to her lips was completely nauseating, but taking in the aroma or bouquet (aroma referring to fresh fruit smells of younger wines, and bouquet referring to the tertiary notes a wine develops with age) of the wines, she realized, seemed more than enough. She stuck around for hours just inhaling over and over again, always finding more secrets the wines had to reveal. When smelling, although it may seem silly, stick your nose deep into the glass to get an unadulterated scent. Go back and swirl again and take another sniff to discover evolution.
Sip: And then comes the actual tasting–clearly an important step. Although there are technically three phases of wine tasting—Attack, Evolution and Finish, all bringing different aspects of the wine to your palate–I don’t think reasons for “sipping” a wine need to be too heavily dictated. I will outline one action, though, that non-wine-drinkers may view as the most inane. It is the sucking of air into one’s mouth while the wine sits there–a second aeration, if you will. Not only does this action aerate the wine, but also it releases the aromas into your mouth, forcing the wine to yield so much more of itself for you to experience and appreciate. Although this air-sucking may make you feel ridiculous, think about this: someone once told me as I was tasting wine and inhaling air through my teeth that it sounded as though a little bird was about to escape from my mouth and flutter away. I now always conjure that little ruby (or crystal white, or deep purple) mockingbird in my mind when tasting wine. Makes it seem much more acceptable, no?
Wines are like needy toddlers–they want you to pay attention and to hear what they have to say. It’s important to indulge them. Tasting wine is a treat and privilege to really cherish, so make it count. Take a leap and let it feel strange at first. You will reap the rewards in the end.