Every day, as humans, we eat.
It’s a necessity of life. We don’t feel intimidated by the food in front of us. We aren’t scared of ordering in a restaurant or looking in a grocery store. We don’t feel intimidated if someone asks us how we like our steak cooked (medium rare, please, but that’s another post.)
And yet for many people, wine is the exact opposite. They dread going into wine shops. They are intimidated and overwhelmed by wine lists in restaurants. And talking to someone about wine, expressing preferences or asking questions is akin to getting a root canal. They are so afraid of embarrassing themselves. That they’ll somehow say the wrong thing, choose the wrong wine, or be treated poorly because of their lack of familiarity with the subject.
To be honest, wine professionals don’t always help. I am a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and I know there are those in the industry that prefer to hear themselves speak, enjoy looking down on people who know less, or are just pretentious and annoying, but most wine folks really do want to help you. They really want to understand what you like. They want to show you wines that you’ll love and you can help them. As Jerry Maguire said, “Help me, help you.”
You, as the consumer, need to know just a few tips to navigate the wine world. Just a handful of descriptors and familiarity with the ritual of wine opening and tasting will take you a long way.
First, we’ll start with basic wine tasting. Lots of people use the 5 S’s… see, swirl, sniff/smell, sip, savor (or if you are blind tasting, spit, but again, that’s another post.)
So here you are. The wine is in front of you in a glass. Red or white , it doesn’t matter. The first thing you’ll do is…
Look at the wine
Is the wine clear? Cloudy? What color is it? Most wine these days is filtered so it will most likely be clear in the glass. A cloudy wine means you may have a natural or unfiltered wine. You also want to look at the wine’s color. In general, white wines get darker as they age, red wines lose color as they age. Other things you may see. Little saltlike crystals, tartrates, are nothing to be concerned about. Many of us wine folk call those babies “wine diamonds” and they are tiny crystalline bits that develop when potassium and tartaric acid (both naturally occurring in wine) bind together to make a crystal. These are often seen on the cork, but can also float in the wine and end up in your glass. In some red wines you may also find sediment. Sometimes called dregs, these are bits of solids leftover from the winemaking process and again, naturally occurring as wines age. If there’s only a little, it’ll stick to your glass or sink to the bottom, not a big deal even if it isn’t the prettiest sight. If there is a lot, you may want to filter that wine.
Give that wine some air!
Swirling the wine in your glass not only looks pretty, but it allows extra air to make contact with the wine which enhances the aromas you are about to smell. If you are a newbie at swirling, I suggest you keep your glass on the table and holding the stem or bottom of the glass, move your hand in circles to allow the wine to swirl and aerate. If you want to try this mid-air, go for it, but keep the glass level and don’t overfill, or you may end up wearing some wine!
Get your nose in there!
The point of the swirling step was to help you get as much of the aroma of the wine as possible. So take a big sniff. And pay attention to what you smell. I like to start with fruit. If it is white wine, see if you can pick up citrus, apples, peaches/nectarines, melon, or even tropical fruits like pineapple and mango. If it is a red wine smell for fruits like cherries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, blackberries and plums. There are way more on the spectrum and everyone’s sense of smell is unique. You may smell kiwi while the person next to you smells honeydew melon. Or you may just smell berries in general. That’s okay, there’s no wrong answer. The more you smell, the better you’ll get at identifying smells. Once you’ve gotten a good sense of fruit, see if you can give that fruit a condition. Is it tart, ripe, cooked, jammy?
After fruit, there is the everything else that is in the wine’s aroma. Some have a flowery bouquet, some smell like grass or herbs. Wines can get a sense of minerals as well, from slate to wet rocks to pencil shavings. There’s even a whole set of funky smells, like leaves, wet earth/dirt/potting soil, tobacco, leather, the list goes on and on. Many of these smells are grape specific, or age specific. Some scents, like vanilla or coconut, come from the oak that is used in winemaking. It’s not important that you find every smell. What is important is that you learn to recognize the smells of wines that you enjoy. And just as importantly, the smells of wines you don’t. For example, I love Riesling wine. One very common smell in a lot of wines made from the Riesling grape is petrol, that kerosene/fuel smell. I don’t mind it at all, but my husband hates it. Therefore, he is not a big fan of most wines made from Riesling.
It’s actually time to taste!
It may seem like it took forever, but it is now time to actually taste the wine. In reality, you can spend just 10 seconds on the first three steps, but take as long as you want. It’s up to you. If you stick your nose in the glass and all you smell is delicious, then by all means, take a sip. If you want to take ten minutes and decide on every scent present, you’ll get no judgement from me. The point is that you enjoy it. Once you have the wine in your mouth though, see if you can pick up the same or different flavors that what you smelled. Some wines will smell rich and ripe and fruity, but then taste bright and tart. This takes me to the next thing to focus on when you are tasting, and that is the wine’s structure.
First, is the wine sweet or dry (not sweet)? Somewhere in between?
Can you taste the alcohol? Alcohol (and sugar) will affect the body of the wine. The body is the viscosity, or thickness of the wine. Imagine a row of glasses, with water in the first, skim milk in the 2nd, 1%, then 2%, then whole milk, then cream. That is a guide for the body of a wine. If the wine feels thin and light in your mouth like water or skim milk, it is a light-bodied wine. A big rich wine that feel like whole milk or cream is a heavy or full-bodied wine.
Does the wine make you salivate? This tells you the wine’s acidity. Some wines are very acidic and will make you salivate and almost pucker, like a vinegar-based salad dressing. Some wines have low acidity, and will feel creamy and smooth. If your mouth dries out though, that’s not acid, that’s tannin. Tannin is the bitter/astringent texture of wine. Imagine how black tea or black coffee dries out your mouth? That’s tannin. Which is why people put cream and sugar in their coffee or tea. Milk and sugar soften those tannins and make the mouthfeel smoother, not as astringent. Some grapes/wines will have a lot of tannin, you may feel a fuzzy drying on the roof or your mouth, the top of your tongue, or in front by your lips and teeth.
Go on and drink. You’ve earned it!
Once you’ve taken the wine, looked at it, swirled it, smelled it and tasted it, all that’s left is to enjoy it. While you are enjoying, check out the wine’s finish. After you swallow, how long does the flavor stay in your mouth? 10 seconds? A minute? When people talk about a long finish, it means the flavors remain long after the wine is swallowed. If you are feeling reflective, evaluate the wine. Was it simple, with just one or two aromas and a short finish? Complex, with several aromas/flavors and a long finish? Did it change in the glass as you enjoyed it? I find often that the last glass in a bottle of wine tastes different than the first glass, and often more delicious! Wine is a living, aging, breathing thing. Once a bottle is opened, if left long enough, it will turn into vinegar, so if you drink a bottle over the course of a few hours, it is natural to think that the bottle won’t taste the same the entire time.
But what’s the point?
So yes, we’ve taken some time and definitely given our wine some thought. But why? What was the point?
Because once you start paying attention to wine, you become better able to describe it. And I don’t mean being a show-off. Nobody likes the guy in the corner who blabs on and on about the flirtatious wine in his glass, with seductive notes of freshly smoked pipe tobacco and cherries baked in a whole wheat pie crust. Now, if that floats your boat or gives you pleasure, by all means, describe in as esoteric or metaphoric terms as your hearts content. But knowing the basic descriptors of wines you like and don’t like will allow you to communicate with your waiter, or the shop owner, or the fancy-pants sommelier with a big wine list. You can tell them “I like high acid wines that are sweet and floral.” They may suggest Chenin Blanc from the Loire region of France. You could say, “Hey, I like soft red wines with low tannins, how would you describe this Pinot Noir?” Once you use descriptors and once you understand descriptors, those wine pros aren’t intimidating at all. It is their job, the downright duty of the wine professional in front of you, to help you find wine you enjoy. And trust me, helping people find wine they enjoy is a very fun and rewarding job. They want to help you. They want you to love the wine so you’ll buy more of it. Whether that’s a wine shop, a restaurant, or a wine bar.
With me so far? Great! There’s more where this came from. In the future I’ll be writing about the traditions and rituals of wine service. What to do with that pesky cork they give you. How to find a wine in your budget when the wine list looks like a novel. And if you want to get really obsessed like me, I’ll also give you the ins and outs of blind tasting.
It’s all coming soon, but in the meanwhile, if you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments below. I’m here to help!