Wine is complex. From the selection of which type of wine to the individual brands, even the cost of the wine, all of it can be intimidating if you are trying to expand your knowledge. When you hear people talking about wines, you hear them using words like tannic or dry to talk about how it tastes. Or they will mention it tastes like chocolate, berries, herbs, vanilla, earth (!) or tobacco (!!), and they will say the last two as if that is a POSITIVE thing. They will sniff and swirl and do all manner of odd rituals before they even taste it. After they taste it, there is a fairly good chance they may spit it out! Isn’t that some kind of party foul?
Much like anything else, once you start getting into the subtleties of wine, you will start to see that there is a method to all of the madness. Part of the enjoyment of wine is its layers and complexity while it is washing around in your mouth. All of the swirling and sniffing and staring is done for a reason. So is the spitting.
To start off, pour yourself a glass of either red or white wine. Do not fill the glass all the way (never do that), but just a few ounces to wet the whistle. White wines lean to the sweeter, fruitier side of the flavor spectrum, while reds tend to be more savory or spicy. When you taste the wine, do more observation than judging. Focus on what you are experiencing through your senses, as opposed to what think you should be seeing, smelling or tasting. Everyone has different senses, and that is part of the enjoyment of the wine. You can also ignore the cost of the bottle. Many articles have been written about the correlation of the cost of a bottle of wine to its taste, and the general consensus is that price does not affect the taste of wine. Your belief that it tastes better does. Just kick your mind back and enjoy the journey.
Now that you have the glass, look through the wine that is partially filling it. It is best to do this against something as white as possible, as to not tint the color of the wine with other background colors. Red wines can range in color from brick red to a brilliant ruby. White wines will not have the wide range that reds have, but you may see some pale yellows, greens, or browns in your glass. Tilt the glass away from you to get the full effect, also noticing how the color changes from the center to the edges. While you are peering like an expert at your wine, make note if it is crystal clear, or is it somewhat cloudy. A little duller may mean your wine is just unfiltered, and this is quite fine. If it is murky or cloudy, there may be bigger issues. Wine can evolve in the bottle if not preserved correctly, and over time can turn sour or develop other impurities.
Once you have looked at the stationary wine, swirl the wine around the glass a little to coat the edges. You really want to take some time when you do this. This causes a couple of thing to happen simultaneously. First, it can give you an idea of how thick the wine is by the formation of “legs” on the side of the glass. The legs are drops of wine that are taking their sweet time getting back to the rest of the liquid. The slower they move down, the thicker the wine is going to feel in your mouth. It also throws off some of the alcohol so the deeper scents and flavors of the wine can be released. The combination of oxygen, subtle heat, and movement is enough to release those aromas.
You should take two different sniffs of the wine. The first sniff should be quick, just to get some hints of what is in the glass. It gives your brain some time to place the scents and prepares you for a second, deeper smell. When you smell the wine, it is really important to ignore what other people are saying and focus on what you are experiencing. Does it smell like strawberries? Apricots? Butterscotch? Tobacco? Make mental notes of what your initial reactions. Everyone has different senses of smell, and while you may come up with similar notes as other people, don’t allow their perception influence yours. When you have processed the first sniff, put your nose in the glass for a little deeper exploration. Does it still smell the same? Notice anything new? Again, make note of what you are experiencing. Smell has an influence on what you taste, so it is important to be faithful to your own sense.
Now you can take a sip, but only a sip. The alcohol and basic impressions are going to hit first. You may get a dry sensation in your mouth, which is more common in tannic or acidic red wines. If trying a white wine, it will more often be sweet to dry. If you mouth goes dry and stays dry, that is a tannic wine. If your mouth goes dry and you start to salivate, that is acidic wine. The saliva is trying to counter the acids in the wine. Keep holding the wine in your mouth, and swish it around a little. Like mouthwash, but you want it to flow, not crash. This is where the tongue starts to do the real work. Some people will even take a bit of air in through their mouth, which can help release more flavor. Reds tend to be savory or spicy, offering up pepper, cinnamon, or oak; possibly berry, plum or fig on the fruitier side. Sometimes even chocolate. White wines will offer more honey, butter, and toffee flavors, with their own fruity apple or citrus notes. In no way is that all you could taste. There are plenty of flavors for you to explore. Reds may have a little honey in them, and whites can be a little oaky. You are just going to have to train your palate to tell the difference. NOW you can swallow it or spit it into a bucket. If you are going to taste a great deal of wine, you may need to spit some out. Little sips here and there add up.
The last part of the taste is how long does it linger? Does it hang out pleasantly for a while on your lips and tongue, or is it gone as soon at the wine leaves your mouth? What flavors are left? Was it light and crisp, or weighty and smooth? And did you like it? All of these final questions determine whether you are going to want a full glass or if you are going to find something more to your liking. Again, you ultimately decide which wines you like and do not like! The cost or name on the bottle does not matter if it is something you love.
You are going to need some practice at this. This weekend at Fluers et Vin would be a wonderful time to start your journey, with hundreds of different wines and food offered. If that is too intimidating, you can go to Arrow Wine & Spirits most weekends. They also bring in experts during the week from different wineries to educate you more on wine. Dorothy Lane Market also has wine tastings most weekends. Rumbleseat Wine also has wine available to taste, and a slew of other tastings and live shows. Keep an eye out on our event calendar for other tastings around the Miami Valley, as they are becoming more and more common. And if you know a good wine for other readers to experience, leave it in the comments below, or any of the other comment areas we post to. Cheers!