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Tasting Wine in 5 Easy Steps

April 6, 2005

When I run a wine tasting, I always start off with a quick demonstration on how to “taste” wine. I don’t present it as something you have to do every time you pop the cork on a bottle of Bin 65. Rather, I try and show people how this will increase their enjoyment of the wine.

So here’s a quick summary of the steps I use to taste wine. When demonstrated, they have the potential to look a bit pompous, so try and have fun instead. And keep in mind that I don’t do this all the time. It’s useful with a wine I’ve never tried before, a “special” bottle or a new vintage of an old favourite.

1) Seeing: Hold your glass up to a white piece of paper or some other white surface. How intense is the colour? This intensity will give you some indication of how rich the wine will feel in your mouth. A lighter-coloured wine will feel “lighter” in your mouth. This is especially true with white wines. Compare an extremely light-coloured wine, like a Pinot Grigio, with a darker-coloured wine, like a Viognier or oaked Chardonnay. Look at the difference in colour, and compare how they feel in your mouth.

2) Swirling: Take your glass and swirl the wine around. This is why you always pour a small amount for tasting – you don’t want it to slop over the side of the glass. By doing this, you are aerating the wine. The organic compounds that are responsible for the wonderful smells and flavours are brought out by contact with air. If you don’t aerate the wine, you won’t get the best result when you smell the wine.

This is also where you can see the wine’s “legs”. After swirling, look along the side of your glass. You’ll see drops of wine rolling down the side. These are the legs. Despite what you might have heard, there really isn’t such a thing as “good” legs or “bad” legs. It’s a measure of the alcoholic strength of the wine. If the drops roll down slowly, there’s a lot of alcohol. If they roll down fast, the alcohol level is lower.

3) Smelling: No shame here, you’re among friends. Stick your nose in the glass and have a good long sniff. What you smell will give you a hint as to what the wine will taste like. Not always (as in the case of Pinot Noir), but you will have a good indication as to what you can expect in the glass. If your wine is off, chances are good that you’ll be able to tell in this step. If it smells like wet dog, cheap sherry (assuming you’re not drinking sherry) or wet cardboard, put it down. Let the wine sit for a few minutes and try it again.

And some wines are meant to be funky (especially good French Pinot Noir). If it has a certain funk to it that won’t go away, try tasting it. The smell and the taste don’t always match. If your glass smells like a barnyard, have a sip anyways. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

4) Sipping: Harder than it sounds. Our taste buds are in different places around our mouth, so if you simply swallow the wine, you stand a chance of missing some of your taste buds. Swish the wine around your entire mouth before you swallow. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try opening your mouth and bringing air over the wine as you swish. It requires a lot of coordination, but it can be done. Just don’t wear your favourite shirt the first time you try it.

5) Swallowing: This isn’t always done. If I like the wine I’m tasting, I am not going to spit it out. But if you’re tasting a lot of different wines, if you don’t like the wine or if you have to drive afterwards, spitting out the wine can be a good idea. Make sure you have a proper container and that your hosts are OK with this. Some people get offended if you start spitting. And spitting back into your glass is generally a bad idea. Try using a spit-bucket (there’s a great name) instead.

Once you’ve gone through this, all you have to do is repeat steps 4 & 5 (mouth-swishing optional) and you’re on your way.

Manitoba Wine Tip: Some of the private wine stores are selling the Wolf Blass 2001 Grey Label Cabernet Sauvignon (tasting notes here) for around $17. I just saw it in Ontario for $33 or $34, and the last time this wine showed up in Manitoba, the price was over $30. I can’t recommend this wine highly enough, especially for $17. Act now, there’s a lot out there, but it’s selling quickly (and by the case!).

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