When it comes to wine tasting and the topic of wine, in general, we hear words, phrases or observations thrown around and to a beginner, it can be intimidating. It’s like a whole new language that can seem confusing and overwhelming. Here are some basics that are helpful for a beginner “winer” but may even surprise a self-proclaimed oenophile (fancy word for wine connoisseur).
- Breathing Room: Wine has been cooped up in a bottle for months, years or even decades and to bring out the optimal aromas and flavors of the wine it needs to BREATHE and to open up. Start with the proper glass – a rounder, bigger bowl shape for reds or a bit smaller, taller bowl for whites will work best.
- Glass Half Empty or Half Full: As much as we’d like to “fill ‘er up” it’s best to pour ⅓ full – this gives you room to swirl the wine which will help introduce more air and the result is room to breathe. No need to hold the glass in the air to swirl, you can keep it on the table, hold the foot (base of the stem) and slide around in a circular motion.
- Nice Legs: When you swirl the wine you may see what looks like drips on the inside of the glass, these are referred to as “legs”. Lots of legs, this must be a great wine! FALSE. The legs are not an indicator of the quality of the wine, in reality, it’s about the level of alcohol in the wine. A wine with high alcohol content may have a higher density of drops that run and cause legs. This is common in a more full-bodied (heavier) wine. Sweeter wines also have more visible legs due to the sugar content and viscosity (think honey or syrup drips).
- What’s That Smell: Part of tasting wine is enjoying the aromas of it. The best way to really smell it is to get your nose down in that glass. Not a quick pass under your nose but put your nose in and sniff like a hound dog following a scent. The aromas of floral, fruit, vanilla, spice, oak and even tobacco are few descriptors of the fragrance of wine. No, these things aren’t added to wine but all characteristics of a myriad of things that go into that bottle including, the varietal of grape(s), where they were grown (type of soil, sun, fog, etc.), how it’s produced, type of barrels used for aging and more. The key to developing your sense of smell is practice. Next time you are at the grocery store or a farmer’s market pick-up fruits, veggies, and herbs and sniff away. The more things you smell the better this sense will become.
- First Impressions: Now that your brain has an idea of what the wine may taste like based on the smell it’s time for a sip. At first, our palates may not be ready for what you are tasting. To decide if you like the wine or not use the 3 SIP rule. The first sip will be sort of a shock that will wake your taste buds up, the second sip you start to get acclimated to what you are tasting and the feel (weight) of the wine on your tongue and, by the third sip you are really “getting it”.
- Pucker Up: If the wine makes you pucker it’s your mouth’s reaction to the tannins in the wine. The tannins are the bitter components that come from the grape skins and are found in red wine. If the tannins are too overwhelming try swirling the wine and give it more time to breathe.
- Light or Heavy: Light-bodied, medium-bodied or full-bodied? No this doesn’t refer to your body type it refers to the weight of the wine or mouthfeel. Think in terms of how it feels in your mouth, thin or thick, light or heavy. Milk is a great analogy to understand what we mean by mouthfeel – skim milk seems more watery in your mouth and is thinner, while whole milk feels a little thicker and more viscous in contrast to heavy cream which would feel extremely thick and rich. For wine, a light-bodied wine will feel thinner, tend to be more delicate and are generally more refreshing. Full-bodied wines tend to be bigger, fuller wines and are sometimes described as feeling “chewy”. A medium-bodied wine is somewhere in between.
- Rule of Thumb: chicken and fish with whites and meat or red-sauce with red. FALSE. My rule of thumb is to eat what you like and drink what you like. The key to pairing is that the wine should not overpower the food and vice-versa. What generally works for me is to try to pair the style of wine with the food. A lighter-bodied wine will work best with lighter foods and a bigger wine is ideal with heavier items. (more on this in another article)
- Too Hot, Too Cold or Somewhere in Between: Yes, the temperature of the wine affects the flavors and aromas. Whites should be kept in the fridge and reds served at room temperature right? FALSE. While whites should be chilled (ideally served at 49-55 degrees) they shouldn’t be stored in the fridge, just put it in a few hours before you plan to serve. For reds, the term “room temperature” came about back in the days of stone, cold castles not today’s comfy, insulated homes. So serving red on the cooler side is best – the ideal serving temperature is between 60-68. Since our homes are generally warmer than that it’s a great idea to put the bottle in the fridge for 20-30 minutes before serving to cool it down. Bubbly should be enjoyed at a cool 40-50 degrees so spending the night in the fridge is optimal.
- Leftovers: On the off-chance, you have left-over wine what do you do with it? We know whites can be recorked (hint: turn the cork upside down to fit it back in the bottle) and put back in the fridge but did you know reds should be as well? Whites will keep well for 2-3 days before they lose their flavor. While reds (if kept in the fridge) will last 3-5 days – just take the bottle out an hour or so before serving to bring the temperature up a bit. Once the wine is past its prime pour it into ice trays, freeze it and use it later to flavors stocks, soups or gravy.
- Oh My Throbbing Head: Did you overindulge or is there another cause for that headache? It could be a combination of too much of a good thing, not enough hydration and some components in the wine that caused that headache. To start, a great rule of thumb is a full glass of water for every glass of wine. Some people think that the sulfites in wine are the culprit. FALSE. Sulfites are a preservative commonly used in the winemaking process and while they may cause other reactions like asthma symptoms they generally don’t cause headaches. The cause could be the tannins, sugar level or even histamines (primarily red wine), all naturally occurring components found in wine and the winemaking process. To combat this take an aspirin at the end of the evening or a histamine blocker prior to enjoying that glass or bottle of red.
- Special Occasion Wine: I am not a believer in saving a bottle of wine for a special occasion. Every bottle enjoyed with family or friends is a special bottle. It’s meant to be opened and enjoyed and is about the company and memories created savoring that wine.