Wine Tasting 101 with Guest Poster Marissa
Lovely readers, please join me in welcoming a guest poster who I hope will continue to give us her knowledge on this blog, Marissa. As we prepare for another taste testing (coming soon: wines from Trader Joe’s for under $5) I realized that I don’t know the basics of wine tasting. I turned to Marissa for guidance and she definitely came through!
Marissa is an aspiring sommelier living in Jersey City who knows her way around a bottle of wine. As I attempt to learn more about wine and tasting myself, I can certainly appreciate someone who takes the time to explain things in a way that I can understand. Marissa genuiunely loves to talk about all things vino-related and it comes through in a warm and welcoming way.
When I was buying wine on Christmas eve in the town I grew up in, I happened to overhear a terrible conversation.
Liquor Store Employee #1: Eh, Jack! What’s a bettah white zin? Beringah awr Suttah Home?
Liquor Store Employee #2: Aaaahh…Suttah Home, definitely.
Consulting my MA accent to English translator, this was meant to inquire who made the superior White Zinfandel: Beringer or Sutter Home. The cheap-wine-aficionado that I consider myself to be, I shuddered and barely managed not to yell out loud: Neither! I wish to help dispel this terrible rumor flooding the brains of the impressionable! You don’t have to drink Beringer or Sutter Home to keep your wine tab cheap! Or Yellowtail, for that matter. And for God’s sake, don’t be afraid of a screw cap!
No matter what your price point, there are a few things you’re looking for in tasting a wine. Wine, like anything else, can be enjoyed with only a basic knowledge, but an advanced knowledge will allow you to dig deeper into the wines, pick out the “notes” you see listed on labels and in store displays, and even bring you a curiosity of viticulture. Just like any foodie will expound upon the importance of knowing where your food comes from and buying local, knowing where your wine comes from and who is making it is all part of what you’re drinking. Wines are made all over the world because each human being and each individual plot of land offers something unique to the grapes that grow from it, and ultimately produces a unique bottle of wine.
Here are the most simple steps to get the most out of your wine.
First: The part where you swirl the wine around in your glass.
Swirls are typically counter-clockwise, but feel free to be a rebel and follow your heart on this one. Swirling in the glass helps to release the esters in the wine that have been trapped together tightly in the bottle. You’re allowing some air to get in the glass, which will help the wine bloom and really open up. As you swirl and give the wine a few moments to breathe, take a look at the following things:
Legs: Check out how long it takes for the wine to drip down the edges of the glass after you swirl it. A more viscous wine is said to have legs, as it sticks to the edge of the glass and runs down more slowly than a thinner wine would. This isn’t going to tell you anything about the taste of the wine, but generally the thicker the wine and, er, nicer, its legs, the more full-bodied (see exhibits A and B, below). Some people also call these tears, but personally, legs is much more amusing to me, and if I switched, I wouldn’t get ZZ Top’s “She’s got leeeegs…and she knows how to use theeemm,” stuck in my head every time I drink a glass of wine. What would I sing to annoy my husband instead? It couldn’t possibly be as awesome.
Color: Tilt your glass to pool the wine in one corner (without pouring it out on yourself), and look closely at where it tapers off at the one side. This is best done with only a tiny bit of wine in the glass, which lets you see through the wine most easily (and not spill). You want to hold this up to the light and really look at the wine. Do you like the color of it? Is it ruby, or rather, more like mahogany? Any muddiness? Or if it’s white, is it pale yellow, or golden yellow?
Second: This is the part where you shove your nose in the glass.
Smell that wine, and smell it good.
Nose: You can probably figure this one out. The nose of a wine is the scents picked up upon smelling it, or the bouquet. You know how a sense of smell is vital to any eating or drinking experience, so consider how important really understanding the nose of the wine is to the experience. A great way to really experiment with the nose is to take one sniff right after pouring the glass. Then, swirl it around, get some air in it, and sniff again. (Careful: Not as deep this time, because you’re going to get attacked by NOSE.)
Third: This is the part where you drink.
The crowd goes wild. Take a sip, and swirl, swirl, swirl.
Mouthfeel: Again, wine-tasting manages to seem unapproachable by making a compound word out of two that I’m sure you’re pretty darn familiar with. Allow me to break this down: How does it feel in your mouth? What’s the texture like? Is the wine thin or thick? Is it coating your tongue, or easily slipping away? If it’s a dessert wine, is it seriously syrupy or lighter? If it’s a sparkling or slightly carbonated wine, what are the bubbles like on your tongue? Big or little? Think of the difference between a glass of orange juice and a glass of apple juice. That’s what you’re looking for in the mouthfeel.
Taste: Your first sip should be focused. Swirl it around your mouth (I think you’ve gathered at this point there’s a lot of swirling going on in wine tasting), quietly drawing in some air with it, and notice what your taste buds are telling you. Do you think it was aged in an oak barrel, or a steel barrel? (Can you sense a woody flavor, or is it more crisp and clean?) Is it sweet? Or even a little sour? Acidic? Smoky? Mineral-y? Fruity? More specifically, you could detect any number of things the producer used in the process: chocolate, earth, vanilla, spices, pepper, plum, honeysuckle, pear, even green olive (and I swear it’s yummy). The possibilities are truly endless. Try not to limit your expectations to what’s described on the label and trust your gut. Later, you can compare your thoughts to what the producer tells you that you should have noticed. Comparing and learning from this should help you develop your palette, but don’t worry if they don’t match up!
Finish: After you’ve swallowed, the finish is what lingers in your mouth. Does your tongue feel dry? Are your cheeks puckered? Are you left tasting alcohol, or is it only subtle, if at all? Is it a long finish? Or is it already gone and you have no idea what I’m even talking about except, wait, now you do get what I’m talking about because you understand what a finish is and there wasn’t much of one on that wine!
Fourth: This is the part where you finish your glass and think about how much more awesome life is with wine in it.
As you drink more wines, you’ll notice more than the differences between varietals (types of grapes), and instead of comparing a Sauvignon Blanc to a Chardonnay, you’ll start comparing multiple Sauvignon Blancs from different producers and regions across the world. There are thousands of ways to treat a grape, and that’s the fun of wine-tasting. Once you start to know what you like, you can knowledgeably pick out good wines for entertaining your friends, or matching a wine to a particular meal. (The true payoff of learning about wine…pairing it with food! But that’s an entirely different blog post. Le sigh!)
But most importantly, don’t forget that the only way to “know” wine is to drink it. And further, the only way to know a “good” wine from a “bad” wine is to answer one, very simple question: Do you like it? No producer, nor wine critic, nor store employee, can tell you a good wine from a bad wine, just like no one can tell you if Pepsi or Coke is better. It’s completely, totally up to you and your personal likes and dislikes. If you don’t like slightly carbonated, tart wines, Riesling probably isn’t for you. Similarly, if you don’t like heady, flavor-packed reds, don’t grab a Petite Sirah or Zinfandel.
So pour yourself a glass or two or three, get an Edith Piaf station started on Pandora (where you thumbs-down all of the music in English), and enjoy!