If I say the phrase wine snob to you, I bet an image pops into your mind immediately. It might even look something like Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. The stigma of the wine snob haunts a lot of people who otherwise enjoy drinking wine, myself included. I can’t use the word “oaky” with a straight face, no matter how strongly that glass of Chardonnay in my hand tastes like oak.
Let’s say you’re a curious person who enjoys food and drink (you are reading this blog, after all), and you don’t want to seem gauche at wine bars, wineries and the like, but you just don’t feel comfortable going whole-hog on the wine-tasting customs of the professionals:
To get a better idea of how to taste wine in a way that’s respectful of the wine and its industry, while still making sure one doesn’t feel like a total phony, I caught up with local Seattle sommelier and wine bar owner Henri Schock of Bottlehouse. What follows is his process, translated in my very amateur wine enthusiast words.
Two tips from Henri as we got started: “If you want to educate yourself on wine, try to go through these steps each time you have a glass. Pretty soon, you’ll start doing them without realizing it! Also, jot down your observations in a small notebook or on your smartphone. As you build your base of knowledge, you’ll better understand the kinds of wine you like and how to identify them.”
When you’re first served a glass of wine, look at it. Simple enough, right? What color is it? Light, dark, translucent, opaque? Color can help tell you whether you’re drinking a Beaujolais (a light red) or a Bordeaux (a dark red). You can hold your glass over something white like a tablecloth or sheet of paper and tilt it slightly to get a better sense of the color and its variations. Also, pay attention to the all-over clarity — browning at the rim indicates age. Keep an eye out for brilliance, shimmer or sediment at the bottom of the glass. Over time, you’ll start to become aware of what these visual clues “taste” like.
Don’t swirl the glass yet — just take a whiff and try to identify a few key aromas. Once you do swirl and oxidize the wine a bit more, you’ll be surprised how much the aroma can change from what you’re noticing here. So just sniff away.
Give your glass a few good, hard swirls (rest the foot of the glass on the table as you do this if graceful is not a word friends often use to describe you) and then smell the wine again. How does it smell now? Do you notice anything different?
This is the part of the process where you’ll see people slurp or suck air through their teeth while holding some wine in their mouth, making a bit of noise in the process (aspirate, in wine-ese). You can go that route if you want to, but the most important part here is to swish the wine around in your mouth a little before swallowing. You’re not so much drinking the wine at this moment as you are mixing it with air and noticing the wine’s effects on the inside of your mouth after you’ve swallowed it.
Pause before you take another sip to take note of what’s going on. Did the wine feel acidic, like a part of your mouth is tingling? Did it feel thick, like your mouth is now coated? Does your mouth feel dry or puckery now? How sweet was the wine?
So at this point, you’re free to begin drinking your wine at your own pace. But pay attention to the things you noticed when you took your first sip, as well as other characteristics. For example, does your mouth feel “warm” when you drink the wine? That can indicate a higher alcohol content.
As you drink, swirl the wine a little bit more once or twice and watch how it falls down the sides of the glass. Does it fall quickly and look thin and watery, or does it kind of hang on, coating the glass? If it’s the former, you’re drinking a light-bodied wine. The latter? More full-bodied.
You can also look for what they call the legs of the wine — those lines that develop as the wine falls down from the sides of the glass. More consistent, defined legs can mean a higher alcohol content. Slower legs can indicate a wine with a higher sugar content.
This is also the time when you can start letting the descriptors fly. Do you taste specific fruits, spices, flowers or woods … or leather? Tobacco? Minerals? Mushrooms? Chocolate? Unbridled zeal? Seriously — if you can put a word to what you taste, it’s legitimate. Don’t get hung up on whether what you taste is what you’re supposed to taste. If you taste it, it’s in there.
So that’s it. That’s how you “formally” taste wine — in the most bare-bones sense, anyway. It’s a fun thing to do if you want to learn more about wines and what you like or don’t like about them specifically. You might even become this skilled someday. Or skip these steps entirely and sip away in blissful ignorance. You’re still enjoying a glass of wine, right?
A few essentials for wine lovers
- A set of all-purpose wine glasses
- Or a set of white wine glasses and a set of red wine glasses, if you have the storage space
- A decanter (when you’re serving the entire bottle)
- A good corkscrew
- A coaster for the bottle to keep drips off your table
- A Vacu Vin wine pump to keep wine that you don’t finish (it happens) fresh longer