How to taste wine and influence people

People ask me fairly regularly how I learned about wine and how they might go about learning more themselves. Proper tasting method is often at the top of their list of wine skills to master, and I agree that following a standard tasting protocol is a good way to start amping up your personal wine knowledge and expertise.

It’s good to get in the habit of following proper technique every time you have a glass of wine in front of you – even if it’s a terrible $10 bottle of Apothic Red. (And in that case, it’ll give you good practice in the art of graceful spitting.) You will learn something from every glass, even if it’s crap. Actually you may learn more from the crap wines than the good ones – after all, how are you going to know if a wine has sufficient acidity unless you’ve tasted one with too much acid and one with too little?

The following is my personal spin on tasting. It’s a good everyday working method for the average wine drinker. It’s not super rigorous – professional tasters, especially those at competitions, will follow something more stringent. But that’s simply not necessary for most of us and I can attest to the fact that taking tasting super seriously (or anything else with wine, really) will quickly sap any pleasure you take in the act.

SIGHT
Take a peek and look for two things:

  1. What’s the colour?
  2. Are there any wayward woodland creatures in your glass?

That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Some people really like to eyeball their wine, swirling it vigorously while oohing and ahhing over its legs. This is unnecessary. Legs don’t tell you anything. Also who started referring to wine as having legs – and then lusting over them – anyway? I bet it wasn’t a woman.

The colour will tell you how old it is, very roughly. Wines brown with age, so red wines that look rusty or brick-coloured or otherwise brownish are usually older. (Or oxidized, though that’s an issue for another post.)

The second step is to make sure the wine you’re about to put in your mouth looks OK to put in your mouth. There should be no bubbles in still wine (and vice-versa), no chunks of foreign matter. For the latter, a couple big exceptions: unfiltered and/or older wines often have perfectly natural sediment, and some wines have tartrate crystals that look kind of like sugar crystals or wee bits of glass, but are actually harmless so don’t freak out. (Read here for more on tartrates.)

~The Spider in the Glass (of Canadian Gewurztraminer)~
Years ago, when I worked at deVine, I was putting stickers on bottles and checking prices right before the store’s big annual Canada Day drop-in tasting. As I lifted a bottle of Gewurz, the sunlight caught on something inside – an alarmingly large spider in an alarmingly large amount of webbing, hanging perfectly suspended in the centre of the bottle.

After I finished alternately gagging and screaming, I threw it at returned it to the rep who had just walked in the door. He smirked and shrugged and said that he’d have to give the winemaker a hard time about it.

First of all, way to under-react, dude.

Second, can you imagine if I hadn’t noticed it? Or the wine had been red, and therefore opaque in the bottle, instead of white? That spider would have been released from his liquid tomb into a customer’s glass – during a very busy Saturday free tasting, no less. And then can you imagine if that person didn’t look at their glass before tossing it back because they were just there for free booze on a nice July long weekend instead of trying to learn something about wine?

Spiders in wine is admittedly a very rare phenomenon – and it certainly indicates some pretty sketchy, or at least super lazy, winemaking practices. BUT STILL. I tell this cautionary tale every time I need to impress upon someone the importance of even a quick glance before you put wine in your mouth. Or anything, for that matter.

SMELL
Take a sniff of the wine without swirling. Then twirl your glass around and give it another sniff. Keep the base of the glass flat on a table if you’re not confident enough to whip it around in midair – that takes practice and is best done when not wearing a white shirt and/or standing beside someone you like and/or after you’ve been at a portfolio tasting all afternoon. (Ask me how I learned this.) Swirling the wine aerates it, introducing oxygen that helps release the aromas and flavours.

TASTE
Take a sip of the wine and swish it around your mouth. Don’t judge it on this sip; first you just want to use it to wash out any other flavours that may be lingering on your palate. Think of it as mouthwash. This comparison will become all too real if you pursue wine education and find yourself staring down a flight of young Cabernets at 8:30 in the morning. It’s really not as fun as it might sound.

Your second sip is when you do that classic wine snob gargling thing: suck in some air while the wine is in your mouth, letting the air flow over the wine, releasing more aromas and flavours. It’s the same principle as swirling, but this time you’re aerating the wine while it’s in your mouth instead of in the glass. Because taste is 75 percent smell, doing this allows you to gain a fuller flavour profile of the wine.

Remember that you aren’t opening your mouth wide, just cracking your lips a tiny bit to get some air in there. Some people also like to really “chew” their wine, swooshing it around their mouths for a while. This helps to evaluate the mouthfeel of wine, but I don’t think you need to overdo it as this is an excellent way to turn your teeth all sorts of disgusting hues.

However, in case it’s not obvious: you only need to do this for the first couple sips. Please do not constantly gargle every mouthful of wine throughout dinner. Yes, people do this. Yes, you’re being a jerk.

SPIT
Some people are nervous about spitting and are worried about dribbling wine everywhere. If that’s you, try practicing in the shower. (With water, though apparently shower beers are a thing so hey, why not shower wine?) Actually, you could also practice the gargle technique in the shower, too.

Even with perfect technique, you’ll probably still dribble sometimes. That’s what napkins and good humour are for. Also, I regret to inform you that you will also inevitably experience that most heinous of both wine tasting and public washroom phenomenons: splashback. I wish I was joking, but spit buckets are often terribly designed and/or not dumped nearly enough at big tastings, so splashes are sometimes unavoidable.

Try not to look at people when they are spitting. You don’t want anyone to watch you while you do it, and also if you get splashed in the face it’s easier to deal with if you didn’t just see the horrors someone recently inflicted on that bucket.

If all this has you vowing to just swallow everything (heh), bring a personal spit cup – red solo cups are perfect. They let you spit discreetly and you can dump them after every spit, so you never get splashes. This might sound kind of weird or manic, but they are increasingly common at sit-down tastings and I suspect they just haven’t caught on yet at stand-up events because then you’re juggling two cups, your phone, a plate of food, etc. So you have to judge if it’s worth it, or if you can just deal with the potential of spit bucket splashes.

EVALUATE
Now comes the fun part! Haha, just kidding: this part is frustrating as hell and it’s what keeps wine writers awake at night. (Until they just give up and embrace weird stream of consciousness tasting notes, proper style be damned. Ahem.) You have to make sense of what you’re seeing and smelling and tasting, and try to describe all of that in somewhat coherent sentences.

Stay tuned for a separate post on evaluating a wine’s aromas and flavours and in the meantime, keep practicing this technique – eventually it will become automatic.

And please, watch for spiders.

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