TAKING THE FEAR OUT OF WINE TASTING
By Hilarie Larson
Listen to Hilarie’s Big Blend Radio interview where she shares the dos and don’ts ‘Five ‘S’s’ of Wine Tasting!
Wine tasting is popular! According to a 2017 WBM/SVB Tasting Room Survey Report, in North America alone, wineries report an average of 1116 visitors per month who come to sip, learn and enjoy a leisurely day amongst the vines. Some offer restaurants, guided tours or even swimming pools while many are tiny, boutique establishments with one on one service. There really is a winery experience for everyone.
Yet, many are hesitant to make a tasting room experience an element of their vacation. Could it be a fear of feeling out of place, not knowing what to do, or understanding how it all works? Contrary to what you might think, not all who ‘belly up to the bar’ are wine connoisseurs. Wineries are eager to welcome casual sippers and those interested in learning about wine.
First things first: what exactly is ‘wine tasting’?
I prefer to think of the process as ‘wine sensing’. It’s quite straightforward and anyone can master the ‘Five S’s of Wine Tasting’ in a few minutes. Really!
Sight: When your sample is poured (usually about one ounce), pick up your glass by the stem and let the light shine through. Use your sense of sight to notice the color and clarity of the wine. Is it clear or cloudy? A ‘good wine’ will be appealing and free of ‘floculants’ – a fancy word for anything floating around that shouldn’t be there!
Swirl: You may have seen people doing this at parties or restaurants and thought the action a bit pretentious, but it’s a necessary and useful action. Wine contains a multitude of different scent molecules or ‘esters’. Swirling causes these compounds to release their unique aromas. Volatile alcohol rises from the glass, carrying these delicious scents out of the glass to your waiting nose.
The easiest way to master ‘the swirl’ is by putting your glass on a flat surface and placing your index and middle fingers on the base, on either side of the stem. Slowly draw small circles with the glass, increasing in speed as you become more comfortable. When you feel really accomplished, pick the glass up and swirl away!
Smell: The most important and informative of the Five S’s. Our sense of smell is extremely powerful and physically linked to the memory sections of our brains. In the nasal passages are small, dime sized olfactory glands equipped with tiny ‘branches’ that pick up aroma molecules and transfer them to your brain. The average adult has over 10,000 ‘scent memories’ that are incredibly individual, which is why no two people experience a wine in exactly the same way.
To fully experience the wine, stick your nose right into the bowl of the glass and take a good, deep whiff. Close your eyes and let your mind wander and those scent memories come to the fore. Make a mental note or discuss with your friends what you’re sensing. It could be fruits, flowers, spices, tobacco, cured meats – the list is somewhat endless! The most important thing is that the wine should be pleasing and clean. If you smell something unpleasant, like wet newspaper or musty books, chances are there’s something wrong with the wine, not your nose.
Sip: The goal here is to take a reasonable amount of wine in your mouth and savor the sensation. Let the wine roam around your palate, coating the inside of your cheeks and covering your tongue.
What do you feel? If it’s a white wine, you might notice a fresh, clean sensation because of the acidity of the wine, or, if it’s been aged in oak barrels, you might note detect a creamy ‘mouthfeel’. Red wines contain an element known as tannin, which is found in the skins and seeds of the grapes. Tea drinkers will be familiar with the drying, somewhat ‘puckery’ sensation when you leave the bag in your cup too long. That’s the tannin and it contributes to the sensation of ‘body’ in many reds.
You also want to enjoy the taste of the wine. It may or may not echo the aromas you noted earlier, but whatever you detect, the main thing, once again is that the wine should be appealing and enjoyable.
Spit, Swallow but always Savor: Whichever you choose to do, this is where you’ll get the final impression of the wine. After you finish the sample, are there any lingering flavors or sensations? This is known, appropriately, as the ‘finish’. Like a great book or movie, it should leave you satisfied and wanting more!
Sight, Swirl, Smell, Sip and Savor – that’s all there is to it. So now that you’re comfortable with how to taste and what to do, here are a few Dos and Don’ts when it comes to your next visit to wine country.
Don’t be overly ambitious and plan too many winery visits in one day. Do pace yourself and aim for a maximum of three or four destinations. You want to relax and enjoy the experience, not rush or tire your palate.
Don’t stick to your favorite grape varieties or wine styles. Do be adventurous and take advantage of the opportunity to try something new. This is a great time to experiment without buying a whole bottle.
Don’t feel that you need to drain your glass every time! No one is insulted if you pour some of your sample into the spittoon. And if you choose to ‘spit’ instead of ‘swallow’, you’ll be able to enjoy your tasting experience and remember it, too.
Don’t jump all over the menu. Let the tasting room host be your guide and Do follow the traditional tasting pattern of white, rosé, red and dry before sweet. There’s logic to the lineup and your palate will thank you. Here’s a tip – when you switch from bright, fruity, crisp whites to bigger reds, take your first sip of red and use it as a palate cleanser rather than a ‘taste.’ Let the wine coat your mouth and become acclimated to the tannins then use your second sip for a more balance evaluation.
Don’t be shy – ask lots of questions. Do build a rapport with your tasting room host. Share what you usually drink, what you like and don’t like about the samples and let them be your personal guide. Ask them where they go wine tasting, their favorite local restaurants or things to do. Winery folks are great local ambassadors.
Don’t miss out on a winery tour. Who doesn’t love to go behind the scenes and learn how the magic happens.
Don’t forget to drink lots of water and stay hydrated. Do pack snacks like nuts, dried fruit, crackers or protein bars. Stop for lunch or pack a picnic.
Wine destinations, all over the world, offer an amazing opportunity to experience local cuisine and culture. Don’t let a fear of wine tasting hold you back. Relax, have fun, be adventurous and make memories.
Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.