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January 14, 2015

Wine Tasting

I was recently conversing with one of our regular wine customers (let’s call him Mike). When the topic of our Grand Wine Tasting was brought up, Mike told me that in the 15 years that he’s been shopping here, he’s never attended it. He occasionally comes to our Saturday tastings, but he confided that he usually wanders around the store until there’s no one else tasting, before he’ll step up to the table. When pressed for a reason, Mike would only say that he didn’t really know HOW to taste and was nervous that he would do something embarrassing. After 20+ years in the business, I tend to forget that there was a time when I felt the same way. The only difference was that I had experienced professionals to “hold my hand” and walk me through it. So, now it’s time for me to try and pass on what I’ve learned.

The following should be a helpful guide for the novice wine-taster; a brief summary of wine tasting technique and an explanation of some basic tasting etiquette.

Just about every wine professional that I have met has different methods for tasting; different idiosyncrasies, different order in which to do things and even some superstitions that they follow out of habit. However, I do find that almost always, everyone’s methods include what are known as the 5 “S’s”; five steps all starting with the letter S. For this exercise, we’ll actually expand that to Seven “S’s”.

See- Ideally you want to view the glass against a white surface. Your wine should be clear unless you have an aged wine with lots of sediment. Note the color. Wines can range dramatically in color depending on the type of grape used to make the wine and how long the wine sat on the skins. As wines age they lose color, so a good look at the color can tell you a bit about how old it is.

Swirl- Hold your wine at the base and lightly swirl the wine in your glass. The swirling process sends oxygen through the wine, expanding the surface area and allowing the aromas to open up.

Sniff- The next step is to give your wine a nice big sniff. Don’t be shy. Stick your nose way into the glass and try to identify the scents. Remember that wine tasting can be subjective and there are no right or wrong answers.

Sip- Take a nice big sip of your wine. Let the wine spread out across your mouth, curl your tongue, and breathe in air through your mouth. This will send air through the wine once again and allow it to open even more.

(Swallow or Spit, Not usually considered part of the 5 S’s )- The latter may sound impolite, but it’s not. In fact, it’s the only way to taste if you are sampling many wines. At most tastings, you’ll find a large bucket for that purpose as well as for any leftover wine in your glass.

Savor- Most wines have a lingering aftertaste or “finish” even after you have completed the actual tasting. Take some time to appreciate the unique flavors of the wine; how they coalesce into a single unique experience.

These five (seven) steps should allow you to experience all facets of a wine that your senses allow. Everything beyond that is extraneous and intended to impress, or more likely someone that doesn’t know what they are doing trying to appear like they do. A few other things to remember when tasting…

Don’t monopolize the wines or the people pouring them. Get your taste, and then step away from the table to give others a chance to taste as well. If you have a question, ask, but be brief. This also goes for spit buckets. They’re for everyone, not just the people in front.

Respect the Wine, Don’t Chug It.  Whether tasting a $5 wine or a $5000 wine, respect each wine you taste and give it a chance. Whether in a wine tasting room, where you might insult the wine maker, or at a wine tasting party, where you might insult the person who brought the wine, don’t treat any wine like swill.

–Don’t interfere with other taster’s senses of smell. This means that smoking is not recommended at or around a tasting. Also, using any scent (perfume, after-shave lotion, scented hair spray, and so on) in excess is undesirable. These foreign odors can really interfere with your fellow tasters’ ability to enjoy the wine’s aroma.

—Let others form their own opinions. Courteous wine tasters also do not volunteer their opinions about a wine until others have had a chance to taste. Believe it or not, you’re opinion can have an effect on the perceptions of others; it has happened to me on a number of occasions.

The bottom line is that wine tasting should be an enjoyable social experience that can expand the mind and please the senses. A lot of people think of it as a pastime for the wealthy, powerful, and well dressed, but in the end all the bluster and ceremony is unnecessary. It’s just wine.

By | Published in: Wine