If you have been to a winery or taken even one wine class, you probably know the five s’s of wine tasting: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor. (Or if you’re the designated driver or a Monk fan, that 5th s would be “spit.”) I have a slightly different take on this.
Some years ago I attended the wedding of Heidi Harris and Brian Clark. (If you live in Las Vegas, you know who Heidi Harris is.) After the church wedding, the reception was held at a Strip hotel and the wine had been provided by a friend of theirs who worked in the wine industry. So we can safely say there was some very good wine being poured that night! But first things first …
See. Yes, you can tell a lot about wine just by looking. Whether it’s a white, rose or red, it should be clear and bright. Sometimes a wine looks cloudy and if you have access to the bottle, check to see if it says “unfiltered” or “unfined.” Some very high-end wineries allow their wines to skip the filtering process, feeling that the less it’s tampered with, the more character the wine has. Reserve judgment for a moment.
The you swirl it. Oh, my, look at those legs that cling to the side of the glass! (The French call them tears.) What do they mean? Well, not a lot. Heavy legs or tears are an indication of high alcohol. It used to considered a mark of a good quality wine, but basically it’s a chemical reaction that says, “this wine will give you a very nice buzz.” Swirling also gets a little air into the wine, allowing it open up and make the flavor more accessible.
Now you sniff. Because you’ve swirled and there is some air in there, you should be able to smell lovely aromas. My first reaction is usually: “Umm, that smells good!” especially if it’s a red wine. With red wine you might — if you work at it — smell dark red fruit: berries, cherries, plums. When I was taking my very first wine class, I had learned a tiny bit about wine and one evening the teacher, after pouring a red wine, asked “what do you smell?” I — with five weeks of wine class behind me — confidently shouted out, “dark fruit!” “Good,” he said. “Tree fruit or vine fruit?” Oh, damn. Well, truly, you might not be able to discern by smelling the first time. And by the way, there seems to be different ways of smelling: Several delicate sniffs one right after the other, or a big sniff like you’re smelling fresh air in the morning. See which works for you.
Time to sip. First sip doesn’t count, not really. Sip it, swirl it around in your mouth and swallow it down, then take in a big breath of air. It’s the second sip that really tells the tale. The first sip pretty well cleansed your palate and now it’s ready to get down to business. You sip, swirl it around in your mouth, maybe even swish it like mouthwash (try not to be too obnoxious while you do this) then, depending on how big a sip you’ve got in your mouth, purse your lips and draw a bit of air over the wine which will release more of the flavors, sort of like when you swirled that wine in the glass. If you’ve got too much wine in your mouth, you risk dribbling it down your chin, so be mindful! Unfortunately, this is not quietly done, so be prepared for others to glance your way. (I once was at a wine tasting where a woman made a big production of sipping, then tilting her head back as though she were gargling and finally finishing by smacking her lips several times. I got the feeling that she knew next to nothing about wine, but someone had told her this was what she should do.)
Now, here’s where Heidi and Brian’s wedding comes in. As Tim was circling the room, checking to make sure everyone had the libation of their choice, he stopped at our table and said, “you need to try this,” holding up a bottle he’d just opened. “Not quite ready,” I said, pointing to my glass which still had a bit over an inch of wine in it. “Drink up!” he told me, so I did — filling my mouth full of hearty red wine and that was when I found out: THIS is the way to taste wine! My taste buds and olfactory senses went wild with dark cherry and plum (tree fruit), raspberry (vine fruit) and even a hint of chocolate. YEE-HAW. Forget the sipping! Just gulp!
Okay, they might frown on you at a winery if you toss back the entire pour in one go, but wow — that really got my taste buds going. So now, I try to discreetly take a hearty sip — maybe a bit short of a gulp — swirl it and hold it in my mouth for a few seconds to let all the flavors come out. After I swallow it, I keep my mouth shut, take in a nice breath through my nose and let my taste buds party.
Hey, you experiment and see what works for you. Just, please, don’t gargle and smack!
Shameless plug: Check out my book “Beyond the Spotlight: On the Road with Phyllis Diller” which is available on Amazon. HINT: Go for the e-book. It’s cheaper and pictures are in color! http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Spotlight-Road-Phyllis-Diller/dp/0985972882