An Introduction To Tasting Wine
Making a tit of yourself in public is something I’m pretty good at. When I was younger I went to a bar with some friends to watch some stand up comedy. His routine was going through the motions when he asked the audience if any was a nervous flyer. To this day I’ve no idea why I put my hand up, but there it was, the only raised hand in the room. “Good evening sir,” he began “and how old are you?”. Without the slightest hesitation I blurted out “Seventeen!”. “Well get the fuck out of the pub then!” retorted the decidedly quicker witted comic as I lowered my pint and attempted to crawl into my own shoe to the sound of 100 bemused punters laughing…at me.
My time as a wine drinker has had it’s fair share of embarrassing moments. My first trip to a restaurant Italy resulted in me opting to choose a low alcohol, extremely sweet, dessert wine, reserved for eating cakes and sugars sweets, for the antipasti. It’s not really intended to go with your parma ham and melon starter. To this day the waiter in question reminds me of it whenever we see each other. To an Italian, it’s the equivalent of having gin and tonic with your apple pie and custard. It’s the wrong way round completely and you clearly have no idea what you’re doing! Well, in fairness, I didn’t.
There are also the times when tasting sessions get a bit out of hand. I really enjoy these occasions, when you rock up to a wine producer’s cellars and get stuck into his/her latest offerings. Problems arise at my inability to spit the wine out. It’s the englishman in me. What more can I say? Someone offers you something to drink, you damn well drink the thing. Spit it in a bucket? Behave!
Well, the ability to “behave” is something I begin to struggle with after 6 or 7 tastings, and the nose goes a bit deeper into the glass, the swirling becomes more vigorous, and before you know it I’ve ruined another shirt as the ruby red wines splash up out of the glass and all down my lapels! Seriously, why do I always seem to be wearing a white shirt at this point? I feel like I’m keeping Charles Tyrwhitt going through the recession!
I think when you start getting involved in wine, there’s a natural worry of looking like you’ve no idea what you’re doing. It’s a really strange problem, and mostly it’s more about managing other people’s opinions and expectations than actually getting it right. There are so many things to do, things to say, buzz words to hit. It’s all a bit over the top, and as I get further into my own wine drinking “career”, I find it increasingly ridiculous. What I can say, is there’s a few tips here and there that’ll help get anyone started with tasting for themselves.
I think as far as tasting goes it’s about process to tick the boxes to a certain point…
The idea of terms like “acidity”, “body”, and “tannins” are real enough, but we’ll do that some other time. The main idea is getting used to the process. When people taste wines it looks a bit funny, but they have their reasons. There’s a routine that people usually take:
– Look at the wine, checking colour and clarity
– Give it an initial smell, does it remind you of anything?
– Give it a swirl to get more oxygen into it
– Give it a second sniff, is anything new hitting your nose?
– Give it a taste, do the smells reflect the taste?
– Judge the wine on the taste, length of flavour, complexity, etc.
It’s a pretty standard method, and once you’ve done it once or twice you’ll end up doing it more often that not, and end up looking like one of those people in restaurants. Sorry. It will happen. Here are some tips for the first few times you do it.
Firstly, don’t overfill your glass…
There’s a reason wine glasses are shaped the way they are. The biggest diameter of the glass is roughly where you want to fill up to, giving the wine most opportunity to get a bit of contact with the air. It also allows all the smells to gather in the rest of the glass, so when you stick your conk in there they’re all trapped and ready for you.
Secondly, swirling is actually pretty essential…
getting more oxygen to the wine to ‘wake it up’. Easy way to do this is to leave it on the table, and just move the glass in a circle. Trying to hold it up and do it at an angle when you’re not used to it and you’ll soon be behind me in the queue for another shirt.
Thirdly, there’s a trick to when you’ve got some wine in your mouth…
You get your mouth in whistling formation, lean your head forward and suck in. This again adds the air into the wine (in your mouth), giving aromas and tastes a last little kick before you make your final verdict. Again though, pretty easy to look like a tit here if you stop sucking in and end up dribbling the stuff on your shoes. Just be careful there.
And finally, although pretty specific to restaurant visits…
it’s a pet hate of mine that needs to be collared! There is no huge need to taste the wine. The old play of the sommelier pouring you a bit and asking you to taste it, you give it a sniff, you try a bit, you give a considered look, and then you say something like “yep, that’s fine thanks!” Sound familiar? Stop it, stop it now!
The whole idea of it is to check if the wine is corked or not. Corked is a term used for when the seal (the cork in most cases) has stopped working and the wine has become stale in the bottle. It’s a pretty nasty smell. The wine waiter will check it, and then you can check it. You only need to sniff it. Corked wine can be returned, stuff you just don’t like the taste of shouldn’t be, especially if you picked the bloody thing!
There’s lots more detail to go into, but maybe not right now. I suppose it just remains to say that when it comes to wine you’ve all read the tasting notes here and there. The strong fruit smells or spice smells are genuine, they’re a mix of natural chemicals within the wine. The overall taste though, what it reminds you of, what it it tastes like to you, is a unique thing. Like anything in the food or drink world, your tastebuds are your own, you like what you like and you don’t what you don’t.
Always worth remembering.
I’m off to the shirt shop again.