Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Mendoza… world-class wine regions are anything but few and far between. Wherever you are in the world, you’re practically guaranteed to stumble upon a quality winery or wine bar, and conducting a tasting can form a critical piece of immersing yourself in the local culture. With so many varietals, vintages, production methods, and tasting notes, however, the world of wine can be intimidating to newcomers, to say the least. Want to get through a tasting on vacation and seem like you know what you’re talking about? Just remember the five S’s.
There’s a lot to be said about a wine before even taking a sip. The color of the wine in your glass can tell you a great deal about the varietal and many other characteristics. If you’re in California and you’ve been poured an inky red wine, you might have a Zinfandel or a Petit Verdot in your glass. Drinking a lighter red on your French holiday? You may just be enjoying a Burgundy, better known overseas as Pinot Noir. For white wines, lighter colors typically point to lighter, crisper wines, like a Sauvignon Blanc, while deeper yellows signify oaked wines, such as many Chardonnays. Holding your glass over a white surface will give you a clearer picture of the wine’s color.
If you’re not used to swirling your wine, it may seem a tad pretentious, but once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll never turn back. When you’re just starting out, you may want to use a table or countertop to help keep the bottom of your glass flat and stable as you move it in a small circle. Swirling your glass increases the surface area of the wine and exposes it to more oxygen, which in turn opens up the wine’s aromas and flavors. You may also wish to pay attention to how the wine coats the glass. In Italy, a crisp Pinot Grigio won’t cling to the sides of the glass as much as a sweeter and more viscous wine, like a Moscato. The trails left by droplets of these fuller bodied, viscous wines might be referred to as “legs” or “tears” depending on where in the world you find yourself.
The human tongue can only detect five tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami or savory. The rest of the flavor spectrum actually comes from our sense of smell. Did you know the nose can detect hundreds of distinct aromas? Wine tasting helps you make the most of that power. When sniffing a wine, don’t be shy. Get your nose way down into the glass and take a deep breath. Think first in terms of larger categories, like fruitiness, earthiness, and woodiness, and then narrow down. If you’re detecting fruit, is it a tropical fruit or a berry? If you smell berries, are they tart, red raspberries or deep, juicy blackberries? Don’t be afraid to make unusual comparisons. Some wines really do smell like watermelon Jolly Ranchers, pencil shavings, or boxwood hedges.
Now comes the fun part. By taking your time to fully observe the wine and think about its aromas, you already have an idea of what you’ll experience while drinking. Once you’ve taken that first sip, consider whether the actual flavor of the wine is what you expected. Compare the tastes you experience on your palate to the scents you sensed on the wine’s nose. Different parts of your tongue detect different flavors, so swishing the wine around your mouth will help you pin down details about the wine’s sweetness and acidity.
Savor or Spit
Finally, it’s your choice whether you savor the wine and swallow it or spit it out. If you’ll be tasting a large quantity of wines throughout the day, spitting may be your ticket to remaining semi-sober. But if you’re only visiting one or two wineries, go ahead and savor the finish.
Proceeding through the basic steps of wine tasting will help guide your thought process as you sample a country’s wares, but don’t forget the most important question: whether you like it.