Wine Tasting 101 – How to Truly Experience the Essence of a Glass of Wine

There are countless ways to taste a wine.  I think that ultimately, the right way is to taste it the way you would want to drink it.  For me, when I drink wine, I tend to look at it, smell it, swirl it, look at it again, another small swirl, smell it again, and then finally taste it.  When I taste it, I tend to use my whole mouth, taking in all of the flavors my tongue can pick up.  Different parts of your tongue pick up different characteristics.  The front picks up sweetness, the back bitterness, and the sides acidity and saltiness.

Let’s talk about each of those steps and variants you can use.

  1. Look at it:  In this step for me, it’s the color for which I’m looking.  Generally I associate darker colors with deeper, richer flavors in both red and white wines.  While generally true, it isn’t always.  So color can be a rough-cut rule of thumb about what to expect, but not an absolute.  Optimally, look at your wine with the glass tilted against a white or very light background.  Looking at the edge of the wine, you can get a good sense of the depth of the color.
  2. Smell it:  It’s important to smell the wine both before and after you swirl it.  Tilt the glass towards your nose so the wine almost falls out, stick your nose in (the pros stick it all the way in) and smell.  You will get a sense of the aromatics of the wine, but you won’t yet overpower your nose with alcohols evaporating as a result of a swirl.
  3. Swirl it:  Give it a good swirl.  If you are using a proper wine glass, the wine shouldn’t come out.  Hint: put the glass on a hard, flat surface and slide it quickly in circles.  You’ll be a professional swirler in no time.
  4. Look at it again:  This time, look at the legs right after the swirl.  Are they forming slowly or quickly?  Do they last a long time or a short time?  Are there many or few?  Are they thick or thin? How quickly do they run down the glass?  Generally speaking, more, thicker, and slower moving legs means a higher alcohol content in the wine.  Over time and with experience, if you look at legs and then check the bottle’s alcohol content, you can begin to make pretty good guesses yourself.  The legs are caused by the evaporation of alcohol and the remaining components of the wine binding and running down the glass.  One caution: Legs can also be caused by viscosity, so the type of wine matters.  Most dry reds you can read about the same way, but if you toss in a Port or a Moscato, for example, all bets are off.  The high sugar in those wines makes them more viscous; hence more legs.  But sticking to dry reds, you can get pretty good at correlating legs with alcohol content and then amaze your friends at parties…
  5. Another small swirl: By the time I watch the legs, the aromatics from the swirl have mostly worn off, so another quick swirl is in order before step 6.
  6. Smell it again:  This time, do the smelling differently.  Since the swirl is fresh, you have a lot of alcohol evaporating.  This will give you a ton of aromatics and a great sense of what the upcoming sip will be like, so do a little more with this smell.  Tilt the glass as before, but this time, start with your nose at the top of the opening and start to breath in.  As you do, make sure your nose is all the way in and move down towards the bottom of the opening (remember the glass is tilted way over towards you) and don’t stop inhaling.  Notice the dramatic difference in smell between the top and bottom of the glass.  Take it all in and sense what the flavors you are about to taste may be.  Also, if you want to go back to the first smelling, just blow a puff of air into your glass, tilt it again and smell without swirling.  It’s a great reset.  You can go back and forth between the two types of smelling, but practically speaking, you won’t likely do this much.  You’ll stay with the post-swirl smelling because it’s so much stronger.
  7. Taste it (Finally!!!):  You can repeat swirling and smelling over and over until you are ready to sip, but if you’ve read this far and actually done everything I’ve suggested, the anticipation is probably killing you.  Time to sip!  There are many ways to sip.  I’ve done baby sips.  I’ve taken large sips and sloshed it around my mouth.  I’ve taken sips, tilted my head down, and sucked in to aerate the wine in my mouth.  I’ve heard experts say “white down the middle, red down the sides”.  Try them all.  Each will give you a different flavor profile for the wine you are drinking.  It doesn’t matter what varietal, each of the above methods puts the wine in a different place in your mouth and on your tongue and the results will be astonishingly different.  Some wine, you might love if you sip it just down the middle of your tongue, but it will taste horribly acidic if you let it touch the sides.  Conversely, a wine which tastes good down the sides may taste far too sweet or lacking in flavor if you drink it down the middle.  My recommendation:  Taste it the way you drink it.  If you drink whites and reds differently, taste them differently.  Ultimately you want to drink what you enjoy so make your approach to tasting match your drinking.

In conclusion, I’d say there is no right or wrong way to do any of the above.  What I do is pretty much a full blown version of viewing, smelling, and tasting the wine because it’s fun to do and I discover all sorts of hidden nuances, smells, and flavors in a single glass.  But do you need to do it all?  Not close.  If you are more interested in simply, “do I like it?” instead of exploring all the subtleties, then just pop it, pour it, and taste it as you would drink it.  Is it good? – yes/no – done!

As a footnote, I have spent many, many years tasting wines.  Only in the last fiver or so have I gone to the lengths described above.  I do it because I love the discovery and the exploration of the wine in a bottle.  Truth be told, though, for many years, I was perfectly happy with the pop, pour, taste, decide approach.  Ultimately, it’s all a matter of preference and what you want to get out of it.

Happy tasting!

Just how expensive is the world’s most expensive bottle of wine?

I have often wondered just how much you can pay for a bottle of wine.  Not that I’m going to be the person to do it, winning the lottery aside.  Yesterday, I came across this posting on The Vineyard Trail which just happened to answer my exact question.

Without stealing too much of their thunder, the answer is: $195,000.  Holy cow!  You are talking house kind of money.

Anyway, the bottle comes with very special experiences such as a first class trip to France to meet the winemaker, a tour of the Chateau, and a gourmet dinner.

Hey, if you can afford it, why not?  Like I’ve said before in my postings, “It’s all about the experience.”  And that’s some kind of experience…

How to preserve wine for a very long time after its opened

In my perusing the web for all things wine, I came across an interesting item call the Platypreserve, made by Cascade Designs, the makers of the well known Platypus water storage containers for backpacking.

The idea is simple: Pour the wine in, squeeze the air out, and you will have fresh wine for days.  By entirely eliminating the oxygen, the wine should last much longer than in an open bottle, even if vacuumed.

It looks to me to be exactly like my backpacking Platypus with the exception that this one has colored plastic (maybe to hide the eventual inevitable staining) and my water Platypus comes with a drinking hose.  (why doesn’t this?!?!) (kidding) (maybe…)

If you are interested in checking it out, here is a link.  I think I’m going to buy one myself.

It’s all about the experience!

When I added the wine category to this blog, I intended not to only post facts, trivia, etc., but to delve a little bit more into what wine means socially.  This past weekend, I had two disparate experiences which really highlight how wine and social situations are interwoven for so many people across so many cultures.

My wife and I took a trip to the Colorado wine country and visited several wineries.  Most were friendly and the experience was good.  Two, however, stood out.  Mesa Park Vineyards and one-winery-which-must-not-be-named.  (Harry Potter reference…).

At Mesa Park Vineyards, we met Chuck, one of the owners.  He’s a rocket scientist, literally, who got into wine making some years ago.  He has a small tasting room which is very interestingly decorated.  He was all there, entirely engaged with the four people who were visiting at that moment.  He was effusive, talking about his wines, sharing stories from his past, listening to stories from the four of us.  We probably sat there for 90 minutes and could have been there much longer were it not for a prior obligation.  All along, he was pouring small samples of his wines and even pulled out a bottle not yet available for sale.  It was like we were simply friends he hadn’t yet met.  We felt so welcome and were so happy to bet there.

Conversely, at the must-not-be-named winery, we had a very different experience.  The gentleman was engaged with friends of his who also happened to be there at the same time.  He poured us samples, but all he gave us socially were very short obligatory style answers to our questions about the winery and the wines.  We’d ask a question, get a quick answer, and back he went to his friends.  In short, we felt like we were bugging him.  We lasted maybe 25 minutes and the whole time, we wanted to be anywhere else.

The wines themselves at the two wineries were similar in style and quality.  However, the experiences were entirely different, as were our impressions of the wines.  My bet is that if I blind tasted all of the wines from both wineries, and had to rate them, they would be intermixed.  Given our personal experiences though, we enjoyed Mesa Park’s wines far more than the other.

It’s all about the experience!

Red Wine Basic Flavor Profiles & Information “101”

One of the most vexing things about wine, other than trying not to spend money on bottles you won’t enjoy, is simply understanding how it can enhance a meal by pairing the right wine with the right food.  Pairing has some rules, but nowadays, is also largely subjective to the majority of people.

Like many things wine, it simply comes down to what you like.  For example, I enjoy the flavors of Red Zinfandel more than just about any other wine, particularly if it has some black pepper hints to it.  I will go out of my way to pair Red Zin with more dishes that most experts would recommend, but I don’t tend to take it to an extreme – like pairing it with a light fish.  Some people do, though, and enjoy both the wine and the fish perfectly well.  As I said before, it’s just a matter of what you like.

Wine Enthusiast pulled together a good, short article on red wine basics covering the flavor profiles and background information on the most common red wine varietals.  From this, you can decide where you want to spend your money and what varietals you are most likely to enjoy.  It’s a good primer and reference point.  If you don’t know what to pair a dish with, at least pick a wine you will likely enjoy and you’ll probably be happy with the choice.

Earth Friendly Sustainable Wine Production

Recently, I held an “Earth Friendly Wine Tasting” at my house.  My goal was to explore only wines produced in a sustainable manner.  As I dove into the research, I found that there are many approaches to sustainable wine production, and many of those overlap.

The U.S. government, the EU, and many other countries regulate the use of the term “organic,” (all differently, of course) but most other terms have no legal definitions and may or may not be associated with private certifications. Here are the major sustainable wine-making processes:

  • Sustainable wine making is a general term referring to both natural and human resources, involving environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. It requires small, realistic, and measurable steps as defined in the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Workbook published by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Many sustainable farmers will grow organically or biodynamically, but it’s not required. They will also tend to focus on energy and water conservation.
  • Natural winemaking is a style of winemaking that can be applied to any wine. It is loosely defined as using native yeasts in the fermentation process and minimal or no sulfur dioxide in the winemaking process. It would not be as strict as organic and may or may not involve the use of organic or biodynamic grapes.
  • LIVE is an acronym meaning Low Input Viticulture and Enology. This name refers to the practice of reducing the amount of raw materials (inputs such as pesticides, fertilizer, water, chemicals, fuel, etc.) used in vineyard and winery production. It requires wineries to follow specific practices in their ongoing operations.
  • Organic: There are two types of organic listings on wine bottles. Wines can be made from certified organically grown grapes, avoiding any synthetic additives, or, “organic” wines are made from organically grown grapes, and are also made without any added sulfites.
  • Biodynamic winemaking stems from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner in 1924. The principles and practices of biodynamics are based on his spiritual/practical philosophy, called anthroposophy, which includes understanding the ecological, the energetic, and the spiritual in nature. For a vineyard to be considered biodynamic the wine-grower must use the nine biodynamic preparations described by Steiner.

That is what I learned about the most common approaches to sustainable wine production.  The most undefined one is, of course, “natural”.  To help with describing that in much more detail, here is a good article from Vino in Love in which the author has described natural wine production and furthermore takes the reader on one experience trying natural wines.  It’s a fun read and makes me want to explore more.