|Even the awkwardness and confusion of puberty doesn't compare with how goofy you feel at your first wine tasting. And fair enough, at least back then you knew when to spit or swallow. For those who want to stand tall and spit far at their next tasting, Andrea Frost explains all.
WHY NOT JUST DRINK THE WINE?
Well you can, but wine tasting is about way more than literally tasting the wine - it's about smelling, seeing, feeling and tasting. In fact, it's more like shopping for a new winter coat than it is about tasting a wine. To get as much information about a wine, you need to look, smell, taste and feel a wine - try it on if you like. Sure, the information you get makes more sense if you know what you're looking for, but you can only start looking for what you want when you know what you don't. So hide any inhibitions, open up and say ah.
HOW YOU TASTE
The process of wine tasting usually takes the following steps; look, swirl, sniff, taste, fluff around your mouth, spit. Whether or not you take these steps is entirely up to you, but at least now you know why.
1. HAVE A LOOK
Looking at the wine in the glass tells you a lot more than you'd think - far more than if you checked out a cup of coffee or even a vodka and tonic. If you want to do it properly, make sure you have a clear glass to see through, a piece of white paper as a contrast and some good light. Despite what you see in some wine journals, you will never need to wear a white lab coat when tasting wine. Ever.
Looking at the wine in the glass tells you a bit about the following things:
Colour: At least there's one thing about the wine you're sure to get right, that is, if the wine is made from a red or white grape. If you're stumped at this early stage, I'm afraid this is gonna be a bit of a challenge.
Variety: For those who do manage to lock the colour of the wine in, you can start searching for hints of what variety it is, because each variety looks different in the glass and has certain visual clues that indicate what it is. For example, pinot noir is a much lighter shade of red than most shiraz which is usually pretty dark.
Age: The tone of this colour gives some indication to the age of the wine - older whites become darker and a deeper yellow than the lemon colour many begin as; young reds can be as bold as a stop light but become less vibrant and kinda brown as the footy seasons pass. Age is also visible by the colour contrast at the rim of the wine. The older a wine is, the greater the difference between the colour at the centre of the wine and the colour at the rim. This is why you'll often see people looking into the glass like they're making a wish or looking for a drowning insect.
Clarity: You can also check the clarity and alcohol content of the wine. Foggy wine usually means something went a little pear-shaped during the winemaking process and high alcohol wine is indicated by the viscosity of the wine - the thicker the wine, the higher the alcohol. Look for thick drops of wine slowly running down the inside of the glass like honey.
You may also see bubbles in the wine. Great if they're meant to be there but sometimes they're not.
The aim here is to get as good a whiff of the wine as possible. The elements that give off the aroma of the wine are let off at the surface of the wine. By agitating the wine, you get more of the wine in contact with the air, more flavour compounds out and a smell with more impact.
To swirl like a pro (or a goose, whatever your opinion) you need to make sure your glass is filled only about a third of the way so that it doesn't spill everywhere when you start swirling. Also, if you're only tasting, not drinking, then you really don't need a full serve. Although many tasters swirl it in mid-air, it's much safer when you're just starting off to use the table as a base to steady the bottom of the glass. Now just start swirling the glass in slowish kinda circles and let the very gentle momentum build. Remember making whirlpools in your neighbour's above-ground pool as kids? It's just the same motion but it takes about a hundredth of the time.
3. HAVE A SMELL
Once the brew's rumbling and the flavour compounds are smelling, stick your nose in, close your eyes and breath in. One or two big, long, sniffs should do you. (Your smell detector will tire so there's no point doing anymore). There's a smallish window of smelling opportunity before the smell dissipates, so work swiftly - swirl, smell, concentrate, think, then ask yourself, what can I smell?
When smelling, you need to concentrate, some even say with your eyes closed as this helps you work out what you're smelling. It also helps you look a little bit like the dude from the Cherry Ripe commercial as he bites into the bar and I don't know too many people who'd be happy if you pulled a stunt like that at the dinner table. Up to you.
Just like with the visual part of the tasting, you're looking for characters that stand out. When you know which wines these are characteristic of, you will be able to pinpoint what kind of wine it is. If you're just starting to smell wine out of curiosity, then these smells will be just that - winey, fruity smells. Then magically, like all the subjects at uni eventually formed a degree, all the chapters of a book made a story, and all the letters of the alphabet formed words, so too certain smells will eventually signal certain wines.
Cherry, plummy, gamey smells will eventually become pinot noir; dark berries, pepper and stewed plum will eventually become shiraz, and peachey, tropical fruit will eventually flag chardonnay. Aromas that come from the fruit are called primary characteristics. Certain versions of these aromas can tell you, or confirm, what type of grape you think it is and may even tell you what region the wine is from - as grapes grown in different areas can smell different.
As well as the variety and possibly the region, further differences in these aromas can suggest certain winemaking techniques like malolactic fermentation and the type of oak barrel (if at all) that was used. These things that are done to the wine are called secondary characteristics.
4. HAVE A SWIG
See how far down the line the actual tasting is?
By now, you're supposed to have an idea of what sort of hand you've been dealt. I mean, you know the colour of the wine, maybe the variety, you might have a rough idea of the age and some hints about the winemaking style. Now it's time to lock it all in and put the final pieces of the Lego set together.
Take a mouthful - not too big, not too small but enough to work with. Only practice will teach you how much this. Swish it right around your mouth and over your entire tongue so all your taste receptors get a guernsey. To really get the impact of the wine, suck a bit of air over the wine by opening your mouth slightly, shaping your mouth as if you've just said "boo" and breathing in. This aerates the wine, encourages the flavour compounds and gives the wine's flavour a boost. It feels kinda nice too.
As anyone who's seen even the mildest skin flick, you'll know the mouth can do a lot more than the eye or nose. The role of the mouth in wine tasting is to sum it all up. Here's what the tasting part of wine tasting does for your experience:
There're four basic taste sensations - sweet, sour, bitter and salty and another that some scientists believe in and others don't, called umami - a term coined by Japanese sake tasters which translates as deliciousness. When tasting wine, usually only the first three, and if you believe in it, umami are tasted in wine. Despite common beliefs, these tastes are not tasted exclusively on any particular region of the tongue and each taste bud has the ability to taste all sensations although certain tastebuds do respond more strongly to one sensation.
Most wine will have some sort of flavour - it might not be pleasant, but it has a flavour all the same. Good wine has the right flavours all in proportion - you know, balanced. How many different flavours and how well they are integrated together in the wine is known as the complexity of the wine. You don't want one flavour in the wine enhanced at the expense of the others. How long these flavours hang around the mouth after you've swallowed is known as the length of a wine. The longer, the better. Well-made wine is like a top football team - all the different players working together for a great, successful, evenly balanced, enduring end result.
The fact that each wine has a different feel in the mouth (not surprisingly, mouthfeel is the term coined for this sensation), may seem odd. But take a mouthful of Fanta and one of a thickshake and explain the feel of each of them. See? One's all prickly and kinda thin, while the other is creamy and thick. Same goes with wine but on top of prickly (well bubbly) and creamy, you can also get wine that feels oily and some that feels hot. But each of these sensations is a sign of something - bubbles mean carbon dioxide is present, creamy wine often signals malolactic fermentation and heat usually means there's a lot of alcohol in the wine. After swigging on a wine for some time, you may also feel a puckering sensation, more common in red wine. These are tannins in the wine that come from the skins of the wine and the wood of the oak. Just like emotions, textures in wine feel that way for a reason.
With all its old school tradition, the hounds and hound's tooth jackets, the pomp and etiquette that goes with it, the greatest irony in wine tasting is the spit. And in particular that bucket-thing that is spat into, the spittoon. You know the ones, the festering, swampy buckets that have gargled and spat wine mixed with samples of soggy bread. As if making them silver and adorning them with carvings and pretty detail is going to smarten them up. Really, its like putting jewels on a urinal.
Thing is, you don't need to swallow to properly taste wine as there are no taste receptors in the throat. And if you're tasting often and in great quantities, what was once your job or interest may soon become something a little more consuming. Not to mention how dangerous it can be if you're driving.
Spitting itself is quite a skill and even the most civilised tasters turn it on for this part of the procedure. Once you have something to spit into, try to do it from as far away as possible - if you hover over the top of the bucket and spit with an open mouth, you're gonna get some back-splash, not just of wine, but of other people's saliva. So stand back a little, lean over the spittoon, purse your lips, squeeze in your cheeks and shoot a stream of wine out. Bingo, you're in.
THINGS THAT AFFECT HOW YOU TASTE
Other smells: If your wine smells uncannily like your Chanel No Five, it'll be easy to understand why you're not supposed to wear perfume into tasting areas. Same goes if you're a smoker.
Toothpaste: Remember the affect it has on a glass of OJ drunk straight after brushing? Well it has the same effect on wine.
Time of the day: Your tasting senses are much more alert somewhere around mid-morning which is why many professional tastings are held at this time of the day. And you thought it was a hair of the dog thing.
Strong tastes: Strong tastes that spark a reaction in your mouth just make things harder to taste - especially if whatever you're tasting uses the major taste centres that wine tasting does. This is why bread and water are often had between tastes - they neutralise the palate as it were.
Mood: It affects everything else in your life and your ability to taste is no exception.
Other people's opinions: This is especially so when you're not that confident about what you like. Always stand your ground and follow your own tasting instincts.
See? Wine tasting's not that hard after all, its just about moving through different levels to help you understand a particular wine. And moving through different levels to get you to an end result is a concept you got your head around with your first game of Donkey Kong - and look how much fun that was.