Love wine, but intimidated by oenophiles? Dip your toe into the wine-tasting waters with this helpful primer from expert tippler James Conaway. (Photograph by Andrea Johnson, Alamy)
Wine-drinking’s pretty much self-explanatory. But no matter what’s in the glass, it will reveal itself best when approached systematically and when all sensory apparati are exposed to it (well, not your ears).
That doesn’t mean making a spectacle of your examination, or trying to out-inhale the person next to you.
It does mean thinking about wine from the get-go as special and maybe extraordinary, and taking great care to remember your initial impressions.
You can tell a lot about a wine without actually tasting it. By the time you do you’ll know something about its assets and shortcomings.
For openers, look at it closely against a light surface by tilting the glass away from you. Red wine should be bright and translucent, with good color right to the “meniscus” (the liquid’s rim). A slight brown tinge in older reds isn’t necessarily a defect, but cloudiness is.
Brown-tinged whites, on the other hand, are to be avoided unless they’re off-dry (slightly sweet) or dessert wines. Chardonnays of a deeply golden color are often oxidized—the result of being exposed to too much air or direct sunlight—or they’ve spent so much time aging in oak that they taste of nothing else.
Next, smell the wine. You are searching for “varietal” (i.e., the type of grape) character. After that, you are looking for complexity, and power.
If the wine smells funny, it’s probably going to taste funny, too, though the smell of a newly opened bottle can change radically—usually for the better—given a little exposure to air.
The smell of sulphur isn’t necessarily damning, since sulphur is used in the sterilization process and usually dissipates quickly. But so-called “off odors” are damning—typically marks of careless wine-making—and don’t go away.
After the first couple of sniffs, you’ve lost your ability to smell much else. It’s time to give the wine a taste.
Take a generous sip and spread it around in your mouth (important note: wine is not Listerine!). The initial impressions you detected with your nose should be reinforced by your tastebuds.
During this “attack” (the wine’s impression on the palate), concentrate on the fruit, the intensity and variation of flavor, and the “body,” or heft, of the wine.
Still holding the wine in your mouth, breathe in over it and then exhale through your nose (being careful that none of the wine follows!), which presses the vapors high into the nasal cavity for a concentrated impression. Next, swallow.
The “middle palate” is a sort of second gear of wine tasting as the impression expands. In a balanced wine, the fruit, alcohol, and acid will all seem harmonious.
A wine deficient in fruit will taste watery, and one’s containing too much alcohol will give the impression of heat in the mouth, yet another defect.
The puckering sensation induced by some reds is the product of tannin, a derivative of grape skins and oak staves that acts as a preservative. With time, and exposure to air, it should subside (tannin’s no fun to drink). But if there’s too much, the wine may never age to graceful longevity.
Acid is the wine’s backbone; too little leaves it dull and flat-tasting. In whites, acid produces that crisp, clean dismount that can make even an off-dry Riesling refreshing.
The “finish” is the lingering impression that’s left in the mouth. A good wine’s taste should persist and even change after it has been swallowed. A great wine properly tasted sets its own drinking tempo and carves a memorable niche in the receptive mind.