One of the most intimidating aspects of wine drinking is the mystique about tasting wines. There is a barrier of knowledge that scares off most people. The movie Sideways explained a bit of the ritual, but obscured the information by making the character seem pretentious while he was explaining it. You might see a knowlegeable person tasting the wine, but what are they really doing? And more importantly, why?
When you are presented the cork after opening a bottle of wine, you are checking to make sure the wine is not “corked”. A corked wine contains trichloroanisole (2,4,6-trichloroanisole – TCA) created by a naturally-occurring airborne fungi, and will smell of moldy newspaper. It can sometimes come from other sources such as a barrel, but most likely will come from the cork itself. Examine the cork to make sure it is clear of mold. It should be stained a bit (if from a red wine), spongy (not dry and crumbly), and have no off-odors. A dry cork will not necesarrily be a sign of a bad wine, but it does mean that the wine was not stored properly.
A synthetic cork will have none of the above problems, but it will also have no smell. If you smell the synthetic cork, you will not gain any useful information. A synthetic cork is not the sign of an inferior wine; many quality wineries are using synthetic corks. A synthetic cork is more likely the sign of a winery that is tired of taking back corked wine. Some people consider a synthetic cork to be less “romantic”, but nothing will kill the mood quicker than a corked wine. Some wineries are starting to use fun colored synthetic corks.
Look at the wine
The first thing you will do when you receive a glass of wine is look at the wine. When you look at the wine, you are inspecting the color and clarity. A cloudy wine is usually a wine that hasn’t settled yet. The color will tell you many interesting things about the wine. Just from the color, you can get a feel for the age and quality of the wine.
For example, a white wine is never “white”. A young white wine might have a slightly pale yellow-green tint to it. A brown tint will indicate that the white wine has oxidized, and most likely will not be enjoyable. A straw color will indicate that the wine is a moderate age, while a gold color will be much more aged. Chardonnays are often yellow-brown because they have been stored in oak barrels, rather than stainless steel tanks.
You can determine much information from red wines too. Purple-red is the color of a young red wine, while dark brown colors will indicate that the wine is past its prime. Ruby is typical of wines that have reached their peak, and are at the prime drinking age. Older red wines are usually lighter than their younger counterparts.
Swirl the wine
Swirling the wine is probably one of the most confusing actions observed by a wine novice. When you swirl the wine, you are trying to get more air into the wine. The wine coats the outside of the glass, and allows the aromas of the wine to release. Swirling the wine in the glass prepares the wine aromas for your next test, smelling the wine.
Smell the wine
When you are smelling the wine you are first checking to see if there are any “off” scents. This is your second chance to determine if the wine is corked before tasting it. The wine will smell of moldy cardboard if it is corked. Smelling the wine is also a way to enjoy the wine, and gives you an opprotunity to explore the wine before tasting it. You can descern many more aromas than tastes. See what aromas you can name for each wine that you taste. You might smell flowers, apples, citrus, grapefruit, butter or more.
Taste the wine
When you take a sip of wine, swish it around your mouth. This gives the wine an opprotunity to touch all of your tastebuds. There are no “regions” of your tounge that corospond to different tastes, the “tounge map” is a myth with no scientific basis. Each tastebud contains 50-100 receptors for each taste (sour, sweet, etc…). Swishing the wine around your mouth gives you more information about the wine than just the tip of your tounge. Some wines might taste of cherries, while others might give you flavors of butterscotch or even pepper! Part of the fun with wine is to see how many flavors you can identify.
Enjoy the wine
The most important step to tasting wine is to just enjoy yourself and have fun. The most accurate sign of a good wine is one that makes you want a second glass. The best wines are good wines shared with friends!
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