Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wine Tasting 101

I realized this past weekend while I was up in wine country, that the process of wine tasting has become second nature to me. I am fortunate to live in a part of the country (Northern California) where wine and the opportunity to go to a winery for a tasting is abundant. I realized however that wine tasting might not be so familiar to everyone, and perhaps even intimidating, so I thought I'd log a few pointers in my blog.

First off, wine tasting is not just about "taste". It's meant to be a multiple sensory experience. You should not only focus on what you are tasting, but also on what you are seeing and smelling. Although there is a certain etiquette to it, the process is very simple and has become much more casual in recent years. So when you go to winery, here's how it will go down:

1. You show up at the bar and let the server know you'd like to have a tasting. Many times the tasting is free, however more and more wineries are beginning to charge for tastings. In the range of $10 per "flight" of tastings is not uncommon. You may be able to select a "reserve" tasting instead for an additional cost ($15?), where they will pour you low production wines or wines of older vintages. If you've never been to the winery where you are at, you may as well start with the regular pour. You are not obligated to buy a bottle, however I always feel like I should if the tasting was free and there was something I liked (and the price is agreeable). It is not rude, however, to say "thanks" and leave without buying anything. Some wineries that charge for a tasting will take the cost of the tasting and deduct it from a bottle purchase, which I always appreciate and think all wineries should do when they charge for a tasting!

2. You will receive a glass to begin your tasting. You will usually start with the sweetest white and work your way to the dryer whites, then the lighter reds to the darker reds. If the winery, for example, doesn't produce whites then you might taste just the lighter reds to the darker reds. Contrary to what it may seem, it is NOT necessary to wash your glass out with water between each taste. That is not to say you should mix wines (you should not). If your glass is empty but just coated with the previous wine, you are ready for the next wine in the flight without it ruining the taste of the next wine. The one exception is going from white to red. Once you go to red wine, if for some reason you go back to white - then you should rinse your glass to avoid getting a "rosé" inadvertently. (Real rosé is in fact not a blend of red & white wines but rather made from red wine grapes, but the skin is remove shortly after fermentation begins).

3. You will notice "spittoons" and usually a water pitcher on the bar (maybe even some crackers if you are lucky!). You are not obligated to finish everything they pour you, and it would not be considered rude to pour something out if you don't like it or if you don't want to finish it for some reason. If you don't like it, no need to make a face or bad comment, just pour it out and carry on. Some people will say that it is ok to physically spit something out into the spittoon. While this is true in a professional wine tasting scenario (so the taster does not get drunk and end up with impaired judgment), I'm not so sure it would be appropriate at your casual wine tasting. What I would do instead is swallow the taste, and break the "no water" rule above and have a drink of water to chase it.

4. During the tasting what you want to do is use sight and smell, as well as taste. Take the wine and hold it up to the light, and admire the color and clarity. Swirl it around in your glass a little and take a big sniff from the top of the glass and admire the aroma. Take a look again and look at the "legs" of the wine. The legs or "wine tears" are little drops that form at the top of where the wine coated the inside of the glass. They slowly trickle down like tears on the inside of the glass (seen in the picture at left, in the glass' reflection). Scientifically, the legs indicate alcohol content - even though the common belief is that they indicate wine quality. In fact, they have nothing to do with quality but I find them enjoyable to watch nonetheless. Ok now, you've got the sight, you've got the smell, now take a taste!

5. In tasting a wine, critics will often find taste comparisons to other fruits or herbs. There is a great description on this Wikipedia page of common sensory descriptions based on wine variety. You don't have to always agree with what the critics or the wine maker suggest, and in fact, you may sense something completely different. As an example, recently I tasted a Cabernet Sauvignon where the wine maker sensed a taste of leather. I did not taste the same thing. He was smart about it though, and only told me what he thought after I told him what I thought - so as to not influence my interpretation of what I was tasting.

6. Sometimes there are dessert wines available to taste. They are usually very, very sweet. I would recommend tasting those last, just like with actual dessert. The sweetness could alter the way everything after it tastes. It would be a good idea to rinse your glass with water before and after tasting a dessert wine, especially if it is going across colors (red to white or visa versa).

Part of what is spectacular about tasting wine is finding something that YOU like. That is really the secret to wine tasting. Just because something was rated a 90 by Wine Spectator doesn't mean that you have to like it. Just because something costs $100/bottle doesn't mean that you have to like it. In fact, if you find a $10 bottle of wine that you like - I'd say you scored and you should buy a case immediately! It's really all about what YOU get out of it, and not what the experts think. The more you taste, the more you will learn to appreciate the differences in various wines.

Here's another good article on wine tasting 101 from wineroad.com (Sonoma County, California). It's an overall great site from the beginning.

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