Whether you’re touring Napa or the Rhone Valley in France, going to a formal tasting or setting up a tasting for your friends and family, it’s important to be aware of the finer points of wine tasting to bring the most to the experience.
If you’re setting up a tasting, the order of the wines is important. The lightest bodied wine should be tasted first and these are most often white wines. Beginning with a sparkling wine or Champagne is always fun and a great way to prime your palate. White wines should always be served chilled, although the type of white dictates how chilled. Champagne and the lighter whites like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio (also known as Pinot Gris), Riesling and Rosé benefit from being colder, somewhere between 43-50 degrees. Chardonnay and White Burgundy are better served at 50-55 degrees, so take them out of the refrigerator about a half hour before the tasting to allow them to warm up a bit. Once you’ve tasted the whites, proceed to the reds and arrange them according to the boldness and density of the varietal. If a Beaujolais is included in your tasting, that would be a great place to begin the reds. You can serve Beaujolais at the same temperature as Chardonnay. Following that light red, proceed into the medium bodied reds like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese at a temperature between 57-63 degrees. From there, take it to the fuller bodied reds like Zinfandel, Blends and Cabernet. These are best served at 60-65 degrees. Dessert wines, whether red or white, should come at the end of the tasting. Generally speaking red wines benefit from at least an hour’s decanting and should be served at between 60-65 degrees. A half hour in the refrigerator will raise the temperature to the desired level. Sweet dessert wines are the perfect way to end your tasting. Sweet whites should be served at 43-50 degrees, while fortified wines like Port and Sherry, should be served at slightly warmer temperatures of 46-54 degrees.
Now that you’ve got your lineup, it’s time to taste! You need three different glasses to get the most out of the tasting. There are glasses to fit every type of wine and you could go crazy (and broke) trying to keep up with that, so here’s your best bet. A Champagne flute if there’s a sparkling wine on the list. A Chardonnay glass, which is what most people think of when they think wine glass and a large, wide topped glass that some people would almost mistake for a brandy snifter. If you decide to finish up with dessert wines, in the absence of a special glass for them, you can use your white wine glass, or if you wish, the red wine glass but be sure to rinse them (particularly the red wine glass) before pouring the dessert wine.
Don’t forget the spit buckets! I know, I know. It sounds disgusting but really, if you’re at a tasting, which is a pretty elegant affair, do you really want to get hammered? And trust me, even spitting out the wine, your body will absorb alcohol and by the end of the tasting, you’ll be a bit lightheaded.
Begin by observing the color and clarity of the wine in your glass. If it’s a sparkling wine, DON’T swish it around in the glass! The winemaker went to a lot of trouble to insure just the right amount of effervescence, so don’t undo all that hard work. With still wines, swishing is what you need to do to unlock the aromas and the flavors captured in the wine, so swish away.
Next, stick your nose in the glass and inhale the aroma of the wine. See if you can pick out the characteristics. Do you smell citrus? Is there a fresh bread, yeasty aroma? Perhaps you’ll detect some spice or nuances of apple or peach, perhaps some cassis. I like to inhale two or three times before I raise the glass to my mouth.
Now it’s time to actually put the wine in your mouth. Don’t be stingy and take a little sip. You want to get a good amount to fill your mouth while also allowing you to swirl it on your palate and draw some air into your mouth without having the wine dribble out the side! Take notice of your first impression as the wine hits your palate. Then, as you swirl and take in some air to mix with the wine, notice the nuances on your mid-palate. What flavors do you taste? Perhaps you’ll get a hint of lime or peach, some dark cherry. Maybe something entirely unexpected, like mint or tar. The next step is entirely up to you. You can swallow or spit but I will say that if you swallow, by the time you get to the last wine, you won’t know if you’re tasting something wonderful or something on sale for $1.99 from the gasoline station mini-mart. Once the wine is out of your mouth, take a moment to observe the finish. Does the flavor go on and on? Was the finish smooth and velvety? Were there pronounced tannins and if so, were they pleasant or unpleasant?
It you’re new to wine tasting and think that all that stuff about flavors and nuances is just a bunch of hooey, think again. The more you attune yourself to wine, the more time you take to taste it, the more you will find yourself recognizing the different aspects and there will come the day when you look around the table at your fellow tasters and say, “I get a bit of green pepper and a somewhat herbal quality. There’s a lovely complexity to the wine and the balance is perfect. What do you think?”
~by Ann Werner
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Be sure to check out one of Ann’s great books at Ark Stories