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Wine Tasting 101

The fine art of wine tasting has been around almost as long as people have been making wine. After all, why make wine if you're not going to taste it!

Over the centuries, wine tasting has evolved from a basic determination if a wine was drinkable, to a more sophisticated multi-faceted classification and rating system. Today wine reviews abound, and wine professionals can devote hours to official tastings and determining whether a wine should get 89 points or 88 points.

Wine tasting in its most basic form is an examination of wine using our senses. Everyone has their favorite version of the wine tasting process; the most common being some number of “S's” comprised of see, swirl, sniff, smell, swish, sip and of course spit.

Let's look at a logical three step process and see where each of the S's fits in.

Before we begin a few basic ground rules for any good wine tasting. You don't have to be a zealot about observing them but you should understand how they can make the wine tasting experience more enjoyable.

• Tasting location – Try and select a room that is well illuminated and free from odors. Tasting around your kitchen island while the garlic bread is in the oven kind of interferes with your sense of smell. A touchier subject is trying to make sure your guests don't overdo the White Diamonds Eau de Parfum – use your discretion. Provide each guest with some sort of white either table mat, or even a simple piece of copy paper – this is needed to accurately see the wine.

• Glasses – Use tulip shaped glasses (they help contain the aromas of the wine), clear glass, no colored embossed logos or thick glass. The size of the glass is less important although the average “pour” for tasting is 2 ounces, so any size from 6 – 10 ounces will work just fine.

• Wines – The order in a wine tasting is usually white before red, dry before sweet, and light bodied before full bodied.

OK enough about the preparations.

Step 1 - See

Wine tasting begins with a visual inspection of the wine. What are you looking for? Well looking at a wine reveals much about what is to come. The first observation is basic color, is it a white wine, red wine, or rose wine? When looking at a wine be sure to use that white background we talked about previously. Hold the wine up to a light source to help in your evaluation. Look carefully at the wine for clarity. Can you see clearly through the wine or is there a level of opaqueness? Is the wine uniform in color? Tip the glass slightly and notice if the color changes from the outside to the center of the glass. Do you notice any sediment in the glass? Swirl the wine in the glass; do you see small lines or rivulets flowing from the top of the glass toward the wine surface?

Close examination of a wine can indicate many things some are:

• Grape variety (white, red, rose)
• Wine style (still or sparkling)
• Age of the wine – this can be tricky but in general an older red wine will lose some of its color intensity and develop more rustic colors such as brick. White wines tend to darken with age.
• Alcohol content – Those rivulets running down the sides of the glass? Frequently referred to as legs, these are an indication of the alcohol content of the wine. The more pronounced the legs, the higher the alcohol content.
• Wine is filtered or unfiltered – The presence of very small particles in the wine may indicate that the wine is unfiltered – a final step used to clarify the wine.
• Sparkling wines – Focus on bubble size, the smaller and more numerous the bubbles, the more likely she's a thoroughbred.

Step 2 – Smell or Sniff

Most of what we refer to as wine “tasting” is really wine smelling. The human nose can detect as many as 10,000 different smells yet the human tongue (the source of taste) can only identify salt, sweet, sour and bitter. In order to smell wine, molecules from the wine must first be volatilized (converted from a liquid to a gas) and then travel to your nose. To help this process swirl the wine in the glass for 10-12 seconds, being careful not to be too aggressive and spill the wine. Now stick your nose down into the glass – don't be bashful, the closer your nose gets to the surface of the wine, the better the chance you can smell the wine. First impressions are often most accurate but don't be afraid to swish and smell several times.

Step 3 – Sip or Taste

In this step you take a small amount of wine into your mouth. Then the fun begins. Pretend that you've just taken a swig of your favorite mouthwash and you want to swish it around in your mouth so that it comes in contact with every papillae. This is sometimes referred to as “chewing”. Another fun thing to do while sipping is to draw air into your mouth. This process serves to further volatilize the wine, carrying molecules to the roof of your mouth and into the olfactory system. Now mind you this takes practice and should not be attempted for the first time unless with the best of friends. The trick is to draw in only a small amount of air by making a straw sized opening in your lips. Aim your head down when doing this – it really helps minimize the chances of choking.

When sipping the wine, there is a progression of mouth feels and flavors from the first sip through the swallow. First impressions indicate the presence of acidity (tingly, saliva producing electric feeling), tannins (cotton mouth, puckering dryness) alcohol (viscosity – closer to water or cream) and sweetness. These four elements are very intertwined – a wine with a lot of sweetness can be masked with higher alcohol content and similarly a very tannic wine is much less notable when offset with lower acidity levels. A wine in which no one element dominates is said to be “balanced”.

With time in your mouth (allowing the wine to warm) the aromas will take center stage. The wines flavor profile, that is to say fruit, earthy, floral, or woody flavors all come into play.

The final stage – the swallow maybe an abrupt end to all sensation, or they may linger for some time – known as the finish. Acidity, tannins, bitterness, and a myriad of smells may all linger for several minutes, serving as a reminder that there is more wine to taste!

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