The following is an abbreviated excerpt from the chapter on wine tasting in Pour Me Another: An Opinionated Guide to Gold Country Wines. (c)2011 David Locicero, all rights reserved.
There is a lot of fuss and bother about wine tasting. The activity is rife with language that most people don’t use. It is portrayed with a seemingly endless list of esoteric nonsense that makes wine tasting seem out of reach of the ordinary wine drinker at best, or pretentious twaddle at worst.
I believe that wine tasting is really a very simple activity that can be as nuanced or as straight forward as you are comfortable with. If you have never partaken in the activity before, this section will give you an idea of what to expect and what is expected of you. I’ll also provide you with an introduction to wine tasting that both beginners and seasoned drinkers can put to use.
Tasting Room Etiquette
There is often a fee associated with tasting, usually between $3 and $10 per person. In Amador and El Dorado counties, only a very few wineries have tasting fees. This is one of the many reasons I prefer Gold Country wineries to those in Napa and Sonoma counties. Pretty much any winery that charges for tastings will waive the fee if you make a purchase.
You will be offered white wines first and then work your way through the offerings from the lightest wines through to the most robust and flavorful. It is okay to say, “I’m only drinking reds today”, or “I’d like to skip the port”. Especially if you are driving, you probably will want to sample only one or two wines at any one place.
If you don’t like the wine so much, or the pour was more than you really needed to get a sense of the wine it is okay not to drink the entire pour. Every winery will have a bucket or container of some sort on the bar where you can pour out the wine. It is completely fine to dump out the excess pour.
Unlike European tasting rooms, spitting out the wine after you’ve tasted it is NOT done here. So don’t look for a spittoon!
Smell the Wine
Once the friendly person behind the bar has poured your taste, give the wine glass a good swirl, clockwise or counter clockwise. The reason you do this is to get some oxygen into the wine. Doing so helps to release the aromas in the wine and will “open up” the flavors, making the flavors more pronounced.
Once you’ve swirled the wine, pick up the glass and put your nose right into the glass and give it a good sniff. The reason to do this is to smell the wine, get to know it. The aroma of a wine is called its “nose”. It is a little know Wine Fact that 8 times out of 10 what you will smell when you put your nose in the glass is wine. That is a shocker, I know! In my experience, the wine for which you can be specific about the constituent aromas, say, “ah, I smell honeysuckle and vanilla” is not common. That percentage will get better the more times you’ve smelled wine.
The person at the counter may suggest that you might get hints of this fruit or that flower. As you smell the wine, see if you can smell those. But if you can’t, don’t worry about it.
Taste the Wine
Now, take a sip. Don’t chug the whole thing, but just take a sip and swish it around in your mouth, or even make a chewing motion. The point of this exercise is to get the wine in your mouth into contact with all the taste buds on your tongue.
We taste different basic flavor characteristics on different parts of our tongues. So by moving the wine around in our mouths on the first sip or two we are able to ensure that we are really tasting everything the wine has to offer.
Another little known Wine Fact is that when you sip on a wine you will taste wine. Similar to the smell of a wine, tasting the constituent flavors of the wine is a skill that comes with time.
Again, the friendly person who poured your taste will often suggest that you will taste hints of several things. You may, or you may not. With California wines you are likely to get either a big blast of fruit on the first taste or an overwhelming sense of dryness. The puckering dryness is caused by tannins. Some people like that, I don’t, but very often a wine will become less tannic with age.
A good balance of fruit and tannin is referred to as “structure”. If a wine has a good “structure”, it usually means that the wine can be held for a longer time in your cellar to be consumed in 5 or 10 or more years.
Occasionally, if the wine has been kept in barrels for more than a year or so, you may also get a flavor akin to sucking on a piece of wood. This is what is known as “oak”. The wooden barrels used to age wines are made out of oak.
In most cases this oak flavor adds to the flavor profile of the wine. Though occasionally, it will have been overdone. I recently had a Cabernet Sauvignon that had spent 2 years in oak barrels. One sip and I thought I might have to pull the splinters out of my tongue!
The flavor of a wine will change over time. It will change from the time it is in the barrel to the time it gets bottled. A 2010 wine will taste different in 2011 than it will in 2013 and it will continue to change as it ages and you taste it again in 2018 or 2022.
The wine will taste different when you first open the bottle than it will an hour later. Sometimes the wine will improve the longer it has been open, other times it will lose something over time. The changes may be subtle or extreme. There is really no way of knowing. And that is what is so endlessly fascinating about wine tasting.
Developing Your Palate
As you drink wine you will find that you like some wines and don’t like others. Everybody’s palate is different. I happen to like robust reds, like Zinfandels and Bordeaux blends. Others like lighter reds like San Giovese or Merlots.
The longer you taste wines and the more different kinds of wines you taste, the more you will both get to know your palate and the more educated your palate will become. Twenty years ago, I laughed at those people who were sniffing wines and yammering on about the constituent flavors of wines. I thought they were a bunch of pretentious idiots.
Well, I was half right. They were being pretentious. But they weren’t idiots. I have learned the skills they knew and have entered their realm. You can, too. My palate has been educated and I know what I like. The more we taste, the more we can taste with every wine. It’s great.