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Wine Reviews: How to taste wine
by: Vino Joe (e-mail
Pg 1 of 1

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You may have been to a wine tasting or restaurant and witnessed a "geek scene." This is where a group of dorks are twirling their glasses, shoving their noses to the bottom of their glasses, and commenting to each other how the wine is so amazingly "tight" and "austere." You may wonder just what the heck they're talking about, and wouldn't the wine taste a lot better in their mouths than in their nostrils? 

Hopefully you'll never reach the bottom of geekdom, nor the height of snobbery, but by applying and training your senses, you could find yourself somewhere in between, and enjoying a whole new experience.

The first step to wine enjoyment is to realize that you know nothing about wine, and you shouldn't be intimidated by it. Why not? Because 99.9% of the geeks know only a teeny-weeny bit more than you, and if they know any more than that, they probably have no life at all. Even the most studious, lifelong connoisseurs of wine don't know even one-tenth of all there is to know, so loosen up and enjoy.

Okay, the intimidation factor is removed (just play along). Now it's time to plunge into the glass. But wait -- full appreciation of wine is going to take some training and some understanding.

Luckily, you already have the skills necessary to be a full-fledged snob. The likely difficulty is that you rarely apply these skills.

Most people eat because they're hungry, and drink because they're thirsty. This habit evolves at a very young age called "infancy." Too often, however, people drink when they're really thirsty, and eat when they're really hungry. Therefore the goal is to get items into their bellies so quickly that they can't remember what it tasted like. This is just a natural process you've been going through since birth- -- your stomach is empty, you cry, someone feeds you, your tummy feels better, you feel good. The trick is to evolve beyond this primal consumption cycle and actually taste what goes past your teeth.

All right, I'm exaggerating, but not by much. The point is that most of the time, most people taste some of what they're consuming, but not all of it. Delicate flavors, textures, spices and other nuances are often unnoticed in the rush to get sustenance from lips to belly. As a result, only the strong survive -- strong flavors, that is. Salty, spicy and sweet are the most dominant qualities that overpower a meal, and therefore most noticed by your palate. Think about it -- what's everyone's favorite snack? Salty potato chips? Nachos? Salted nuts? Pretzels? The most popular condiments? Salt, pepper and salsa, in that order. The most popular canned soup? Sea-worthy Campbell's, of course. And how do you prefer your chocolate, sweet or bitter? Take a peek at any "juice," iced tea or soda, and I guarantee the first ingredient is corn syrup. Would you rather eat a Twinkie or a brussel sprout? You get the idea.

As you enter the world of wine, you'll find that the majority of fine wines are not salty, sweet or spicy, at least not in the concentrations you're used to. For example, a Gewurztraminer is spicy, but not hot and spicy like Szechuan chicken. And some Pinot Noirs have a "sweet" fruit element, but nothing like the sugar-enhanced "wine coolers" you enjoyed in college. Most of the wonderful characteristics of fine wine are more tempered, or subtle, and it takes one more patience, concentration and detective work to realize these complex yet delicate elements. 

The geeks will tell you that the first step in tasting wine is to look at it. I say, "bullshit." Yes, you can often tell quite a bit about a wine by observing its color intensity, but the color has little or nothing to do with your enjoyment of the wine. The only real reason geeks pay so much attention to the color of wine is because they like to show off and "guess" the vintage of the wine, and they like saying things like, "ooh, look at those legs," or "wow, what a great hue." Besides, Vino Joe is an all-inclusive totalitarian, and I believe that those without sight can enjoy wine just as much as anyone else (if not more).

So let's skip straight to sniffing. First, pour about an ounce or two of wine into the largest-bowled wine glass in the cupboard. Don't worry, we'll fill it to the rim in due course. Holding the stem, gently twirl the glass in a circular motion so that the wine swirls around. It should kind of look like a mini-whirlpool or a Tidy-Bowl commercial. What you're doing is "aerating" the wine so that more of the bouquet and aromas come out. Don't believe me? Then take a sniff before, then after swirling, and see if you don't notice a difference.

Note that white wines should always be swirled clockwise, red wines are always swirled counterclockwise...just kidding. 

If you swirl too vigorously and splatter yourself, don't worry -- white wine takes out red wine stains. To be on the safe side, you may want to practice with white wines until you get the hang of it. (FYI, I think red wine will completely cover a white wine stain.) Before you know it, you'll be swirling like a pro, and find yourself unconsciously swirling your cocktails, coffee, orange juice and Fruit Loops. 

Once you've swirled a bit (it's not a can of paint; just 10-20 seconds of swirling is more than sufficient), stick your nose inside the glass and take a big whiff. The bridge of your nose or forehead should be pressed against the rim. See if you can touch the tip of your nose to the bottom of the glass -- it's a neat party trick, and it may land you on David Letterman someday.

Smell, smell, smell the wine, then swirl it again and smell it some more. Alternate between short, quick sniffs and long, huge whiffs. Decide which technique is best for you, and which won't make you fall down. Take note of what you're smelling. Apples, grapefruit, peaches, pears, flowers and general citrus are common in white wines. Red wines might smell of raspberries, cherries, prunes and other red fruits. Also note how powerful the aromas are -- are they faint or "in your face"? 

Why such a fuss over sniffing? Consider this: the tongue can only perceive four flavors: sweet, sour, bitter and salt (c'mon, you learned that in grammar school). However, the nose can detect more than 2,000 scents. You don't realize it, but 90% of what you taste is really a perception derived from your nose. Challenge Vino Joe? Try tasting Bud and Coors, side by side, with a clothespin on your nose. You'll never tell the difference.

Once you've taken a few sniffs and possibly identified a few elements (don't feel bad if you can't distinguish specific aromas, or if all you smell is "wine" -- it took Vino Joe at least two years before he could ascertain the identity of particular components), you can go ahead and take a sip. But try not to swallow right away. Instead, swoosh the wine around your mouth for a while. If you really want to be a geek, open your lips a bit and try sucking in some air with the wine in your mouth (if you're doing it right, you'll make a disgusting sound similar to a sponge stuck in a vacuum cleaner). Similar to when you were swirling, you're aerating the wine, and adding air somehow brings out the flavors. After you've held the wine in your mouth a good 20-30 seconds (or long enough so that it's tiring), swallow or spit. Then take note of how long the wine "stays" in your mouth -- this is the "finish," and perhaps the one characteristic that can tell you about the wine's quality. Notice what you taste and feel in your mouth during the finish; is there much fruit? Acidity? Is the fruit fading? Are tannins coming on stronger? Is your mouth drying out? Are the basic components -- acid, alcohol, fruit and tannin -- all in harmony?

Acid will have a "bite" on your tongue, and it will make your cheeks pucker. Alcohol will feel hot in your mouth (as in burning), and may even taste like, well, alcohol. Tannin will dry the middle and back of your tongue out -- if you're not sure of how to percept tannin, drink a sip of tea without any milk, honey or sugar added; that dried-out feeling is tannin. 

What's all this about feeling? Doesn't wine have any taste? Well of course it does, but you need also to take the time to notice everything you FEEL in a wine as well. In addition to the acid, alcohol and tannin, you should also notice a texture in the wine. It can be unnoticeable, harsh, fizzy, smooth, buttery or even silky. Really good Pinot Noir has an unmistakable silkiness in texture; some Chianti has an almost fizziness to it. These are all characteristics that are involved in the matching of wine with food.

Finally, pay attention to what you're tasting. Do you taste a lot of fruit? Is it sweet fruit? What types of fruits are you tasting? Even though all wines (real wines, anyway) are made from grapes, the wine can exhibit flavors of other fruits. For example, Chardonnay can taste like apples; Moscato like peaches; Syrah like cassis; and Sangiovese like cherries. Often you'll taste a combination of different fruits, and sometimes vegetables, and often other elements like minerals or herbs. It's fun to try to describe what fruits you're tasting (or really frustrating!), especially when you're tasting with others. More importantly, though, is to notice the power of the fruit in the wine; that is, how concentrated it is, and how well it stands up to the other elements (acid, alcohol and tannin). 

A great wine will have a harmonious balance of the components staying in your mouth for minutes after you've swallowed (or spat) the wine. Some wines will show a long length of sweet fruit through the finish, but not much acid or alcohol. Some wines may be all acid and tannin, drying out your mouth for minutes on end, but not have any fruit. Many Chardonnays from California and Australia will leave a strong flavor of oak in your mouth for five minutes -- but none of these are examples of a truly great wine. Great wines have a balance of all elements in the finish. Don't worry if you feel you haven't experienced a great wine; they're very rare and very expensive. But when you have one in your mouth, you'll know it and appreciate it.

This does not mean you can't enjoy less than great wines. The key is to understand what makes a great wine and to learn what elements YOU enjoy most in a wine, as well as what elements match well with particular foods. For example, a fresh, young Sauvignon Blanc will have herbal, grassy flavors and a searing acidity that cuts through the buttery white sauce of, say, a seafood Newburg. On the other hand, that same wine may be awful with cheesecake -- a wine with more sweetness, like a Passito or Port, would be much better. Likewise, a big, bold, tannic California Cabernet may be perfect to drink with a blackened London broil steak, but those same characteristics (tannin, alcohol) make it too overpowering and unenjoyable with a simple spaghetti with marinara dish (try an acidic, less tannic red wine like Chianti or Barbera). Once you learn to perceive the different characteristics in wine, you're on your way to further enjoyment of not only wine, but your food as well. It all begins with learning how to taste and smell and feel wine. Enjoy! 

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For even more info on wine, visit our Vices Web Guide!

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