The idea that any of us needs to learn how to taste seems almost ludicrous. By adulthood, after all, we've had considerable practice.
But does simply having mastered eating and drinking really mean we know how to taste? I would submit that it doesn't. When it comes to wine, if you don't taste and smell correctly, you miss a lot of delicious pleasure in the glass.
Now I admit that wine tasting seems to invite affectation. But wine-snob exhibitions aside, there is a way of tasting that professionals use to maximize a wine's flavors.
Look at the wine. When I first started studying wine 20 years ago, I'd watch the experts examining glasses so intently you'd think there was buried treasure in them. I'd wonder what they could possibly be looking for.
Primarily color, as it turns out. Color is a clue to the wine's age. White wines get darker as they get older. Red wines do just the opposite; they get lighter.
Color is also a clue to the grape variety. Because the pigments of grape skins differ from variety to variety, so do the ultimate colors of the wines. Pinot Noir grapes make brick-colored wine. Gamay is Jell-O red. Zinfandel can be electric purple, Nebbiolo almost black. Observing the color prepares your mind for the sensory experience to come.
Swirl it. Prove to yourself how critical swirling is: Pour the same wine into two glasses. Swirl one glass; don't swirl the other. See which one you can taste better. I guarantee it's the swirled one.
Swirling "opens up" a wine by mixing it with molecules of oxygen, which makes the flavors and aromas more pronounced. Hence, more pleasure. Almost all wines ― whites, reds, rosés ― should be swirled before you taste them. The only exceptions are sparkling wines and Champagnes. Swirling these might cause the bubbles to go flat, and the bubbles themselves, rising in the tall, thin flute, help open up the wine.
Smell it. Some chemists have suggested that wine is a virtually tasteless liquid that happens to be deeply fragrant. Whether that's true or not, smelling a wine is critical to tasting it. The highly exposed receptor nerve cells in your nose, which absorb every aroma molecule you breathe in, flash information to the olfactory bulb of the brain. If you do not smell a wine, very little information about it goes to your brain.
How do you smell correctly? Get your nose into the glass near the liquid, then take a series of short, quick sniffs. Nothing is achieved by holding your nose 2 inches above the glass and taking one polite whiff. Since the nose fatigues quickly, try to assess the aromas immediately.
Taste it. A wine's "taste" is made up of body, mouth-feel, and flavor.
The body of a wine is its weight in the mouth. Wines can be light-, medium-, or full-bodied, depending on alcohol content (the more alcohol, the fuller the body). A light-bodied wine, like skim milk, slides easily down your throat. A medium-bodied wine has more viscosity, like whole milk. A full-bodied wine seems to coat your palate, like half-and-half.
A wine's mouth-feel is its texture, or the tactile impression it leaves. Fabrics are often used as metaphors. Wines can be as smooth as silk, as scratchy as wool, or as soft as flannel.
And finally, there's flavor, perceived by taste buds ― groups of receptor cells clustered together on your tongue. They can pick up a seemingly infinite number of wine flavors: apples, butterscotch, olives, blackberries, mushrooms ― you name it.
The single most important aspect of tasting, however, is simply this: You must hold the wine in your mouth long enough to register an impression ― a few seconds, at least. And with great wines, the flavors have an almost magical ability to last and last, even after you've swallowed. This is called a "long finish," and it's one of the most seductive attributes a wine can possess.
A MINI WINE COURSE
Compare the pairs. In the "finish" category, which do you think has the longer?
Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling 1997 (America), $9. A super-crisp Riesling, so light-bodied it's almost sheer.
St. Francis "Old Vine" Zinfandel 1997 (Sonoma County), $24. Big, exuberant, jamlike fruit gives this wine a round, full body.
Covey Run Fumé Blanc 1997 (Washington), $7. Zingy, snappy, and tart, this wine has a thirst-quenching texture.
Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 (Napa Valley), $22. As soft as a blanket, this Cabernet is also packed with juicy red fruits.
Domaine Grand Archer Chardonnay 1997 (Sonoma County), $15. Beautiful balance, with creamy apple-tart flavors and a (you decide) finish.
Grgich Hills Chardonnay 1996 (Napa Valley), $30. The wine equivalent of French vanilla ice cream, with a (you decide) finish.
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier 1998 (Napa Valley), $11. Wonderful rose and apricot aromas; crisp, yet juicy mouth-feel. Great with spicy food.