see, sniff, slurp, and spit - the fine art of wine tasting

since this blog is about wine, the "s-sses" we concern ourselves with here are not, unfortunately, sea, sex, and sun....

indeed, the fine art of wine tasting involves 4 skills of outmost importance: to see, to sniff, to slurp, and to spit and i would like to expand on my last post on the subject if you do not mind.

as i mentioned previously, i consider wine tasting an intellectual activity. and so, from the head flows a logical sequence of activity to answer the most important question of all: will i have another glass?

to see - the appearance:

a very important skill and too often "overlooked".  indeed, the appearance of the wine can give us many clues as we have seen previously.  but it is not easy to make a distinction of shades, hues, and intensity, especially with white wine.  that we have to look at here are 2 very important aspects: the core and the rim. for the best point of view, fill the glass to about 1/3 full and tilt it at a 45 degree angle and look at it from above at about 30 cm below your eye level.  there you can focus on those 2 aspects: the core will be darker than the rim and will tell about about its intensity.  if the wine is concentrated and rich, the colour will be deeper/darker accordingly.  the rim will tell you clues about it's state of evolution.  for a red, the wider and lighter it is from it's core, the more evolve it will be.  the rim of a white will have tints and reflections and it will be mostly watery.  the viscosity of the wine will show as "legs" or "tears" and as we saw earlier, the more alcoholic or sweet the wine is, the more "leggy" it will be.  that is mainly from the evaporation of the alcohol which brakes the surface tension of the liquid and will thus shrink into tears.

to sniff - the nose:

this is a super important yet very neglected skill.  in fact, the sense of smell is absolutely key to tasting anything.  without it, anything will taste nothing at all.  it is important that one goes about this slowly and lightly at first.  a big sniff of a faulty wine might cause a strong reaction and you may not be able to smell anything for the rest of the evening.  so, it is better to take a gentle sniff first to verify that the wine is clean and once this is confirmed, to take fairly deep but somewhat short inhalations while closing your eyes if you do not feel too self-conscious.  pros will take their first few sniffs while the wine is totally still to detect the more subtle aromas.  then, they will gently shake or swirl the glass to break the wine surface tension and let the aromas evaporate and come into contact with oxygen. after a few more sniffs, try to focus on the primary and secondary aromas first as they will reveal important clues about the grape variety, the origin of the wine, and the wine making techniques.  if the wine was matured in tanks or barrels and if it has spent some time in the bottle, the wine will develop particular tertiary aromas and the fruit will have lost its freshness somewhat.  tertiary aromas gives you the clues on how the wine was aged and how long it has spent in the bottle.  you can refer to my guide here (pdf) which provides a list of possible aromas among these 3 groups.  it is not easy to put words to aromatic sensations because we have lost much of the skill in our modern lifestyle.  but with a little bit of practice and attention to what fruits, flowers, and foods smell like, you will slowly build a memory bank and develop more automatic recognition.

to slurp - the palate:

firstly, it is not necessary to take big sips.  only enough to cover the tongue and be able to slurp.  indeed, for a wine taster, slurping is a very important skill because it allows you to draw aromas and direct them retro-nasally towards the olfactory bulb of the brain.  that is via the channel that link your throat with your nose.  to do this, keep the wine in your mouth and gently purse your lips so that your mouth opens just a touch.  then suck a little bit of air through so that it comes into contact with the wine inside your mouth and let the aromas travel.  many new sensations will be perceived here because the warmth inside the mouth will enable the heavier aromas to evaporate more easily. 

every books i read on wine tasting describe in some form or other the concept of the tongue map in which humans are supposedly more sensitive to certain tastes in various areas of the tongue.  however, i have also read in other reports that this concept is not valid and in fact the human tongue can generally feel all tastes anywhere on the tongue.  what is important is to practice and concentrate where you feel sensations.  the best method to do this is take a glass of water, add sugar in it and taste it until you have isolated where on your tongue you are sensitive to sweetness.  then, you can take various glasses of water with various levels of sweetness to practice your sensitivity to sugar.  once you have done this, you can repeat the exercise with various solutions: vinegar or tartaric acid for acidity, quinine sulfate or grape tannins for bitterness, salt, ethyl alcohol 95%.  these exercises are highly recommended and they work wonder to calibrate your sense of taste.

the wine on the palate will also give you physical sensations.  especially about its acidity which is normally felt on a the sides of the mouth and makes your tongue water all over, and its tannins which give you a sensation of dryness all over and makes you feel as if your tongue is furry and even sometimes sandy.    alcohol will make your throat feel hot.

to spit - the length:

yes, to spit.  there is nothing disgusting about it.  in fact, this is another fine skill any taster should develop.  very simply because tasting many wines requires concentration and a state of inebriation does not make one very concentrated.  besides, i am in favour of capital punishment only for drunk drivers who kill innocent pedestrian or cyclists.  to drink and drive is in my opinion a crime equal to murder and should be treated as such.

editorial comment aside, to spit is not only important but also easy to do.  you concentrate the liquid on the tongue, purse your lips and firmly, with a gentle blow while pushing with your tongue, eject the liquid, preferably in a spitter (and certainly away from my shoes).  try practising in your shower instead of singing, you will find the experience liberating.

and so, just after spitting, you will focus on the aromatic persistence.  that is how much and how long the taste of the wines, the aromas, remain on your tongue. these are measured in seconds, called "caudalies"in wine-speak. that is a very important aspect of the quality of a wine.  if it is short (0-3 seconds), the wine is acceptable at best.  a fine wine will last seconds and seconds, if not minutes and minutes.  it might even generate new sensations, either in waves or as a "time bomb" where it will almost disappear to finally come back with a vengence.  some tasters describe such sensation as a "peacock tail", when the wine seems to open and expand long after you have spit.  this is in fact the ultimate experience and when you are sure that you have a wine of superb quality.  the acidity and dryness and bitterness of the tannins are not part of the aromatic persistence.  in fact, many cheap wines of no character will try to compensate with sensational acidity on the after-taste to give the inexperienced taster the feeling that much is going on.  however, make no mistake: overpowering acidity and tannins on the after-taste are not signs of quality.

and so, with this recap, you know how to taste like a pro on your way to make many a fine wine discovery.