Working behind the bar at a winery I come in contact with a lot of different people, all with varying levels of wine knowledge. I already discussed in a recent post the misconceptions a lot of people have about what actually goes into wine, but some of most common questions that we get from people is what to actually do at a wine tasting.
Let’s face it; wine tasting is the new cool thing. Maybe it’s a fad, maybe it’s a wine revolution but whatever the reasons thousands of people, across all generations, who never knew much about wine before, are going wine tasting. Most of these people are genuinely interested in the wine, in the culture, and most of all in knowing they are doing it right. Or at the very least not looking like an idiot or obviously out of their element. And to be totally honest I can absolutely see how trying to dive into the wine world can be incredibly intimidating if everything about it is foreign to you. I was lucky enough to grow up in a wine obsessed family and benefit from years of training, experience, and pretty much complete immersion in wine culture well before I was at the legal drinking age. Most people don’t get that; most people don’t grow up with parents that make wine, and analyze it, and pair it with their meals. And for those people whom didn’t I can absolutely see how it would be overwhelming to walk into a tasting room and basically have no idea what to do.
So here are the basics. Wine tasting doesn’t have to be pretentious, it doesn’t have to be formal or awkward, it should always be fun and a way to explore new wines. There are some tried and true industry standards, steps that you follow when tasting the wines. But before we get to those here are my tips:
You’re allowed to share. Typically a tasting flight is between 5 -6 wines and you get about an ounce to an ounce and half pour of each wine. That works out to about a glasses worth of wine for every tasting, if not more. You can share it, you get one glass you each get a little taste and you have considerably less of a buzz if you are trying to hit more than one tasting room in an afternoon.
You’re allowed to dump. On every tasting bar there is a dump bucket. It is not rude to use it. You can take your few sips of the wine, get the taste, the flavor, and the nuances and then dump out the rest and move on. Kind of goes along the lines of the whole sharing thing, the point of wine tasting is not to get drunk but actually, you know, taste.
Don’t dismiss it just because you think you wont like it. So many people come in and try and re-arrange the tasting list so they can only taste the wines they already know they like. But then really what is the point of tasting, if you already know you like Cabernet then just get a glass. The point of tasting is to try something new and find something else that you might like. Not to mention there are many, many different styles of the same wines; just because you didn’t care for one Chardonnay that you tried doesn’t mean they are all the same or that you can’t find one you like a lot better.
Don’t rinse with water. Almost no tasting room is going to give you a new, fresh glass for every taste of wine you get. Tasting flights are specifically designed to go from lighter wines to heavier wines for a reason. That little drop of wine left in your glass will not alter the flavor of the next wine in the lineup. But people get paranoid; they think that mixing that small amount of the pervious wine with the next one will perceptibly alter their wine. So instead of leaving that little bit of wine, they rinse their glass out with water. But that water is what is actually going to change the flavor of the wine. At best you are going to dilute the wine, at worst you are going to change its flavor because of the chemicals and other minerals in the water. If you have to rinse you always, always rinse with wine.
Do not be afraid to ask questions. No one can know everything; I still get customers asking me questions I don’t know the answer to. But a good tasting room staff will be more than happy to help fill you in on the basics and if you don’t know something you are never going to learn if you don’t speak up.
So while you are mastering all this what should you actually be doing with your wine? Here are the basic steps:
Smell it. Before you do anything else, don’t even get your fancy swirl going or anything. Aroma is just as important to wine as taste and if you swirl it first you will miss out on some of the more delicate aromas that float just on the surface of the wine.
Now you can swirl it. Swirling the wine adds oxygen, which brings out the flavors and those more intense aromas.
Then you smell it again. These are more intense aromas that the swirling brings out and which ultimately over power any of the more delicate flavor notes you would have gotten off the nose in the beginning.
Now you can taste it. And then taste it again. The first taste never ever counts. It’s a way to acclimate your palate and clear out any flavors that may have been lingering. The second taste is what the wine actually tastes like. And just like the oxygen contact when swirling the wine helped to bring out the aromas, swirling the wine in your mouth will also do that, and help coat your palate. To do that you want to pull some air in through your teeth while the wine is still in your mouth. It will most definitely seem awkward at first but once you get the hang of it its pretty easy.
Then you swallow…or spit. Age old question right. Either way you want to judge the aftertaste of the wine, any new flavors that come out, and how long the finish lasts.
That’s it. Find new wines, discover old favorites, and learn about different styles and different philosophies. And hey, pro tip, if you tip a bartender for pouring you a beer and you tip a waitress for bringing you your food, you should probably also tip the staff at the tasting room that just walked you through a tasting, educated you about their wines, and answered all of your questions.