With the base knowledge you have learned in the past 3 editions of Lusting for Wine, you are now ready to venture out into the world, fair reader, and fall in love with wine all over again. It seems fairly obvious, but the only way to truly learn more about wine is to drink wine. In the same way you can’t perfect an athletic skill without rigorous practice, you cannot truly appreciate wine or become wine-smart without spending time wine tasting at a winery. Very few people are born with a palate strong enough to fully appreciate the subtlety in great wine. This has to be developed over time with multiple wine tasting experiences. So with that in mind, here are some simple rules (guidelines) for getting the most out of your wine tasting experience.
Part 4: Rules for wine tasting
Rule #1: You do not talk about wine tasting.
Just kidding. Couldn’t resist.
Rule #1: There are no rules. Don’t buy into the hoity toity crap reputation that surrounds wine tasting. Yeah, I said it. Wine tasting is fun. You know why? Because you get to drink. Wine. A lot of it. Whatever snobby reputation wine tasting used to have is going out the window. Wine tasting isn’t for wine snobs. Screw those guys. Wine tasting is for everyone. It’s like a fun and inexpensive treasure hunt where instead of finding gold at the end, you find delicious wine. And then drink it. When you are out wine tasting remember that the goal is to have fun and discover new experiences. There are no rules.
Rule #2: Make wine tasting a complete experience. Millennials get it. Millennials don’t buy products, they buy experiences. Wine tasting isn’t just about the wine. It’s about the adventure. Pack a picnic, load up your friends, and head out to wine country. Chances are, the wineries you will experience will be in some very beautiful locations in quiet tucked away corners. Take in the views. Wineries and vineyards are some of the only agricultural businesses where you can explore the property at-will and make yourself right at home. Most wineries play up this aspect. They feel like quiet little cottages. This is why so many people get married at wineries. Some even have bocci ball or volleyball courts for anyone to use. Taste some new wine, buy a bottle you like, then spread out your picnic and relax the day away with friends.
Rule #3: Plan ahead and stay safe. There are ways to do wine tasting right. When you are in wine country, find a map of the local wineries either in your hotel or online. Take suggestions from locals (the best way is to go out to a nice dinner your first night in town and ask your server or bartender for winery recommendations). Once you have planned the wineries you want to taste, literally map them out, as in find them on a map and plot your route. You do this for two reasons: one, many wineries are tiny little cottages in the middle of nowhere and are often difficult to find. Some will require you to look for an extremely tiny sign pointing to a dirt road that you have to travel on for 2 miles before you get the goods. This is where the treasure hunt aspect comes in. Finding hidden wineries is one of the most exciting aspects of wine tasting. Second, if you are driving yourselves ALWAYS designate a sober driver. If you must all participate in tasting, start with the winery furthest away from your lodging and then work your way back, so you are closest to home at the end of your day; however, Lust for Cooking always recommends designating a sober driver or getting a cab. Wine country will also often feature wine tasting tours or drivers for hire.
Rule #4: Learn the proper way to taste. Not for snobbery, but because if you follow the correct sequence you will get the most out of each wine you taste and will make a more informed decision on which bottle to purchase. Don’t worry, it’s not complicated. When you arrive in the tasting room the staff will hand you a menu listing everything they have available to taste. Typically you will pay around $10 for 5 tastes although this will vary. Most wineries will comp your tasting if you buy a bottle after, but don’t demand this. Tastings will come in flights which just means the group of wines the tasting room has paired together in a certain order. Flights will always go in order from white to red and light bodied to full bodied. Some will end with a fortified wine like port. This is because when you are tasting multiple different wines together you run the risk of destroying your palate by tasting a heavy wine first. They will also likely have bland crackers out for this reason. Take a bite of cracker after each taste to restore your palate. Tastes will be 2 oz.
- Examine the wine’s color and appearance. Young wines will look more watery especially around the edges. High quality wines will have vibrant colors, whereas wines past their prime will be dull and murky. If you tilt your glass a ways and then stand it back up straight you may notice clear streaks running down the sides. These are called legs. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t mean anything.
- Stick your nose in the glass. Go ahead, do it. Wine glasses tilt inwards at the top to control the release of gasses from the wine. You can’t really get a sense of the aroma from outside the glass, and tasting glasses will typically be large enough to accommodate your face. So stick your nose in and take a big whiff. Try to describe to yourself what the wine smells like. Swirl the wine around quickly in your glass to add more oxygen, then smell again. Notice if anything has changed.
- Taste the damn thing. Take a sip. Describe to yourself what it tastes like. Different flavors that pop up are called notes. Notes indicate the complexity of the wine and will vary person to person depending on what your brain experiences. Winemakers don’t manipulate tasting notes; they don’t add in strawberry juice to make the wine taste like strawberries, (or snozberries), etc. There are no right notes, but often multiple people will taste the same thing in a strong complex wine. Take another sip and swirl the wine to every corner of your mouth. See if the flavor expands.
- Swallow. Or don’t. There are no rules. I like the full experience so I almost always swallow each taste. But if you are the sober driver, or you are reaching your limit, go ahead and spit the wine out in the spittoons on the counter. Then dump out any excess wine in your glass that you don’t want in the spittoon.
Rule #5: Learn some terminology. Each wine will have different characteristics on a scale that you can judge by tasting. There are four big ones to look out for:
Acidity: PH level of the wine. More acid will cause a pucker effect like sucking on a lemon.
Tannins: Red wine gets red from the winemaker leaving grape seeds and skins in the juice during fermentation. The chemicals released from this process are called tannins which make the wine a darker red the longer it sits. Highly tannic wine will make your mouth dry.
Body: Also called mouth-feel. This is the degree to which the wine feels like water or syrup in your mouth. Fuller bodied wines linger longer.
Sweetness: As mentioned earlier, wine is made by fermenting grape juice with yeast to turn sugar into alcohol. Wines with more alcohol will be dry (not sweet) because the yeast ate all the sugar. To make a sweet wine, the winemaker will chill the wine at the right moment to cut off fermentation before the yeast is finished. This will leave some sugar behind. Try not to confuse a fruity tasting wine with a sweet wine. Dry wines will often have a sweet fruity taste, but that doesn’t mean there is actual residual sugar. Experience will help you tell the difference.
Rule #6: Have a life changing moment. Always remember the point of wine tasting: to drink a wine you have never tasted before right from the source. Wine tasting is designed to expand your knowledge of a winery you are familiar with, or expose you to a winery and to wine you never thought possible. Every mind blowing experience I have ever had with wine has been at a winery. Always take a winemaker’s recommendation and don’t be shy about exploring wine through all your senses. The sensuality of wine is most perfected when you can talk to the person that made it, see where it is made, and drink it while enjoying a sunset holding hands with the person(s) you love. There may be nothing better in life.