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Wine 101 part I


Today, instead of reviewing a wine and giving some background info about that particular wine or style, I thought I would start an ongoing series of posts to introduce concepts of wine to those who don’t already know what it’s all about.

To start, let’s discuss the 5 S’s of wine tasting: See, Swirl, Smell, Sip and Spit.

Wine (and all food for that matter) is something that uses nearly all your senses to enjoy at the deepest levels.

First, let’s look at how wine and sight meet up. After you pour your wine into a glass (note: despite what you see in restaurants and at kiddush, you should never fill up your wine glass all the way to the top. Just fill it up to the widest point of your glass), simply look at the wine. The visual effects of the wine can tell you a lot about it without tasting or smelling.

What can you tell about the color? Red wines lose color as they age, while white wines gain color as they age. So, without even looking at the bottle to find the vintage (and to calculate the age of the wine therein), you can look at a red and if it is intensely colored, you can generally assume that it is a younger wine (say, 4 years from vintage or less). The more brick-red color it gets, the older the wine is.

The opposite is true in whites. Younger whites tend to be paler and almost clear in color, while older whites take on a more golden hue.

Again, the purpose of wine (and dining for that matter) is to please the senses. So take a minute and reflect on the artistry (selecting the percentages of different grapes to blend together, the amount of time it took to age the wine properly at the winery, etc.) and see how the finished product is pleasing to the eye.
Checking out the legs
Swirl the wine around in your glass for a second and then look at the droplets of wine that cling to the side. These are called legs. Generally speaking, the wider the legs, the higher the alcohol content. Additionally, if the droplets are moving down the glass more slowly than you would expect, that suggests that there is a significant amount of sugar in the wine as well (sweet! Literally.)

Swirl
Now, swirl your glass again, for maybe 10-20 seconds. The goal is to aerosolize some of the compounds in the wine itself. This will help with the next few steps.On a more aesthetic note, you just look cool swirling wine in a glass. 

Smell
Part one of the moment you’ve been waiting for. Shortly after givng your wine a good long swirl (please don’t do this with bubbly…you’ll make your wine flat), stick your nose in the glass (yet ANOTHER reason not to fill the glass to the top). Inhale deeply. What do you notice? Each grape has distinctive characteristics that will let you know of its presence in the glass.

For example, Cabernet Sauvignon (perhaps one of the world’s greatest hybrid grapes) characteristically has a green pepper note to it, as does Sauvignon Blanc (one of its two parent grapes.) On the other hand, Pinot Grigio tends to have more tropical fruit notes to it. Incidentally, in the Chianti region of Italy, it is law that any wine that wants to be labeled as Chianti must, among other things, have a violet smell to it.

Repeat the swirl and smell as much as you like. As you practice, you will begin to pick up on various other smells that are familiar to you. Particularly with California reds, often you will smell extremely ripe fruits, from strawberries to cherries, blackberries and beyond. Often you will also get spice notes (such as cinnamon, pepper, tobacco) and earthy tones as well (think mushrooms, etc.)

Swirl again to aerosolize more of the compounds to prepare for sipping.

The Sip!
Take a small sip of the wine; enough to be able to coat your tongue, but not so much that you can’t move it around your mouth. Do your taste buds confirm or contradict what you smelled? Often your nose will  tell you one thing and your mouth another. That’s ok! It’s part of the experience.

Some things to ask yourself when sipping: What fruits am I tasting? Tropical? Tree fruits? Berries? Are they under ripe?  Over ripe? Are there any spices I can distinguish? What about earthen tones? How strong are they?

When dealing with red wines, there’s the added component of tannins, the antioxidant that made headlines with “The French Paradox.” It’s the astringent, mouth-puckering sensation you get when drinking reds. Wines like a California Cabernet or Zinfandel will usually have a lot more tannin to them as opposed to many Pinot Noirs, etc.

Finally, and this applies to both reds and whites, what is the mouthfeel of the wine? Heavy bodied? Medium? Light? The best way to think of mouthfeel in this sense is to compare heavy cream (full-bodied) to whole milk (medium-body) to skim milk (light body).

Spit
This is perhaps the least glamorous part of wine tasting, but the plus side is that you only really NEED to do this if you are tasting a whole bunch of wines at once. When I’ve gone to wine tasting events, there have been upwards of 200 wines; now, if each sample is 1 oz, then without spitting I would have consumed 200 oz of wine. Suffice it to say, I doubt I would have been able to walk out of the event on my own two feet. Instead, most of these stations will have a bucket into which you spit your wine.

If you are only having a few wines and/or you’re at a meal, it goes without saying that spitting is discouraged (and unsightly with your guests). But it is a recognized and necessary part of wine tasting when dealing with larger amounts of the fruit of the vine.

So there you have it. Armed with these tools you can go out and taste and appreciate virtually any wine without knowing much about what is on the label. As you taste and experience more wines (and keep reading this blog!) You will be able to identify some telltale characteristics of certain wines and grapes that will help you in understanding more about the geography of the wine’s origin. For, especially in parts of Europe, the geography of the wine is as important as the grape itself.

L’chayim!

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