Saturday, July 10, 2010

Don't Be Intimidated By Wine Tasting!

Modified article also available on Special Edition

You know what drives me nuts? Wine snobs. Don’t let them intimidate you! I once took a wine class from Karen MacNeil, author of the Wine Bible, and she said that the best thing about wine is that learning about it is “purely hedonistic.” Isn’t that charming?

As Americans, I think we sometimes feel like other countries have a sophisticated advantage over us when it comes to wine. We may not drink wine around the family table as children but there’s no reason to feel intimidated and here’s why, as Karen MacNeil implied, drinking wine is fun, so learning about wine should be fun too.

You are probably thinking; “I don’t even know how to discuss what I taste.” You don’t need to be able to describe wine you are drinking in terms of its nuances, complexity or bouquet (nose) right away. I once did a wine tasting with a woman who described a wine as a “picnic in the park.” This wine reminded her of good times with friends; something she might drink on a sunny day or at a barbeque. That was perfect! She probably remembers the pleasant experience of that wine to this day.

Even Karen MacNeil doesn’t simply rely on traditional descriptors. I’ve heard her refer to Sauvignon Blanc as “stiletto heels” while Chardonnay is more “voluptuous like Marilyn Monroe.” Great visuals, don’t you think? You might not have tried Sauvignon Blanc before but from this description you can guess it’s a bit sassy, more challenging that a typical California Chardonnay.

I hope to give you a little information and a lot of courage. Don’t listen to those people who insist that they “only drink big, full bodied reds.” It doesn’t mean they know any more about wine than you. There is a world full of good wines out there – big red to light white to dessert wine. I like what New York wine merchant, William Sokolin, said about good wine, “What is the definition of a good wine? It should start and end with a smile.”

Smiles in place? Let’s start by learning the basics of wine tasting. Learning to taste wine is really just about stepping back and thinking for a moment before half of your glass is gone. Be thoughtful; take time to smell the roses or, in this case, the rosés. For simplicity, I will break down the tasting process into three steps – Sight, Smell and Sip.

Sight: Take a look at the wine in your glass. When you are participating a formal tasting, it is typical to look at wine over a white cloth or mat so that the background doesn’t influence the way the wine looks. Even if you don’t have a white mat handy, take a good look at the wine. How would you describe it? What color is it? Does it sparkle or look cloudy? Does it appear thick/opaque? As you learn a little more about wine, you’ll begin to notice common characteristics that may give hints to its age, style, and varietal.

Now, give it a smell. Don’t swirl yet. Just put your nose into the glass and sniff. Note what smells come to mind. Now, place the glass on a flat surface and give it a vigorous swirl. Smell again. Do you pick up anything different? Maybe it just smells like wine to you? That’s fine. As you practice you’ll start to identify different fragrances. Maybe you’ll find that a wine reminds you of a flower like rose or honeysuckle. Maybe it will remind you of fruit like cherries or apples. You might come across a wine that smells like fresh cut grass, a banana, or even Paas egg dye. Again as you practice this, you’ll begin to notice more. Each time a smell jumps out at you, try to remember it. This is how you’ll build your scent memory – the beginning of the ability to describe wine like the pros.

Okay, okay…it’s time to sip. Does the wine taste the way it smells or is it completely different? Did the wine remind you of anything like a picnic on a sunny day or a chocolate covered-cherry? Sip again and try to let a little air in your mouth before you swallow. Does the air change the flavors? How does the wine feel in your mouth? Does it seem heavy or light? After you swallow, breathe out through your nose. Does the taste of the wine linger?

Now think back on the whole experience: how the wine looked, smelled, and tasted. You’ve just taken your first step toward “professional” wine tasting. The tasting process can be more involved but you’ve got the basics. Now you just need to practice. Sight, Smell, Sip -- that’s really it. Follow the advice of wine expert, Alexis Lichine, "When it comes to wine, I tell people to throw away the vintage charts and invest in a corkscrew. The best way to learn about wine is the drinking."

Do you ever feel overwhelmed or intimidated about wine? Do you have any tips to help other readers?