Wednesday, January 26, 2011

For Real, A Great Total Sensory Journey

Wine tasting can be a wonderful experience but it ain't a pretty sight. Photo by Christina Snyder.


a slob. That’s right. Truly tasting wine will have you making all sorts of noises, sticking your nose into a glass, slurping, almost gurgling, and basically looking like a pig.

Prissily sampling wine with pinkies up is pure affectation. Those in the know dispense with such airs. The more you get down and dirty with wine, the fuller your tasting will be.

Real tasting is a five-sense adventure. Wine is a total upper-body experience. (Perhaps getting up to find another bottle might require your entire body, but it would be a stretch to call that exercise.)

So, grab a glass of wine, preferably straight from a freshly opened bottle or box (yes, Virginia, there are good boxed wines), and be prepared for a great total sensory journey.

Looking at a wine’s color will reveal a lot about the intensity of its flavor. The deeper the color, the heartier it tends to be. Take a look at a pinot grigio and then take a look at a chardonnay. Chardonnays tend to be heartier, richer in flavor. But a wide range of color exists within a grape varietal (such as a chardonnay). The clue of color becomes even more pronounced with red wines. Use a white napkin or paper towel as a backdrop to see the depth of color. If it’s a deep, almost blackish purple such as a cabernet sauvignon, buckle your seatbelt – it’s going to be quite a ride.

Now we’re almost ready to taste it. Stick your nose in the glass. That’s right. Don’t worry about looking silly. Just get your nose in there. Inhale deeply. Feel the intake of air along the back of the throat. That’s how deeply to inhale. Some people hold their breath for a second or two, some don’t.

What impressions do you get? Does the aroma – the wine’s bouquet or “nose”– suggest anything? If it simply smells like wine, OK. But if some other ideas come up just note them. Some people might be reminded of fruits or spices, but the goal is to find how you smell wines. They are your impressions of a wine, a tag for your brain to remember this particular grape or bottle (or box!). Have fun.

Fair warning: Be prepared to sneeze, wince, or even gasp upon smelling wine deeply for the first time. Don’t get discouraged, though. Stick your nose back in and try again. Or, if the wine’s nose is too intense, then pull back a bit, holding the glass about an inch away from your nose, and savor the bouquet without getting clubbed over the head.

Second fair warning:
Smelling a wine (or the cork) can also forestall a load of trouble later. Ever have a wine that just tasted “off”: a bit vinegary, moldy, or just plain old? No? Trust me: skip this experience. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Believe me. No need to start inventing schemes from the shock of it all, such as spitting wine into nearby plants. Rather, start by becoming familiar with various wine bouquets, and after time, a “bad one” will announce itself before directly insulting your tastebuds.

The color of a wine says more about it than what meets the eye. Photo by Benjamin Miller.

Now, here comes the fun part – the heart of the tasting. And when I mean fun, I mean you haven’t had this much raucous delight relishing a drink since blowing bubbles in lunchroom milk cartons!

To spit or not to spit? That is the question.
Yes, spitting is allowed in wine tasting. It’s best not to spit on other people, but there is spitting. Spitting is actually recommended when sampling several wines, or else everyone would be so blotto at the end of it all, no one would remember which wine is which. Spitting prevents tasters from getting drunk. Furthermore, if you don’t drink everything poured into your glass, your palate can distinguish between wines more clearly. That’s why buckets or cute little dolled up urns sit on the bar at vineyards. Make no mistake, they’re spittoons.

If there are no more than three or four wines are on the tasting menu (and you’ve passed the car keys on to your driving teenager), then feel free to refrain from spitting. For the record: I spit.

Tongue roll, please …
Remember in that long-ago biology class when the teacher gabbed about genetics and fruit flies? It’s true, fruit flies love wine, but let’s ignore that point. What I’m talking about is the tongue roll. A specific gene is the reason that some people can curl the edges of their tongues into a modified rigatoni. Without using any fingers, try to curl your tongue. If you can, you have a wonderful built-in wine-tasting tool. No lie.

Take a tiny taste in your mouth. Roll the wine forward so that it touches the tip of your tongue. Notice anything? Any impressions? Maybe, maybe not. Then do the tongue – rigatoni roll and slurp. That’s right. Slurp. Open your mouth a wee bit, suck in some air, and listen. Correct, that’s a slurping sound. (Even better than blowing bubbles in milk.) Sure, it looks absolutely ridiculous but this is how wine is aerated. The oxygen reacts with the wine and opens its flavor. The tongue becomes a built-in decanter-for-one, of sorts. After slurping, roll the wine gently to the back of your mouth. Back there the tongue detects different flavors than in the front of the mouth. Spit or don’t. Whatever suits you. But empty your mouth for now.

Allow a few seconds for the tastebuds to connect with the neurons in your brain (yes, more bio). What impressions bubble up now, if any?

What? That’s it? Not quite.

Mega Swish
Take a rather large sip of wine. Now pretend it’s mouthwash. Swish it around, flit it between your teeth, and basically get the entire mouth and a lot of saliva involved. A wine-tongue tango? Anyway, after about five seconds empty your mouth. Wait a few more seconds and allow a few more impressions to surface.

Terms such as light, full-bodied and finish that describe the character of wines become familiar after a few tastings. File photo.

Does the wine taste differently than it did before? Does it seem rather sweet and fruity? Is it not sweet at all (dry) or spicy? Is it something that would toss down easily (light in flavor), or does it seem to stand up and demand attention (hearty, full)? Is there a distinct aftertaste (finish), and is it fleeting or does it stay with you (linger)? These are some of the things that indicate the character of the wine.

These are some of the terms that pop up in wine-tasting notes. With time and several tastings, the terms will become less foreign, possibly even friendly.

Back to Normal
After using most or all of these techniques, the five senses will be completely saturated with this particular wine: looking at it, obliterating the olfactory glands with it, feeling it playfully along the palate, hearing it tumble and slurp, and savoring the distinctive flavors. Now, with all these sensations running around, enjoy a nice simple taste.

Just sip the damned thing. One good sip. The same type of sip people take all the time without thinking about it. So don’t think. Just enjoy.

There’s only one thing left to do: ask yourself if you like it. Like it a lot? Then kick back and smile. Not so much? Truly, you’ve given this particular wine a fair chance.

And at the very least, finding out was as much fun as blowing bubbles in milk.

Next time: A Tale of Two Vineyards/Sonoma, CA.

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