One of the most delightful aspects of wines is that it is very sensual, in both arousing and sensory ways.
Leaving the arousal part of the equation to your memory or imagination – and if you haven’t experienced romance with wine, you’re missing something sublime – wine also has the ability to tickle the senses in ways no other beverages can.
This first segment of a two-part article will look at the most obvious senses associated with wine: taste and smell.
The human sense most engaged when drinking wine is taste and when you first start drinking wine, there are two major taste differences – sweet or non-sweet, the latter of which is known as “dry” in wine terms.
Just like kids normally like candy more than they like vegetables, the first wines people generally like are sweet. But just as most kids eventually learn to like or even love vegetables, the wine drinkers’ taste preferences usually evolve toward dry wines.
Discerning the taste of dry wines is more challenging and ultimately takes practice, and, if you really want to be good at it, some learning.
“It tastes like fermented grape juice,” a novice wine drinker might say might say of a Pinot Noir from Oregon.
“It has flavors of red cherries and baked blueberries, with undercurrents of dried porcini mushrooms and chocolate,” a seasoned wine aficionado might conclude about the same wine.
Most people’s palates are somewhere in between those two extremes, and as you drink more and different wines, you will be able to recognize flavors in wines that you weren’t able to identify before. The learning process often involves being around wine drinkers who are ahead of you on the learning curve and usually goes something like this:
Long-time wine drinker: This California Chardonnay tastes like buttered popcorn.
You: You know, I never thought of that, but it really does. I hate buttered popcorn so maybe that’s why I hate this wine.
Long-time wine drinker: This Argentinian Malbec has flavors of tarry ripe plums with a sweet tobacco finish.
You: Yes, I taste that now that you mention it. I thought there was something wrong with the wine. Are you saying it’s supposed to taste this way?
How you taste wine actually impacts what you taste. Many wine professionals like to slurp their wine (they call it “aspirating,” but there’s no mistaking the sound it makes) by sucking air into their mouths while they’re taking a sip. Smelling is essential to tasting and addition of air in the mouth with the wine allows the aromas to reach your nasal cavity and olfactory receptors more easily.
One less annoying method of achieving the same result is to gently chew your wine as if it were food, keeping your mouth slightly open. This not only allows air to mingle with the wine, but it also helps spread the wine throughout your mouth, allowing it to hit all the taste receptors on the tongue.
There is an accepted sequence of flavor perception experienced when tasting wine. The first part, sometimes called the “attack,” is where you immediately pick up sweetness, tartness (or acidity), bitterness, tannins and alcohol content.
The second phase is often called the mid-palate, which occurs when you allow the wine to linger in your mouth a moment. This is when you’ll be able to discern specific flavors, especially if you’re allowing some air into your mouth at the same time.
The final phase is called the finish, which is the aftertaste left in your mouth after you’ve swallowed the wine. Sometimes the finish of a wine is only a couple of seconds, but in some high-quality wines, the finish can last a delightful 30 seconds or even more. Of course, if the finish is coming from a wine fault – like being “corked” – then the long finish won’t be so delightful and you might want to reach for a piece of cheese and some water to flush it away.
If you drink wine or are around people who do, you’ve no doubt either seen someone swirling the wine in their glass or you’ve done it yourself. It’s what wine drinkers do. Swirling serves a couple of purposes, one of which is to help aerate the wine, which has been cooped up in a bottle like a genie, sometimes for many years.
During its time in the bottle, a wine goes through chemical processes that change it and, depending on the wine and how long it is aged, sometimes for the better or sometimes for the worse. In either case, that natural chemical evolution can produce unpleasant aromas trapped in the bottle.
Swirling your wine increases the amount of wine that is exposed to air, not only helping to blow off any unpleasant aromas, but allowing the pleasant ones to emerge.
The sense of smell is essential to taste, but it’s also an important part of enjoying wine before it enters your mouth because it is through smelling that wines really express their nature. If you’ve ever wondered how the expert wine critics determine if a young wine is going to evolve into a great wine five or 10 years down the road, a lot of it has to do with the wine’s aromas (although structure and finish play key roles as well).
There’s a symphony of sensations when wine goes in the mouth and depending on the wine, that symphony can include flavors, smokiness, acidity, tannins, texture, temperature, alcohol content, carbonation and aroma. It can be hard to distinguish precise flavors with all that going on at one time, especially if you’re drinking wine while eating, which adds even more variables. Smelling a wine is a much more concise way of discerning the characteristics of a wine because there’s really only one variable – aroma – although alcohol content can impact the sense of smell in wines with very high alcohol by volume levels.
There are several different ways to smell wine, but almost all of them start with swirling in the glass. Some people swirl to the left, some people swirl to the right and either is fine; just try not to swirl so hard that you swirl onto your shirt, blouse or dress.
The pros swirl with the glass in their hand raised in the air, but that takes a little practice. It’s fine, and much easier, to swirl with the base of the glass on a table or another hard surface.
One you’ve swirled, raise the glass to about six or eight inches away from your nose and see if you can smell anything. Whatever you smell from that distance would be the primary aroma of the wine. Swirl again and then raise the glass to your nose, putting your nose in the glass near the rim closest to you. Inhale, and try to identify the aromas. Inhale again, this time keeping your mouth slightly open while you do and see if you can smell anything different.
Some wine aficionados like to smell three places of a glass: the near rim, the middle and the far rim, however, be warned that if you stick your nose in and against the far rim of the glass, you’ll likely look like an idiot to all but the most seasoned of wine tasters, so only use this technique when you’re alone or in the safe company of connoisseurs.