In wine, just as in life, there are times when you want to drink, and times when you want to taste. The time to drink is when you are at a wedding, funeral, dinner party, picnic, christmas party, alone, with friends for a night out, or at a restaurant where it simply reads "house red- $4.95/glass". These are the times when it doesn't matter what the wine tastes like, so when you try to deconstruct it, you look like a snob. Just drink it. If you don't like it, get a beer.
There are times, however when you really want to taste the wine for what it is. Take for example, wine tastings (I will rant about ettiquette at these later this week), wine and food pairing dinners, clubs, sitting down with a couple of friends to discuss wine specifically, etc. It is nice to have a series of steps to go through, so you can really get the essence of the wine. This takes practice, but is really fun!
I like to break it down into the "5 S's": See, Swirl, Smell, Sip, Savor/State your opinion.
Look at the wine, and notice beyond if it is red or white. What color is it really? Is it more golden than green? Is it more ruby than garnet? Is it darker in the middle than on the rim? Is it cloudy?
This is an instance where a lot of people like to say "wow, look at the legs on this wine", and have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Legs (the drops that form on the inside of the glass) can give you some indication of alcohol or sugar level. They can also simply tell you how good your dishwasher is at cleaning the glasses. No offense, but most of the time, talking about legs makes you look like a novice to the "experts". Just trying to help!
move the wine in a circular motion in your glass. This helps oxygenate the wine, making it smell more, which is important to the next step.
Remember, you only have 5 taste sensations (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami). You have thousands of scent memories. What does the wine smell like? Please don't say "fruity". No kidding (imagine my snarky tone- it's almost as annoying as when someone says "oh, that's different"...different than what?). What type of fruit? Try to get at least three separate fruits out of it. One hint, if you get stuck, red wine almost always has some sort of cherry note, and white wine almost always has an apple note. Now, look for earth/mineral notes- think in terms of grass, damp leaves, pavement after it rains, etc. Next, look for indications of oak- most often, these come in the form of kitchen spices- really look for vanilla, nutmeg, or my favorite Cherry Cola. Finally, look for other stuff- this is where the wine snobs get "cat pee", "tar", "shoe leather", and lots of other unsavory things. My wife is really good at this part.
Another hint- smell things in your kitchen. Seriously- open the spices in your rack, and really take a good whiff. You will be amazed what things come up in a wine that you will recognize!
This is the fun part. Take a good sip, and really swish it around in your mouth before swallowing. If you are at a huge wine tasting, it's okay to spit it into one of the buckets. This is just where you confirm what you smelled in the wine.
Savor OR State your opinion-
you have to make the judgment call here. If everyone else is talking about the wine, than go ahead and state your well thought out opinion. If people are just enjoying the evening, it's not the time to start a diatribe on how this wine isn't as good as the one you drank on your honeymoon, blah, blah, blah. Remember, someone is tasting you on the wine for a reason. It's okay not to like it. It's not okay to make a scene...as I said before, more about ettiquette to come this week.
Now, go out and practice your newly acquired tasting skills on the 2007 Von Hovel Balduin Estate Riesling. I don't want to lead your thoughts on what you are tasting, so feel free to let me know what you thought. This wine should be about $18, and if your local liquor store doesn't have it, they should be able to order it for you.
Cheers, and Go Sox