Wine tasting trips can be fun and exciting, especially if the destination is a superior winery located in a renowned wine region such as Napa Valley, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Rioja or any of the New World regions (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina). These trips can also be intimidating given the massive amount of science that gets shared at a wine tasting – chemistry, botany, enology, viticulture, meteorology, soil science, and so much more. Like all disciplines, grape growing and winemaking have their own lexicons and the jargon of the business can be overwhelming to say the least. Next time you go wine tasting with your friends, we want you to stand out from the rest, but in a good way. Go forth armed with these 10 suggestions and leave your friends stunned with your knowledge, sophistication and charm …
- Follow the Five S’s. Yes we know that when you and your friends were in college you gulped the $5 chardonnay down like it was water. You must leave that in the past and from now on you must learn to savor the wine and faithfully follow the Five S’s of wine tasting: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor. Yes, you’re eager to taste the wine, that’s natural. But wine tasting requires a bit of foreplay and you’re just going to have to wait before you get the wine in your mouth.
- Have something interesting to say about the wine. The whole point of the Five S’s is to make observations about the wine. So when you’re in the “See” mode, tell your group what you see, and try to be more descriptive than “it’s white” or “it’s red.” At most wineries you’ll taste both white and red wines and you should pay attention to the different levels of clarity, viscosity, brightness and color. If you’re tasting a Sauvignon Blanc, for example, you’ll be sure to impress if you use “pale straw” as a descriptor. For extra points, you might identify the appearance of green as a secondary color. When you have moved on to the red wines use words like “garnet” and, if you are tasting a very dark wine, “inky.” Okay, once you’ve seen and swirled, it’s time to sniff, the step considered by many sommeliers and wine experts to be the most important part of the wine tasting experience. So stick your nose in that glass and come up with something better than “it smells like alcohol” or “it smells like grape juice.” Yes, there is fruit juice in your glass, but come on, you can do better than that. When tasting white wines, there are some basic flavor profiles that you can build your comments around: citrus, tree fruit, stone fruit, and tropical. Try these phrases on for size: “I’m definitely getting citrus on the nose.” If you want to push it a bit more, get more specific: maybe you’re picking up hints of lemon. The truly ambitious show-off might be so bold as to identify grapefruit …or even pink grapefruit! At a wine tasting for Chardonnay (especially one made in the “French” style) or a Pinot Grigio, identifying citrus is a safe bet. For other whites, the predominant aroma might be apple, pear or one of the stone fruits (peach, apricot, nectarine). Some white wines, including those that have been aged in 100% new oak, will present tropical fruit aromas (pineapple, mango, papaya, banana). In truth, it is not uncommon for a white wine to have aromas of several flavor profiles. You might throw out to the group something like “I’m definitely getting citrus but is anyone getting stone fruit as well?” You can then debate whether it’s more like peach or nectarine, and whether it’s ripe or unripe.
When you move to the red wine part of the tasting you’ll have two basic profiles to choose between: dark fruits (blackberry, plum, blueberry, dark cherry, black raisins, fig) and red fruits (red cherry, raspberry, strawberry, currant, cranberry, pomegranate). When tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec or Tempranillo, stick with the dark fruits: “Lots of blackberry and blueberry on the nose.” Red fruit aromas should be expected with Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo: “I’m picking up a strong cherry aroma.” Of course, fruit is just one of the aroma profiles that a dedicated show-off will need to be able to share with his friends. Red wines have so many secondary aromas that need to be identified; it’s simply not good enough to focus on the fruit. When tasting a wine from the old world, “earth” is always a good bet, or more specific descriptors such as “mushroom” or “forest floor” or “dirt.” There are too many secondary aromas to list here but a brilliant professor from U.C. Davis invented a wine aroma wheel that the dedicated tasting show-off will want to buy or at least study online before going out with friends. Here’s the wheel:
One of the keys to showing off is to not appear to be showing off. This is tricky, we know. Most people fail at this because they act and sound like they are giving a lecture on wine. That’s an amateur move. The professional show-off has a more nonchalant style: all comments and observations will be offered as if talking to himself or herself. “Hmmm, I think I’m getting vanilla and tobacco on the nose.”
3. Oak. When your wine tasting guide tells you that the wine was aged in oak, you must ask “was it new oak or neutral oak?”
4. Fermentation. For white wines, ask if the wine was fermented in stainless steel or oak. When this question has been answered, ask whether the wine went through malolactic fermentation. If the wine guide beat you to it and already told the group that the wine did in fact go through malolactic fermentation, ask “do you know that percent?” Many wines go through the entire malolactic fermentation process (100% malo) but wine makers can and often do mix wine that went through malo with wine that did not to yield a 50% malolactic fermented wine (or higher or lower percentages).
5. Rosè. When tasting this wine, ask your server how long the grapes were “on the skins.”
6. Harvest conditions. Sound very interested in the conditions that existed for the vintage you tasted. Was it a cold or warm year? Lots of rain vs. drought. Did they pick early or late?
7. Terroir. If you get to ask about terroir you’re sure to impress – after all, it’s a French word, and who isn’t impressed with a bit of French? Terroir refers to the place the grapes are grown – the weather, soil, microclimate, elevation, sun exposure, etc. A beginner show-off could start off with a question about soil. Intermediate and advanced show-offs will delve deeper and ask questions about, for example, which way the vineyard faces or what impact the local topography or geography (e.g., mountains, rivers, valleys) has on the vineyards.
8. Farming practices. The discriminating show-off will definitely want to know more about how the grapes are grown and how the vineyards are tended. Does the winery irrigate or are the vineyards dry-farmed? Are the vineyards organic or managed biodynamically? What kind of canopy management system is employed in the vineyard (yes, “canopy management” really is a thing).
9. Brix. As you progress to PhD-level of showing off, you will want to start asking some very technical questions about the wine-making process. You might consider asking your tasting guide: “At what Brix level were the grapes picked?” He or she likely won’t know but you’ll look like quite the stud with this question.
10. Food pairing. Now you’re ready to mix your knowledge of wine with your knowledge of food. “This Sauvignon Blanc would go beautifully with Italian Sea Bass.” “This Cabernet needs a thick, juicy steak to stand up to it.” The more you taste the more specific you’ll be comfortable getting: “This Moscato would go great with cheese – blue cheese that is.”
Okay you’re ready now to go out and impress your friends. To avoid being overly annoying or coming across as a complete and utter snob, do not ask all 10 questions at every winery you go to. Spread them around over a few days of wine tasting. Pick your spots and use as much subtlety as you possess. Good luck!
John & Irene Ingersoll
July 5, 2017