Wine tasting goes beyond swirling

Note: This column was previously published in the Daily Herald in 2005.

Here in the Chicago metro area we will enjoy 70 percent of our annual wine consumption from now until January 1. If you drink one or two glasses per year, you'll be doing it soon; if you're an avid wine lover, you're about to have plenty of company.

Whatever your expertise, our dynamic market guarantees that you'll experience new wines, new regions and new taste sensations.

Here then, is a review of tasting techniques to get the most from every sip, with commentary from my personal favorite wine consumer, Kerry.

Appearance: Tilt glass until wine nearly spills out, and look into the wine's “face.” The wine's face — like yours or mine — gives hints about age and character, including flavor and age-ability.

K: Where does wine get “character” — from its parents?

M: It's the vinous version of the nature-nuture debate. Wine gets character from both heredity, (the grape, soil and climate) and environment, (techniques, laws and human culture.)

A positive appearance is clear and bright. A muddy, dull appearance indicates the wine is over-the-hill. Qualities that are neither good nor bad include white, red or rose color, opaque or limpid.

Smell, (the “nose”): Swirl your glass, increasing wine's surface contact with oxygen. Like smelling a delicious soup, take a looooong, deep sniff.

We smell for fruit, and for whatever's been done to the fruit. For instance, Chardonnay juice has a nearly neutral aroma. Chardonnay planted in a cool climate gives the wine green apple aromas. Barrel aging gives it vanilla odors.

K: You mean someone put vanilla in the barrel?

M: No, oak naturally contains vanillin, the phenolic compound that makes vanilla smell like vanilla. Wine pulls vanillin and other phenolics, (such as cinnaldehyde, cinnamon's aroma) from the barrel.

K: What makes wine smell sweet?

M: In fact, we can't smell sweetness. Certain smells trick us into assuming sweetness. For instance, people think vanilla extract is sweet from all the desserts it's baked into — until they taste it.

A positive nose is appealing and fresh with natural aromas, (whether animal, vegetable or mineral.) Negative qualities are unappealing, unnatural, (like nail polish), stale.

Taste: The wine's nose introduces its taste, like an overture introduces the symphony to follow.

After smelling, sip the wine like you'd slurp very hot soup, pulling oxygen into your mouth at the same time. Then, move the wine all over your mouth. Next, spit.

K: Spit?

M: Spit.

K: How can we taste if we spit it out?

M: Because there aren't any taste buds in the throat, only in the mouth.

Concentrate on fruit, but also taste for sweetness, (from sugar, wood and/or alcohol), tartness (from various acids) and other flavors.

Equally important, feel the wine's body, (light to full, caused by alcohol and/or flavor concentration) and texture on your palate, (tannin's grip, acidity's sting, the softness of sweetness).

Positive qualities include clean, natural flavors that are “balanced.” Negative qualities: dirty, unnatural, “unbalanced.”

K: What makes wine sweet?

M: It always goes back to nature-nuture: grape, soil, climate and culture. Some grapes are rich in sugar — like Muscat. Rocky soil doesn't hold water, so grapes aren't diluted.

Finally, culture. During fermentation, yeast eats sugar, producing alcohol. If fermentation is stopped before all the sugar is eaten, the wine is sweet.

K: How do you stop fermentation? “Stop or I'll shoot?”

M: Well, the juice can be chilled so the yeast gets too cold. Or brandy can be added — as in Port — and the yeast acts like it's drunk and goes to sleep.

After spitting (or swallowing), wait a few seconds for flavors to “finish.” The finish can be nonexistent to long, clean or dirty, balanced or unbalanced. Finish is important because it influences whatever you taste next, whether it's another wine or your dinner.

K: Speaking of dinner ...

M: Yes, wine has done its job of revving up the appetite for dinner. Before we dive in, here are some final tips about tasting:

Always eat before, during and after tasting. When judging wine's appearance, tilt glass over a white tablecloth or paper — not your new white slacks.

Be wary of full spit cups; they may spit back.

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