IMBIBE: Tasting 101

By on February 15, 2017

Why wine geeks swirl, slosh, sip and spit.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – At a restaurant dinner recently, my son Hank asked me, “Does that really make any difference?” He was referring to the fact that I was swirling and sloshing the wine in my wine glass around before drinking it. “It actually does,” I replied.

The somewhat odd-looking behaviors and habits of seasoned wine drinkers—swirling wine, sloshing it around in the mouth, and (sometimes) spitting the wine out—might seem like nervous tics, or maybe just bad manners. But they’re not. Though they may appear peculiar, wine geeks go through those motions, and more, for good reason. Combined, they help us to better know, and therefore enjoy, the wines we drink.

Why was I heartily swirling the wine around in my glass? Well, unless it’s been decanted in advance—which is fairly rare—almost all of the wine we drink has been cooped up in a bottle until we decide to drink it. It has been resting, peacefully. That is as it should be. We don’t want to abuse wine in bottles.

However, most wines poured directly from a newly opened bottle—at home or in a restaurant setting—are “closed” and “tight.” They need room to breathe, literally. So, we “breathe” the wine by swirling it vigorously in a glass and introducing air into it. Infusing air and oxygen into the wine tends to accentuate both the wine’s flavors and aromas. If you don’t believe me, do this simple exercise the next time you open some wine: pour two identical glasses of wine, but only give one of them a swirl. Then, stick your nose into each glass. I guarantee that the one you swirled will be much more fragrant—inviting you to enjoy it.

A floral smelling wine like Viognier becomes even more floral when it’s given room to breathe. Ditto the wine’s flavors: aerating the wine can bring up front the flavors you were looking for when you bought it, but also render more subtle the harsher notes in a wine. In short, introducing air into wine, be it by decanting, with tools aimed at introducing oxygen, or just by swirling the wine in a glass, help it to come alive.

Probably the most annoying and seemingly antisocial behavior to non-wine drinkers is the habit of sloshing wine around in the mouth before either swallowing or spitting. It sounds and looks a lot like the way the Japanese eat ramen, which is totally approved of in their culture.

Our tongues have various sensors that recognize sweetness, acidity, tartness and so on. Tasting wine first in the front of the mouth, and then letting it flow towards the tonsils, helps wine drinkers identify the various taste aspects of the wine. That wouldn’t happen if you simply tossed the wine down your gullet. Allowing the wine to settle in the mouth briefly also helps the drinker to identify the weight, or body, of the wine. How does it feel? Silky? Heavy? Fizzy? Do the tannins make your mouth pucker? These sensations tell you a lot about the wine you’re drinking, and whether you’ll want to drink it again.

Finally, to spit or not to spit? Most wine drinkers and experts I know love to drink wine. That is, they swallow. However, when attending a wine tasting where perhaps a dozen or more wines are being sampled, it’s smart to spit. First, you won’t get sloshed if you do. But also, you’ll avoid the palate fatigue that comes with tasting too many wines in a short period. I rarely want wine to go to waste in a spit bucket, but that’s your call. PJH

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