First, wine tasting is an art not a science. That said, there are practical steps to follow to distinguish between different types of wine and different vintages. By learning to make these distinctions, it becomes easier to decide which wine to select from a restaurant wine list or from the shelf of a wine store.
Wine tasting originally was not a social event, but a survival technique. It determined which wines were safe to drink and which were spoiled — and possibly poisonous — due to poor storage or aging processes.
Knowing a few simple tips about tasting wine can enhance your experience by leaps and bounds, and easily turn you from a wine lover to a wine expert.
STEP 1 — LOOKING
Fill the glass about one-third full. Pick it up by the stem so the heat of your hand doesn’t alter the wine’s temperature. Focus on the hue, intensity and clarity of the wine color. The true color, or hue, of a wine is best judged by tilting the glass and looking at the wine through the rim to see the variation from the deepest part of the liquid to its edges. Intensity can best be gauged by looking straight down through the wine from above. Clarity — whether the wine is brilliant or cloudy — is most evident when light is shining sideways through the glass.
STEP 2 — SWIRLING
This is truly my favorite part of tasting wine. I sometimes find myself swirling water at home. Besides stirring up the full range of colors, swirling lets the wine breathe a little and releases some of the aroma for examination.
The easiest way to swirl is to rest the base of the glass on a table, hold the stem between thumb and forefinger, and gently rotate the wrist. Right-handers will find a counter-clockwise motion easiest, left-handers the reverse. Move the glass until the wine is dancing, climbing nearly to the rim. Then stop. As the liquid settles to the bottom of the glass, a transparent film will appear on the inside of the bowl, known as the wine’s “tears” or “legs.” They’re an indication of the amount of alcohol in the wine the more alcohol, the more tears or legs.
STEP 3 — SMELLING
Swirling the wine vaporizes it, and the thin sheet of liquid on the sides of the glass evaporates rapidly, intensifying the aromas. There’s no consensus about the proper sniffing technique. Some advocate two or three quick inhalations; others prefer one deep, sharp sniff. I’ve seen tasters close one nostril, sniff, then close the other and sniff again. It really doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you get a good sniff. With practice, you’ll learn how to maximize your perception of aromas, and how to decipher them. The world of smell is vast and bewildering.
As with color, a wine’s aroma offers insights into its character, origin and history. Because our actual sense of taste is limited to four simple categories (the well-known sweet, sour, bitter and salt), aroma is the most revealing aspect of our examination. But don’t simply sniff for clues. Revel in the sensation. Scientists say smells have direct access to the brain, connecting immediately to memory and emotion. Like a lover’s perfume, or the scent of cookies from childhood, wine’s aromas can evoke a specific place and time with uncanny power.
STEP 4 — TASTING
Put the glass to your lips and take some liquid in. How much? You need to have enough volume to work it all around your mouth, but not so much that you must swallow right away. Don’t swallow, not just yet. It takes time and effort to force the wine to divulge its secrets. I keep a pleasant wine in my mouth for 10 to 15 seconds, sometimes more.
Roll the wine around your mouth, bringing it into contact with every part, because each decodes a different aspect of the liquid. Wine provokes sensations, too: The astringency of tannins is most perceptible on the inner cheeks; the heat of the alcohol burns in the back of the throat. As you hold the wine in your mouth, purse your lips and inhale gently through them. This creates a bubbling noise children find immensely amusing. It also accelerates vaporization, intensifying the aromas.
Chew the wine vigorously, sloshing it around in your mouth, to draw every last nuance of flavor from the wine. Finally, after you swallow, exhale gently and slowly through your nose and mouth. You’ll find that the better the wine, the more complex, profound and long lasting these residual aromas can be. With great wines, sensitive tasters and minimal distractions, the finish can last a minute or more. It’s a moment of meditation and communion that no other beverage can create.
After doing all of this to try some wine, let’s make some Rosh Hashana recommendations:
Rothberg Cellars Pinotage-South Africa: A different style of wine, Rothberg Cellars hails from the fertile city of Paarl, near Cape Town, South Africa. The pinotage is a wine made from a grape that’s crossbred from Pinot Noir and Cinsault. It’s a light-bodied, young wine that packs a wallop of fruit. Really easy drinking
Elvi Matiz Rioja-Spain: Made entirely from the Tempranillo grape, this is an aromatic and expressive wine with medium body and soft tannins integrating nicely and showing black cherry and notes of spice.
Kadesh Barnea “Gilad”-Israel: Kadesh Barnea Winery was born specializing in rich, full-bodied wines that showcase the distinctive, unique taste of Negev grapes. Gilad is a meritage blend of Petite Verdot, Merlot and Shiraz aged in American Oak Barrels. This is a big fruity-forward wine. Not bad for a wine that should run hot considering it is from the deep south of Israel.
(Uri Marcovitz, a Downtown Pittsburgh restaurateur and recognized wine expert [who dabbles in beer] can be reached at email@example.com.)