17 Mar 2011

The Author

Amy Zavatto writes about wine, spirits, and food for a mess of different publications, including Imbibe, Edible Manhattan, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Frommer's. She's the co-author of The Renaissance Guide to Wine & Food Pairing and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bartending. Amy lives, eats, and drinks in NYC and cannot live without pasta.

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Wine Tasting 101: What You See Is (Almost) What You Get
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Wine Tasting 101:

What You See Is (Almost) What You Get

What do you think about the President?

Who makes the best pizza in town?

Jeggings—stupid fad or genius merging of comfort and style?

You probably have absolutely no hesitation blurting out an answer to any and all of these topics. You don’t assume you need to be a multi-degreed political scientist or a Napolitano or a Vogue veteran to share your thoughts on presidents, pizzas, or pants. It’s your opinion, after all. And it’s based on your own forming of thoughts and collection of experiences and myriad muddling of emotions. Simple as that. No big deal, right?

So why, oh why, is everybody so wet-cat terrified of saying what they think about wine?

Pish-posh. You’ve got to stop that nonsense right here and now. Maybe part of it is that, when it comes to wine tasting, many of us feel like our senses are lacking; our smell and taste dulled and our vision impaired. We think our experiences are humble; too humble to form an opinion on wine tasting. In order to properly taste wine and evaluate its merits surely you must have to maintain an expansive wine cellar, be the seventh generation heir to a winery, or at least carry some kind of special, shiny, shiny wine-taster badge proving that you’re Worthy. Or, beware! The wine police will snatch you in the middle of the night and lock you up in juice jail where you will be doomed to drink Thunderbird and strawberry-kiwi wine coolers for the rest of your natural born days. Amen.

Ugh. The act of wine tasting doesn’t have to be formal, and it doesn’t have to be done by professionals. It’s the way you, dear drinker, are going to learn to evaluate a wine for yourself—form your own opinion, figure out what you like and what you don’t, know the difference between a wine that’s oxidized and a wine that’s corked and a wine that’s just plain over the hill; and, most importantly, have a whole lot of fun.

The funny thing is wine tasting all starts before the vino even hits your taste buds—it all starts with your eyes. So here’s your first wine tasting lesson: Open those peepers.

There’s a lot you can tell just by pouring a glass and peering into the crystal ball of flavor. If it’s a white, is it pale lemon or deeply golden? Or somewhere in between? If it’s red, is it a bright, cheery ruby or deep, dark, nearly opaque blackish purple or garnet? Is the rim clear and bright or is there is there a little bit of detectable browning on the very edge? Just these easy, no-brainer, visual clues can give you some pretty good hints about what you’re going to taste:

• Lighter and brighter = light to medium-bodied

• Deeper, darker, richer = medium to heavier bodied

• Pale at the rim = young to middle-aged wine

• A bit of brown = an older, aged wine whose flavors have presumably melded and mellowed

Now, let’s up the ante and add some swirling to that visual. First things first — always hold your glass by the stem. While you might instinctively want to put your paws around the hunkier part of the glass, or think it looks kinda sexy and cool to hold the bowl in your palm, that’s going to change what you smell and taste. Why? Heat, heat, baby.

Your body is 98 degrees, give or take. (Any higher and we’re going to assume you’re feverish and you really shouldn’t be drinking wine, you crazy monkey, now should you? Maybe whiskey with a little hot water and lemon, but we digress….) Your own body heat is going to change the temperature of that wine, and therefore change the way it smells and even the way it tastes. As it is, the temperature in the very room in which you’re sipping is going to start changing the wine, so holding your glass properly will keep that from happening too drastically and too quickly.

Got it? Great! Now we get to try out our swirly dance moves. Swirling your glass in wine tasting will do a couple of important things. First, it gets a little more air mixed into things, and that air helps to release the aromas that we’re going to be sniffing soon enough.

Second, swirling during wine tasting coats the sides of your glass with the wine, giving you another clue about what’s going on in there in terms of alcohol and body. Is the wine quickly making a beeline back into the bowl? Lighter bodied, lower in alcohol. Or is it taking its sweet, ol’ time dribbling in a silky, slow streak down the sides? Bigger body, more alcohol.

See? Wine tasting is pretty easy so far. And you’re only looking at the stuff. Next up: Smelling! So keep your nose clean until we meet again…

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