Swuuurl, Swish, Gurrrrgle, SPIT! The Art of Tasting Wine
By Susan Valentine
My first real wine tasting experience was in Sienna Italy, on a very rainy day in
1994. My husband and I needed a place to be indoors for a while, and Italy’s
largest enoteca (sort of a museum of wine) was nearby. So, here I was, someone
who pretty much knew the words Merlot and Chardonnay—period—surrounded
by thousands of wines, with all sort of names!
To the tasting bar we went. My first sip finally told me why people make such a fuss about wines! It was amazing. Now several other people were at the bar, taking small sips, and then spitting the wine out into a type of tall bucket. UGH! Why? Why, first of all, the small sips? And why would anyone spit this amazing stuff out! I was ready to get as much inside me as possible.
So, back in the States, I started to study wine in earnest, and went to my first few wine tastings. There everyone was, pouring small sips, swirling the wine, staring into the glass, taking a sip, gurgling it, and yup, spitting it out. All perfectly proper!
And here’s why: Wines are deliciously complicated. They all have certain characteristics: sweetness/dryness, acidity, tannin, body (or weight) and fruit. When you taste, you want to learn to recognize these characteristics by using sight, smell, and then taste. So just pouring and swallowing doesn’t cut it.
First, you want to examine the wine, and look for clarity and brightness. Cloudy or hazy wine is not what you want. Then there is the color and intensity. Deeper wines are usually heavier in taste and pale wines are lighter. Now swirl the wine gently in the glass (spilling on the tablecloth is generally frowned upon). This releases the aroma, so you can assess the “nose” of the wine. It also allows the oxygen to refresh the wine. Does it smell clean and pleasant? Is the smell pronounced or weak? It will take practice to identify smells like black cherry, vanilla, spice, etc. But that’s the fun.
Finally, you get to taste—or in wine talk—enjoy the wine’s palate. The correct way is to take a small mouthful, and swirl it around the mouth, as different parts of the mouth are sensitive to different tastes, like sweetness or acidity. A wine with no taste of sugar is considered “dry.” The body of the wine is how it feels in the mouth. A Cabernet Sauvignon will feel heavy, while a German white will feel light. See what you get in terms of fruit flavor, and then how long the flavor lingers in your mouth. That is referred to as the wine finish.
OK, ready? Now spit the wine out into the provided container! Yes, this is one time spitting is not only allowed, it is expected. Then go to the next wine and start over!
Now, rules are made to be broken. You don’t always have to spit it out, unless you are a wine judge in a competition. I believe everyone should get some of the wine inside. It’s necessary for one’s attitude and well being.
Let me share with you my experience the first time I was faced with a room full of wine bottles – 500 different wines, all open and inviting! Being new to the game, I could not even imagine spitting. It seemed so unnatural and even a little ugly. I thought to myself, I will just take very, very small sips!
About an hour later I handed over my car keys, and went dreamily home to take a nap. I think I had a wonderful time!
Susan Valentine has been a student of wine for over 15 years. Having studied at WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) she has also spent considerable time exploring the vineyards of Italy, Napa, and the Hudson Valley. Her newest venture, EventPlannerHudsonValley.com is an event planning site featuring the only comprehensive Hudson Valley event calendar.