Since this column was once called “Tasting Wine” and I have been writing it for five years this month, I think it is time to write about how to taste wine.
Before going into the process and pointers, let me stress that while we all adhere to certain, basic principles, wine professionals have different ways of tasting. I am going to give you the Pamela method, but I encourage anyone who is serious about wine to pay attention to other folks, too, as there is always more to learn.
I make a distinction between tasting and drinking. For me, tasting is making a concerted effort to evaluate and learn.
You may derive as much pleasure from just drinking — and I am not talking about the intoxicated kind here, but the simple delight of tasting something really yummy.
For me, tasting is about tasting; however, you can’t taste very much if you are unable to smell. Just try holding your nose next time you sip a glass of wine or, for that matter, eat chocolate. Your olfactory senses are key, but more on this later.
First thing is getting yourself a decent wine glass. This does not mean spending a ton of money on every glass under the sun. Basically, look for glasses that tulip in and have a thin lip.
Glasses with a rounder bulb are good for pinot noir and some other wines, but don’t let anyone convince you that you need to buy a specific glass for every type of grape. You don’t.
The ultimate pleasure of wine is drinking, not looking at it. However, there is much that can be learned by the appearance. After you pour wine into your glass, hold it by the stem and twirl it a few times. The wine that runs down the glass is called the legs.
Wines that have high alcohol or residual sugar are slower since these components are heavier. Wines from warm climates tend to have more color than those from cold climates.
Older wines have a more watery meniscus, or “rim,” than younger wines.
As both reds and whites age, they become browner. However, it can take decades for this to happen depending on the type of wine.
I am a big believer in first impressions and often with the first whiff, I learn a lot about a wine. However, as wine oxygenates, it changes, so you should continue to sniff periodically.
From the nose, you might get an array of characteristics and maybe a flaw or two. I’m going to leave it here for this week.
Here is your homework assignment: Get a white and a red and write down what you notice in its appearance and its preliminary aromas.
And remember, our senses are to an extent subjective and also based on memory, so whether you smell sweaty socks or grandma’s apple pie, you’re right.
Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.
The finer points
Today: Understanding the ambience
Next week: How the taste is built