Most guides on how to taste wine like a pro will give you a checklist with boxes to tick and categories to assign relating to colour, intensity, body etc. This isn’t one of those guides. Checklists and box-ticking are useful, so you should do those if you’re a beginner, but I hope you enjoy this fun, no-bullshit guide to the meat and bones of wine tasting. Starting with the golden rule…
Make sure you’re not sitting/standing next to the wine bore: Because if you’re the only one in the group who hasn’t yet spotted the wine bore, this is exactly what will happen. This is why all wine tastings must begin before you enter the degustation room. Wine bores are easy to locate because of their big heads and loud voices. Of course, there may be more than one. Fear not. This just means they will clump together like dust particles in space, making them easier to spot. In the unlikely event that you yourself are the wine bore, you will be surrounded by empty seats. Or other wine bores.
Before you start: Try not to read anything that will bias you before the tasting. We want to think freely here, and form our own opinions, not Jancis Robinson’s. We’ll compare our notes against the experts’ at the end. You never know, you might find something they missed (although if you do, you will of course be labelled “wrong”).
Wait for the Moon to align with Sagittarius (optional): The Frenchman who runs the wine bar Plateau in Brighton (pictured above by me during the conversation) told me he uses a Biodynamic Calendar app to tell him which days of the month are the best to drink wine on. Ok, this might sound nuts, but you must have noticed that the same wine can taste totally different on different days. Could the Moon be causing this lunacy? I doubt it, but it’s important to keep an open mind. Check out this feature on Wine Folly for details.
Colour: Don’t worry too much about what the wine looks like. You can’t smell or taste the colour (unless you’re synesthetic or on magic mushrooms). Wine colours are a spectrum and we’re beyond all categories here, maaan. Chances are it’s yellow, red or pink, although it could also be orange with bits floating in it, in which case I hope you’ve consulted your Biodynamic Calendar.
Legs: Don’t talk about the wine’s “legs”. If you don’t know, these are the streaky dribbles of wine that crawl down the inside of the glass after you swirl it. Longer legs indicate a higher alcohol or sugar content. Talking about “the legs” is quite boring and just makes you sound like you’re trying to show off that you know what the legs are. Nobody who really loves wine bothers talking about its legs.
Don’t be drunk before you start: Despite their overinflated self-opinions, drunks can’t do anything better than sobers — and that includes philosophising about the cosmos, performing a bladder cystectomy, playing Mario Karts, and… tasting wine.
Get good glassware! And when I say glass, I don’t mean plastic. This might sound obvious, but I’ve been to press events where they boasted about how much the wine cost, and then served it in plastic glasses (*facepalms self). Seriously though, the shape of the glass can make a huge difference to the bouquet of the wine. If somebody tries to make you drink out of a glass with no stem, at the very least give them a filthy look. My favourite wine glasses are “allegra” ones. They’re the ones in the picture at the top.
Have clean fingers and fresh breath: This is especially important if you’re wine tasting on a date. Not only do you want to look and smell delicious, but you don’t want to embarrass yourself by saying the wine smells of humous, olives and cheesy biscuits.
If possible, avoid distractions: Especially avoid power ballads, Lynx deodorant, big screens showing golf and conversations with wine bores. Try closing your eyes to heighten your other senses.
Swirl: The number of people I see at wine tastings not swirling… Swirling is the number one thing you should be doing! It unleashes the soul of the wine, you know. Swirl that mutha like a ballroom dancer on ecstasy. Don’t just waft it under your nose like you’re a pre-Revolution French aristocrat sniffing a pansy.
Swill it around your mouth so all your taste buds get coated: Making a revolting sucking noise is optional. I’ve never found it makes a huge difference to the taste though, and everyone else might hate you.
Spit or swallow? Drinker’s discretion is advised while deciding whether to spit. You don’t want to follow the crowd, but you also don’t want to be the only drunk at the party. Unless you have the constitution of Oliver Reed, it’s not a good idea to swallow before breakfast or if you’ve got another 50 wines to try. A bucket is not always provided, although that doesn’t stop Madeline Puckette from Wine Folly, who spits on the floor like a cowgirl… because she’s so damn cool (*please remember that you’re not as cool or popular as Madeline Puckette).
Wait a while, then try it again: Most good wines will “open up” after a while to reveal a deeper tapestry of olfactory pleasures, so don’t judge them on the first sniff. Some will be so different after a few minutes that you’ll think someone switched your glass. Actually, if there are any wine bores at the table, try switching their glasses while they’re busy boring someone, and see if they notice.
Read other opinions: When you’ve finally formed an opinion, it’s time to compare notes with the reviewers, then try the wine again and see if you can get what they’re getting. This is one of the best ways to improve your nose and palate. Don’t worry if you wrote down “smells like peanut butter and snooker table” you’re just being creative, and it probably means you have a better nose than any of the experts, with their “lightly blow-torched jasmine and under-ripe kumquats.”
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