There’s more to tasting a glass of wine than throwing it down your gullet. We’ll start slow.
Hold the glass over a white background, like a napkin or tablecloth. Colour varies with age, varietal (i.e. Chardonnay is darker than Riesling) and time spent in the barrel. White wines range from almost clear to pale yellow-green, straw/yellow, light gold, gold or old gold, to maderized brown. Reds can be magenta, purple, ruby red, red, eggplant, brick red or orange, red brown and finally, brown. (If you’re not drinking Sherry or Madeira, brown is not a good thing.)
Swirl the wine to aerate it. This releases ethers, esters and aldehydes that combine with oxygen to bring you the wine’s aroma or bouquet. It doesn’t take much practice, but if you’re just learning, start with a white or dress down.
Follow yours. First: the flaws. If there’s a moldy, wet cardboard aroma it may be “corky” or tainted. Drink not, or suffer the consequences. Sulfur (burnt match) aromas may dissipate with a little air time or may not even bother you too much, but too much sulfur dioxide is a problem. If your wine smells like Sherry but isn’t, that’s a problem. Likewise for vinegar. If a wine smells clean, fresh, and ripe to you, get out of the embarrassing tasting spotlight and motion for the waiter to pour. Only cigar smokers swish and contemplate the “legs” of a wine. The “nose” should also be faithful to the grape’s variety, which is something you have to learn over time.
Skip the sip. Soak your taste buds by taking a decent mouthful and rolling it around. Sweetness is detected at the tip of the tongue, so you’ll be aware of residual sugar right away. Varietal characteristics are picked up in the middle of the tongue; tannin (in most reds and wood-aged white) starts there. Acidity hits the sides of the tongue, the cheeks and the back of the throat. Oak — despite all the faux connoisseurs waxing poetic about a Chardonnay’s “complex oakiness,” the presence of oak is usually a negative attribute. Many delicious wines are appropriately aged in oak barrels, a process that enhances a wine’s body and viscosity.Many domestic whites under $15 are not just aged in oak but also oak-fermented — that is, artificially sweetened with oak chips, powders, and essences. The process disguises the natural flavour of the grape varietal with what is all too often the rough-hewn sweetness of, say, burnt caramel popcorn. Too much of any one flavour almost always means it’s out of whack.
Aftertaste is what lingers after you swallow. A long pleasing aftertaste with a nice balance of the other components is the sign of a high quality wine. A big part of the taste will come from the temperature the wine is served. This can be easily be controlled with a wine fridge, to ensure each bottle stays the ideal temperature.
What was the body of the wine like? Light (like skim milk), medium (like whole), or full bodied (like cream)? If it was a white wine, how was the acidity? Too little and flat? Just right, crispy, fresh and pleasing, or too high and burning your mouth? For a red wine, tannins are a big factor. Light tannins make for a soft wine. They can be present, ripe and pleasing, or too high, leaving a dry mouth feeling that may indicate some cellar time is needed to chill out. How long did the “finish” last? A couple of seconds, or much longer, as great wines tend to? Is it ready to drink? Are all of these components appealing to you? Is it worth the price? Can you think of a food it might go well with? And most important: was it good for you?
Remember, red wine is not necessarily more sophisticated than white, and not necessarily the only choice with meat. In fact, because whites are generally lighter in weight than reds, they lend themselves more easily to a wider range of foods. While there are any number of great sipping wines, light- to medium-bodied wines that are high in acidity and sugar and low in alcohol tend to be the most flexible and complimentary to our lighter, more dynamic diets. Due to the fact that wines pair so well with foods, they are often given as gifts for special occasions. Food-friendly whites include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc; the best choices among the reds are Cabernet Franc, Barbera, Gamay, Pinot Noir.
Regional wine qualities tend to reflect the specifics of regional cuisines. So picking a region to tour often means choosing what kind of food you want to eat for ten days straight.
Here are some top wine picks in Europe:
Northern Italy: Piemonte and the Veneto are greatly influenced by the rich subtelty of their butter-worshipping French and Swiss neighbors. Whites: From Piemonte, Pinot Bianco, Soave, Pinot Grigio with shellfish and fish; the sparkling Prosecco from the Veneto. Reds: Franciacorta Rosso (Cabernet Franc, Barbera, and Merlot) with meat; Amarone (Molinara, Rodinella and Corvina), Barbera, and young Nebbiolo with lamb and game.
Central Italy: Trendy cuisine from Tuscany and Chianti favors lighter pastas, vegetables and seafood. Whites: Verdicchio, Orvieto (Trebbiano and Garbanega), Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Reds: Sangiovese, Morellino, Rosso di Montalcino, Chiantis, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino. For tricky-to-pair cured hams and cheeses, fruitier reds are a good choice: Valpolicella (Corvina, Molinara, Rodinella), Barbera, Dolcetto, Ruffina.
Sicily and the South: Campagna and Sardegna—land of hard sheep’s milk cheese, salty fish, tomatoes and plenty of garlic—favor sweeter, prunier wines like Greco and Fiano from Campagna and Vermentino from Sardegna.
Northern and Central France: Delicate butter and cream sauces paired with exquisite veal stock reductions and tarragon call for great big wines that have high acidity. For fish or vegetables in light cream sauces, escargot, and oysters: Loire Chenins (Vouvray and Montlouis), Loire Sauvignons (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), and Champagne. For veal, pork, and white meat birds: Loire Cabernet Francs (Saumur, Chinon, Bourgueil) and the Gamay wines of Beaujolais. For red meat and game: Bordeaux and red Burgundies.
Provence and Southwestern France: Like Southern Italy, salty fish, tomato sauces, peppers, olive oil, and herbs go well with the regions many rosés and Ugni Blanc from Cascogne. With light meats and heavy seafood, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc, Condrieu, and Hermitage Blanc. Heavy goose liver pâté and duck can take heavy black wines like Cahors (Malbec), Madiran (Tannat), Bandol (Mourvèdre), and Syrah-Grenache (blends from Châteauneauf du Pape, Gigondas, Côtes de Roussillon, CÔtes de Lubéron, Corbieres, St. Chinian, and Minervois) and northern Rhône Syrahs like Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, and Hermitage.
Alsace: For the cuisine of this region, which is heavily influenced by its potato-, goose-, and sauerkraut-eating German neighbors, heavy aromatic whites are in order: Alsace Pinot Blanc, Tokay-Pinot Gris and the flowery and fruity Gewürztraminer.
Germany: Wines that are high in acid provide a necessary counterbalance to the fatty, bland, carb-and-meat-centric northern European diet. The Mosel Rieslings are citrusy, whereas Rhine River wines tend to smell vaguely of peaches. Nahe River wines are a combination of the two. Rheinhessen wines tend to have smoky undertones to their fruity flavour. Wines from the Rheingau region are dry. The increasingly popular Rheinpfaltz (or just “Pfaltz”) style is both full and fruity and includes Gewürztraminer, Scheurebe, Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir), and Chardonnay.