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The art of tasting wine

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Tasting wine is a profoundly personal journey. The goal of wine should simply be to enjoy it, and no two people will ever reach that enjoyment the same way. If any aspect of formal wine tasting gets in the way of your enjoyment of the wine, it should be thrown out in favor of an approach that is uniquely your own. That said, there are established norms within the wine tasting world that have been developed to try to maximize the enjoyment you get from a wine, and to expand your appreciation of the nuance within each glass.

Having the proper glasses is the first step to fully tasting wine. Having the right 'shape' glass is a wonderful luxury, but most important is that you have a large enough glass to give you plenty of room to swirl vigorously. Generally, the larger the glass, the better, especially for more potent red wines. For young, tight wines (such as a young Bordeaux or Syrah) a decanter or aerator may help to open the wine and allow you access to more aromas and flavors.

To begin, pour a glass of wine, leaving ample room to swirl. Before anything else, look at the wine's color. A wine's color tells you a great deal about the wine, and helps to awaken the senses to the journey that is about to begin. Red wines range from bright ruby red to dusty brick to vibrant purples. White wines range from almost watery-clear to radiant yellow straw to dark orange gold. Having a light source to hold the wine up to can help you see the nuance of the color more, and having a white surface (a shirt cuff works well) also helps. For older wines, pay special attention to the color gradient at the edge of the glass – this is an excellent indication of a wine's age and structure.

Next, swirl the wine vigorously for a moment. This helps excite the many volatile esters in the wine that give it such an amazing depth of aroma (and ultimately flavor). Put your nose in the bowl of the glass and breathe deeply, to get the full experience. Many wines are at their most interesting in their aroma, and the most common disservice people do to their tasting is rushing through the olfactory stage. Try to separate out the aromas of the wine, let it awaken a sensory response in you. One of the more interesting aspects of wine tasting is comparing the aroma of a wine with the actual flavor of the wine – sometimes they will mesh seamlessly, while other times they will seem to be in almost direct opposition. Note that the terms aroma and bouquet refer to slightly different things – the aromas of a wine are the result of the grape variety itself, while the bouquet is the result of the myriad chemical processes which happen during fermentation and aging – but in casual tasting the term aroma may be used for all the smells of a wine.

Now it is time to taste. Take a small mouthful of wine in your mouth and add oxygen to it. The best way to get a full flavor experience of a wine (in tasting) is to gently suck air in through your lips with a mouthful of wine, resulting in a "burbling" that aerates the wine in your mouth and spreads the wine to the taste buds not only on your tongue but on the cheeks and roof of your mouth. Some tasters will swish the wine around in their mouth to further spread it. Notice the physical sensations of the wine – the tannins leave a coated feeling on your tongue, acid excites salivation in the cheeks – and the initial flavors of the wine. Once you swallow the wine, note the differing flavors in your throat, and how the flavors linger (the wine's "finish") and evolve in the mouth. A good wine may continue to linger and change in your mouth minutes after you've swallowed it.

If you're tasting with a group, discussing what you've smelled and tasted can add another dimension to your tasting, awakening in you flavors that you hadn't noticed at first glance. It is recommended, however, to taste silently first, before sharing, as other's views can greatly influence your own experience and stop you from the journey of discovery that makes wine tasting such a magical experience.

The world of French wine can seem daunting. With hundreds of regions, each with their own rules and regulations, even navigating a wine label to identify what grapes are found within can seem exceedingly difficult to the novice. Thankfully, a basic knowledge of a dozen major regions, and some general rules of thumb can quickly level the playing field.

 

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