J’ai Faim: Introduction to Wine Tasting

I’ll admit it: I know nothing about wine. While I have been drinking wine with my family since junior high, I know only the “basic” rules (white with fish and poultry, red with meat, etc). Grapes, regions, and vintages mean nothing. I generally judge the wine based on price, leaving me less than proud of my purchases. Wine was a complete mystery. But, after living over half a year in France (!!!), I decided it was time I conquered my fear – I signed up for an introductory wine course at Paris wine bar Ô-Château.

At the course, we tried three different wines – a white and two reds. With the first wine, our sommelier (wine guy) talked us through the “professional” tasting technique, which we perfected with the second two wines. The technique is simple, allowing you to really focus on the wine, its characteristics, and what you like or dislike about it.

So I thought I’d share what I learned with you. Here’s how to get to know your wine:

1. Appearance. Take a good look at your wine by holding it in front of a white background (a napkin works well). Check for clarity – is there any sediment? In white wines, you don’t want any sediment, and in red wines, sediment is normal. The white wines should have a “shiny” reflection, signaling they have good acidity and are “fresh.”
Now to get technical: tilt your glass 45 degrees and roll the wine in the glass by rolling your wrist. Return the glass to the upright position and look at les jambes (the legs) of the wine – the streaks left running down the side of the glass. This lets you check the sugar content of the wine: thicker legs mean more sugar, while skinny legs mean low sugar content, signaling a “dry” wine.

2. Aroma. Now it is time to smell your wine – get your nose right in the opening of the glass and take a big whiff. This first smell is totally subjective. Your goal is to examine what flavors you smell in the wine – flavors which are different for everyone!
Now swirl the glass and take a second whiff. The swirling of the glass oxidizes the wine and releases a more complex flavor. (Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what is more complex about it – I was a little lost at this point too! I knew it was different, but not why.)

3. Taste. Now, the moment you have been waiting for, go ahead and taste the wine. Take a normal sip at first, and just take stock of your first impressions. Notice the acidity, the flavors, the mouth-feel. Again, this is completely subjective.
If you want to look like a real wine geek, try this technique: the retro-olfaction technique. Take a small amount of wine into your mouth and pretend you are sucking through a straw (you will make a funny noise). The taste is rather unpleasant, but this technique is meant to highlight the acidity and alcohol in the wine.

And that’s it! Pretty simple, right? While this tasting technique can help you experience a wine more fully, don’t take it too seriously. The most important thing I learned at the class was to trust your tastes! Buy what you like, and feel free to try new things. Remember, price is not the only measure of quality; don’t be ashamed if you prefer a cheaper bottle. Try and take not of the winery, grapes, and style of the wine, and then look for those when you buy the next time. Never be ashamed to ask for help at a restaurant or wine store if you don’t recognize anything on the menu – no one expects you to. If you are willing to explore and confident in your tasting ability, wine will begin to become less of a mystery.

Alexis ZK studies French and Food Studies at New York University. She loves travel, dinner parties, digging in the dirt, ballroom dancing, foodie adventures and creating tasting menus in the shower. She recently ran away to Paris on a mission to discover France through food.

Originally posted on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

One Response to “J’ai Faim: Introduction to Wine Tasting”

  1. Zimmie

    April 12th, 2012

    Thank for this mini-tutorial. Very informative. I can’t wait until the next time I go to a top-end restaurant and try some of your techniques. What? you say. I’ll get ushered out! Oh pooh. Well, maybe I’ll just try these at home instead!

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