An idiot's guide to drinking wine like a real sommelier
This article originally posted on March 31, 2018, but in honor of National Wine Day, we figured we'd serve up another pour of vino know-how. Enjoy!
Almost all of us drink wine, but how many of us really taste it?
I learned I was definitely in the former category two years ago at a tasting at Ray's Wine & Spirits, carefully sipping a thoughtful swig from a glass of $120 grape squeezings and coming away with the flavor profile of "Yep, that's definitely wine." I wanted to learn more about how to drink this sweet nectar like I really should, to really get the most out of a glass of wine – and luckily, I didn't have to search far for help.
Nate Norfolk is the wine and spirits director at Ray's, as well as a certified sommelier, and he kindly let me pick his brain about how a wine idiot can become a wine expert.
1. You're serving wine wrong
Bad news: If you live in the United States, you're probably tasting wine wrong – even before you bring the glass to your lips.
"In the U.S. especially, we have a real tendency to serve red wine too warm and white wine too cold," Norfolk explained.
Red wines, according to Norfolk, should typically clock in just below room temperature – somewhere between 60 and 65 degrees – while white wines should be served around 50 degrees. Feel free to pour rose and sparkling wines a little colder, but for reds and whites, the lower the temperature, the more you'll lose in the tasting.
"When they're colder, they have a hard time reacting with the air," Norfolk noted. "Wisconsinites should be able to empathize with this: It's like cheese. You leave it out, the stuff's awesome, but when you first pull it out of the fridge, it's like nothing. Any great piece of cheese is awesome at room temperature, but when it's really cold, you lose a lot of it."
The main thing you're losing?
2. Smelling: It's not just for snobs!
Picture a wine snob. You've probably imagined a guy in a suit jacket, shoving his nose deep inside a wine glass, taking a deep snort that gets dangerously close to sucking up more liquid than air and then coming up for oxygen by saying something like, "I'm getting notes of rope," or "Very clearly a newly opened can of tennis balls." Maybe he's wearing a beret too.
Sure, we can poke fun at the pretentiousness, but if you're not sniffing your wine too, it's you who deserves to be a laughing stock.
"More than half of the information you're receiving from the beverage is olfactory," Norfolk explained, calling not smelling every sip probably the biggest mistake wine fans make when drinking. "So much of the pleasure is in the aroma too."
Norfolk recommends, yes, putting your nose in the glass and getting a good whiff – after all, that's why wine glasses come in their particular shape. The wide opening is perfect for allowing one's smeller to pop in and take a sniff, and while the stem allows you to enjoy the wine without affecting the heat, in the case of wines chilled too cold, the round bowl of the glass allows you to use your hands to warm a beverage up and increase its aromatic qualities.
So have some sense and smell some scents!
3. Get some geography
Two points into this list of wine tasting tips, and we haven't even taken a sip yet. Well … that's not changing either.
Tasting wine is much more than simply drinking wine, and what a person is able to bring to a bottle of wine is in many ways just as important as what the bottle itself is bringing to the table. For instance, one of the greatest ways to get the most out of your wine, according to Norfolk, is giving a hoot about geography. Many white wines from Greece and Spain, for example, are grown near the ocean, so the splashing salt water mixes with the grapes and creates a pronounced mineral taste in the final product, while red Burgundy wines from the French region of the same name can often have a barnyard flavor.
"One of the first steps to really getting into wine is to be engaged in the geography of it, and to have a really basic understanding that different places throughout the world make drastically different wines – and that the beauty of wine is in its breadth," Norfolk said.
Which, about that …
4. Keep an open mind
More so than sniffing, gurgling, spitting or gazing at a glass wine (though we'll get to all of those), Norfolk says the best way to refine one's palate and grow as a wine taster is simple: keeping an open mind and trying as much as you can.
"Wine is a lot like pork: There's bologna and prosciutto," Norfolk said. "Maybe you don't like bologna, so then if somebody says, 'Hey, I have this prosciutto; it's also pork,' and you're like, 'Well, I've had bologna stuff and I didn't like that.' But there's a whole other side to it."
For instance, Norfolk noted that Merlot and Riesling are two types of wine that have taken a bit of a beating over the past few years by popular culture, but have a wide spectrum of flavors and profiles that may taste complete different from any poor pours you've experienced in the past. Plus, the more things you taste – and the more things you experience – will make you a better overall wine drinker, since much of one's ability to pick out flavors in a wine, according to Norfolk, comes from associative memory rather than just possessing a prodigious palate.
"I can't encourage people enough to try a wide swath of wines," he preached, adding that he loves to see that younger wine drinkers generally don't have the brand loyalty that some older wine enthusiasts do and are willing to try almost anything. You hear that? Millennials for the win!
5. That wine's a looker
OK, we've delayed this long enough, and I can tell all this talk of drinking wine is making you thirsty. So let's finally pour ourselves a glass … and just look at it. Sorry, but that should always be the first step when tasting a wine.
"That can give you a lot of ideas," Norfolk said. "If it's a white wine, for instance, the lighter in color it is, the younger it is – and it usually means that the wine hasn't come in contact with either oxygen or wood. From there, I know a whole host of things that the wine isn't: It isn't going to be a sherry or a super-oaky chardonnay. It's probably only a couple of years old because if it were older, it'd start to get a darker hue. So before I even try it, I can narrow it down and think about the wine-making choices that went into it before I even put it in my mouth."
That's part of the secret to tasting wine: Much of the process is deductive, or simply trying to narrow down what the wine isn't.
6. It's swell to swirl – and gurgling's great, too
After you've taken a big whiff of your wine, checking for flaws – tasting if it might have cork taint, aka a wet musty smell, or a volatile acidity – and getting scent clues, it's finally time for tasting. And swirling and gurgling.
Much like smelling, swirling and gurgling may seem like only a step for hoity-toity wine elitists smoking cigarettes out of a long holder and bemusedly chuckling at a New Yorker cartoon. But these aren't just ways to look pretentious in public: Both are methods of exposing more liquid to the air – with gurgling as the "advanced, turbo" method.
"We can't smell anything unless it interacts with oxygen," Norfolk explains. "Some grape varieties and styles of wine are more reductive than others, meaning they need more oxygen before you can really appreciate them and get more of how they smell."
So the next time you see (and hear) somebody gurgling away at the dinner table, they're not being childish; they're just an expert wine taster. Unless it's a kid gurgling their chocolate milk, which in that case, yes, they are being childish.
7. Sip it and spit it
Now that we're in the actually drinking part of the process – bad news – you don't have to glug it down. You only need a little sip, not a huge swig, to get the flavors of the wine. And if you're tasting several wines, well, you might not even want to gulp them down at all.
"If you're going to go to a larger wine tasting, dude, you gotta spit," Norfolk said. "It's not just for the pros out there. You really should – and if you don't, you'll get drunk, and you'll also start to experience palate fatigue."
Palate fatigue isn't just some fancy sommelier word for a sore throat. As you expose your mouth to more alcohol and tannins, your ability to taste the nuances of wine drops. The good news: It doesn't start to really impact your taste buds until about 20 or maybe 15 wines.
8. Not just for snobs
Talking to a certified sommelier, a insanely deep well of knowledge, about wine might sound like an intimidating experience, but instead I came away with a different takeaway: You don't have to be some wealthy wine connoisseur or some sipping savant who was able to taste exactly where the apples in one's juice box were grown as a grade schooler. A palate for tasting wine isn't some natural gift that you either have or you don't. It's something you can learn – and never stop learning and discovering new things.
Take, for instance, Norfolk himself, who got into wine just like any other occupation: He was going to school and needed a job. Thanks to two friends, he got a gig at Downer Wine & Spirits and began getting a taste for wine – and for the history and geography that's brewed into it.
"I took notes and tasted everything that I could," Norfolk recalled. "Within six months of even remotely getting into it, I was reading everything I could about it and collecting books."
Now he's obviously a sommelier, but he's still tasting new things and learning new things about wine. He even still takes notes and fills out a sommelier tasting grid – though he admits sometimes that "pedantry" gets in the way of just merely enjoying wine, so he's relaxed considerably. But really, the only thing that grew him into an expert on wine was an interest in wine and a thirst to learn more.
"I don't think I'm innately somebody who has a better sense of taste or smell than most people," he explained, "but I do think enjoying wine and assessing wine has made me think about those things in a very, very focused way."
So you don't have to be a sommelier to drink like a sommelier. You just have to want a passion for not only drinking wine, but truly tasting.
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