How are your tasting skills?

Lorne Eckersley

Pssssssst…wanna hear a story? Don’t worry—it has a happy ending! More than 25 years ago Angela and I were in California on a vacation that included taking a train from San Francisco to San Diego. It was a great two-week trip and we loved every minute of it. But one particular incident remains clear in our minds all those many years later.

From San Francisco we took a day tour on a small bus, and first stopped in at the Muir Woods (subsequently, on trips to Puerto Vallarta, we rented a suite from Mollie Muir, who was the niece of the famous naturalist, John Muir, whom the woods were named for). After oohing and aahing at the giant redwoods we drove on to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, where our mission was to visit some wineries. We toured the storied Sebastiani Winery and others, including a small tasting room in the town of Sonoma.

The tasting room host offered to give our little group of perhaps 10 a short lesson in wine tasting. “S”, he said. “Just remember the S.” And then he began. Holding a glass with an ounce or so of wine up above his head, he explained about first looking at or “S”eeing the wine. Look for clarity and think about the colour, he said.

Next he brought the glass back down to the bar, and showed us how to “S”wirl the wine. Keep the glass’s base on the counter, move it quickly in a small circle and you won’t end up with a shirt (or friends) covered with wine, he said.

Then he brought the glass up to his nose and took a healthy “S”niff. It often comes as a surprise to people new to the concept of tasting wine (or anything else, for that matter) that most of what we think of as taste actually is smell. Try closing your nostrils with a thumb and forefinger, then sipping from your glass and you will see what I mean. Experienced tasters might push one nostril closed, sniff, then do the same with the other nostril. A wine’s aroma will reveal a lot, including whether it is “corked” (the result of an inferior or very old cork, for example) or oxidized (a brownish tinge would also be a clue). It might also indicate what type of grape the wine was made from or whether it is a new or aged wine. Favourite aromas like strawberry or cranberry, or even barnyard (I’m serious!) might be apparent, as might others, like mint or cedar, depending on the type of wine you are about to sample.

The next step is to “S”ip. Don’t swallow yet, our instructor said. More experienced or adventurous tasters might “S”lurp the liquid, drawing air in along with it. Again, practise makes perfect! (Kind of like using a “S”abre to open a bottle of sparking wine. Again, that’s another story!)

Let that first sip stop at the front of your mouth, so that the taste buds on the tip of the tongue get a chance to do their thing. Think about what you are tasting, then gradually “S”wish the liquid around all parts of your mouth, allowing yourself to “S”avour what you are tasting.

At this point, especially if you are sampling a lot of wines, you might consider letting discretion rule, and “S”pit your sample. I know, it is not an easy concept to wrap your head around, but experienced tasters will tell you that the process to this point has given you about 95% of the tasting experience. A day-long bout of wine tasting—when we visit the Okanagan it is not unusual for us to visit 8 or more wineries a day—pretty much precludes consuming each sample, unless you have a designated driver.

If spitting isn’t in the cards, “S”wallow the sample. Don’t reach quickly for the next sample though. Take a minute to consider how the wine finishes. That is, what kind of aftertaste has it left? Many wines offer a willow-the-wisp experience, and the flavour is gone in seconds. Others, good reds in particular, have a longer and very pleasant finish, one that is worth the investment of a few extra seconds to enjoy.

Taking that bit of extra time and giving your wine sample some extra thought can make all the difference in your winery experience. And chances are that if you purchase a bottle to take home, even after a few months or more, your memory will be triggered—with surprising accuracy—back to that first sample.

Angela and I were talking about that Sonoma Valley wine tasting a few months ago, so I took a chance and Googled to see if I could find the instructions. Sure enough, the search took me to a site that gave me the simple list of six “S” words: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Swish and Swallow or Spit.

It seems like the “S” just never goes out of style.

July 12, 2019