Wine is one of the oldest and most storied alcoholic beverages: The ancient Egyptian nobility imbibed it at lavish banquets; it was so important to the Greco-Roman world that there was a god of wine; and according to the Christian faith, Jesus transformed life-giving water into precious wine in his first recorded miracle. But despite the prominence of wine throughout much of human history, many men remain intimidated by it. And of all the activities pertaining to “the beautiful liquid,” official wine-tastings arguably cause the most trepidation.
But a gentleman of the world must know the ways of the world. And since he is almost certain to be invited to an official wine-tasting at least once in his lifetime, he should know the etiquette associated therewith.
The senses of smell and taste are so intertwined that something can smell as it tastes and taste as it smells. At a wine-tasting, of the five senses, the senses of smell and taste are of paramount importance (with the sense of sight coming a close third). As such, rule number one at a wine- tasting is that extraneous scents and flavors are to be avoided.
Wearing perfumes and colognes to a wine-tasting is an absolute no-no for olfactorily obvious reasons. Even scented body lotions or garments laundered with fragrant detergents should be avoided (Perhaps one day wine-tastings will be conducted in-the-nude, but until then…). Likewise, perfumed hair conditioners—especially because of the proximity of hair to the nose and mouth—are considered particularly egregious. Also, a taster’s palate should be as neutral as possible: Consuming smoked or heavily spiced foods shortly before a wine-tasting can adversely impact the appreciation of a wine. Some purists even insist that a taster should not brush his teeth for several hours preceding a tasting—not even if the tasting occurs in the morning! And attempting to circumvent the no-brushing rule by chewing gum or eating breath mints is a sure prescription for a disaster of gastronomical proportions.
Generally, a wine-tasting will be presided-over, whether by a sommelier, a wine merchant, or a knowledgeable pourer. While more casual tastings may take place at a bar, more formal tastings are typically conducted with tasters seated at a long banquet table.
When multiple wines are being tasted, the general approach is to begin with whites before reds, young wines before old wines, delicate wines before robust wines, dry wines before sweet wines, etc.
The typical “equipment” for a wine-tasting is wine glasses, a linen napkin (for pat-drying one’s lips after spitting into the spittoon—but more on that later), individual spittoons (thank God for that courtesy!), and, on occasion, offerings of water crackers, plain bread, or mild cheese to “reboot” the palate when “palate fatigue” sets in after so many wines have been tasted that the taster’s ability to distinguish the characteristics of one wine from another becomes blurred.
To rid a wine glass of any trace of the detergent with which it was washed, the person conducting the tasting will pour a little wine into each taster’s glass, then, holding the glass by its stem, tilt the glass while rotating it, thereby allowing the wine to coat the entire interior surface of the bowl of the glass. Then, of course, that rinsing-wine, no matter how precious, is discarded into the spittoon. (Drinking the rinsing-wine would be like drinking the water in a fingerbowl!)
Once the glasses have been prepped as described above, whether by the pourer or by the tasters themselves, the tasting begins, the operative term being “tasting” (as opposed to drinking!). As a wise Italian once said, “We taste with our mouths, not with our stomachs.”
Bottle by bottle, a mouthful-quantity of wine will be poured into each taster’s glass. Whether white wine or red wine, the taster holds the wine glass upright by its stem (whether elevated off the table or with the base of the glass upon the tabletop), and swirls the wine for two or three seconds so as to aerate it, thereby releasing its aromas and flavors. Then, holding the wine glass about one inch from the nose, the opening of the bowl tilted towards the nose, the aromas of the wine are gently inhaled via the nostrils and slightly parted lips, thereby heightening the perception of the wine’s flavor since both the senses of smell and taste are engaged.
After the fragrances of the wine have been explored and appreciated, it is then time to taste the wine primarily with the mouth: A small amount of wine is taken into mouth and allowed to “set” for a second or two before it is swallowed so as to ascertain its drinkability. Immediately thereafter, a more complex tasting occurs: In a process called “aspiration,” more wine is taken into the mouth then gently swished around the closed mouth while simultaneously being aerated by gently clenching the teeth, slightly parting-pouting the lips, then inhaling through the nostrils and slightly parted pouted lips. [For some tasters—quite understandably—the aspiration process looks too ridiculous and sounds too disgusting to be entertained, regardless of its alleged efficacy.] Once the wine’s qualities have been determined, it is released from the mouth into the spittoon; the mouth is pat-dried with the provided napkin; and the remaining wine in the glass is also discarded into the spittoon. (Incidentally, spitting into the spittoon should be done as elegantly and uneventfully as possible. It should, for example, never rise to the level of animation with which one would hawk and spit upon an archrival’s grave!) The wine glass is then placed onto the table in preparation for the next wine. If only one or two wines are being presented for tasting, the remaining contents in the glass may be drunk rather than discarded into the spittoon. But if many wines are being tasted, the tasters must be mindful to do their work with their mouths, not with their stomachs, for multiple glasses of wine, especially whilst not eating, will leave many a man in a drunken stupor.
Fresh glasses are not generally provided for each wine to be tasted. Instead, the pourer will “rinse,” as described above, the tasting-glass with the wine to be served, thereafter pouring fresh wine from the bottle or decanter into the prepped glass. If multiple wines are being tasted, glasses will be changed when switching from white wines to red, or from dry to sweet, for example. Rinsing glasses with water is highly disfavored since even miniscule quantities of residual water can adversely alter the profile of a wine.
At the end of the tasting, the specialist is thanked. When the tasting is conducted at a bar by a bartender, he or she is generously tipped.
Finally, a gentleman who participates in a wine-tasting should always arrange for a designated driver.
Wine-Tasting within the context of Wine-and-Food Pairings
Wine-tastings are sometimes conducted as wine-and-food pairings, where dishes are presented as complements to the featured wines. At pairings, each course, typically from appetizer to dessert, is presented with a different wine that is poured into its designated wine glass.At a wine-and-food pairing, the wine is expected to be drunk, not merely tasted. So spittoons, thank God, are not provided, for to have them would make for a most unappetizing occasion. Also, thank God, no aspiration antics are indulged in. Instead, the wine is savored with the meal, just as would be the case at a dinner table or in a restaurant. Only the desired portion of each wine need be drunk. At the end of a particular course, its corresponding wine glass is removed when the dishes for the course are being cleared from the table.
Generally, a wine-and-food pairing is conducted in a restaurant, with a sommelier or wine merchant officiating. Under such circumstances, the waiters and waitresses are tipped and the officiant is thanked.
And as is the case whenever alcoholic beverages are being consumed, designated drivers should be employed to safely transport tasters to and from the event.