We've all seen it: the somewhat pompous-looking wine drinker who insists on first swirling his wine, then sticking his entire nose (and half his face) into the glass for a huge sniff before finally sipping and smacking his lips slightly. This is usually followed by a moment of staring off into space. This ritual has become synonymous with wine tasting. Many of us can easily mimic the ritual, especially in front of friends for an quick laugh, but few of us would actually perform the steps in a serious setting. Why?
First, this process seems like just one more way to the skilled wine drinkers from the rest of us, suggesting that we're too amateur to even attempt the "swirl, sniff, taste" ritual. Second, no one ever explained the purpose of this ritual. That's why we're here.
1. SWIRL. To swirl is to allow air into the wine in a process called "oxidation." When you first uncork the bottle, it needs some time to "breathe." Oxidation releases the aromas and enhances the tastes of many wines. Because we normally don't let an open bottle sit too long, the swirling of the glass does the work for us. You can test it yourself. First, open a bottle, pour a glass and sniff, and then then swirl the glass and sniff. See a difference?
A great article on the SWIRL can be found here at bigfatwine.com:
2. SNIFF. Swirling is more common than the SNIFF, probably because sniffing your wine embarrassing to do in public and looks pretentious (see above). Most of us wonder why people do it. On one level, I think we agree that sniff is integral to taste. When it comes to wine, inhaling the aromas deeply before tasting opens up an entire world of possibility. It gives you a preview of whether the wine has aged well (if you get over-ripe or ripe overtones, you know it's an aged wine), of the types of of fruit you can expect, whether it was aged in oak barrels, whether there is anything "off" about the wine (i.e., bouquet of petrol, yes petrol as in gasoline!), etc.
The only reason you see people covering their entire mouths with their glasses during the sniff is because it creates a seal that prevents outside smells from mingling with the aromas from the wine. That's all.
Can you enjoy wine without the sniff? Of course. The sniff is simply an enhancer, gives you a chance to think about what to expect in the taste. It becomes interesting when the scent and the taste do not completely match up. Give it a try, anybody can do it, and do it well. So what if you think you get hints of citrus and your partner does not? That's part of the fun!
3. TASTE. We're all experts on this step, in some way or another. To allow yourself full enjoyment, the first sip should be enough wine to cover your entire tongue, as the tongue is divided into four main taste bud areas, but has millions of buds. By covering the entire tongue with the wine, you can pick up sweet, acidic, bitter, and salty flavors-and more. Salty is a descriptor traditionally only used when pairing wines (if you find yourself drinking a salty wine, send it back!). Swirl it around in there, if you can sip some air through your lips, it will heighten the flavors. I sometimes create a small chewing motion because I'm afraid I'll spill otherwise. Then, swallow. It's that simple.
Go ahead and incorporate this process into your daily wine drinking. Is it 100% necessary for true wine enjoyment? No. But it does enhance the flavors, so go on, give it a try.