Thursday, 15 August 2013

My guide to wine tasting

I spend my days pouring wine for people to taste in the wine store with no wine and I have learned a lot. Mostly about what not to do when tasting wine. So I thought I would share my knowledge because I am certain that I have been guilty of many faux pas over the years.

1. State your intention. Particularly in a bottle shop or business where there is other stuff on besides tastings, it is important to let them know that you would like to taste with a simple "I would like to do a tasting please" or "I would like to taste some wine".
Do not:
-  Hover around the tasting bench picking up bottles and looking at them remarking over and over "On
   tasting, on tasting" like some kind of crazed robot. People do this. Regularly.
-  Help yourself to the tasting bottles (unless there is a sign asking you to do just that).

2. Let the staff member pour you a taste. Saying things like "just a little bit" or "only a sip" is not really helpful. You are dealing with a person trained to do their job, they will pour you an amount they deem is appropriate to taste the wine. If it is only a drop to dip your tongue into you are not going to be able to taste it properly. You are allowed to not drink it all, that is what spittoons are for (in addition to spitting).

3. Swirl, sniff, sip, slurp, spit is optional. Yes, ideally a bit of a swirl will get more oxygen into the wine and open it up but if you are not confident with doing it then don't worry. Nervously jiggling the wine glass around without style or purpose does not make you look like you know what you are doing, neither does sloshing wine all over the bench so that the staff member has to clean up after you.

Today I had a lovely older Italian gent in who told me he has had a little wine every day since he was a boy in Italy (his grandfather used to mix it with a little water for him). He has been drinking wine for close to 70 years I would say. When I poured him a taste, he downed it in one go and then told me whether he like it or not. Did I judge him? Not at all, this is how he experiences wine. 

4. Describing the wine is, again, optional. If you are going to smell it and announce that it smells like wine, you are hilarious, nobody in a wine shop/cellar door has ever heard that before. I highly recommend that if you choose to go this way you mutter it to your companions, they will probably think you are funny.

However if you smell strawberries or vanilla (or snozzberries for that matter) and exclaim in delight then we love this. As an aside, don't be put off by professional wine-wankers at tastings who seem to consider it appropriate to provide an encyclopaedic list of everything they can smell and taste in a really serious voice. These people have just spent a great deal of time with their textbooks and need to relearn how to enjoy wine. (Ooops, watch the hate-mail flow in:)

5. You don't have to like the wine. If it isn't your thing just say so. If you think it is because there might be something wrong with with the wine, say so. Ideally the staff member will check everything before they pour it for you but sometimes something might slip through. If it tastes fizzy and it isn't meant to, or like vinegar or has a funny aftertaste then describe what you are getting. This should trigger the staff to check it. Please don't just pull a face and go "On no, yuk. That's bad, just bad. No". Especially if there is a chance the wine maker is standing in front of you. I have seen people have this reaction to perfectly lovely wine because they have asked to try a Coonawarra Shiraz (dry and a fairly big style with quite a lot of tannin) but normally drink moscato (sweet, light and lightly fizzy).
If you just don't like something but don't suspect a fault then a polite "Not really to my taste" is absolutely fine. If you can elaborate with "I like something sweeter" or "Something not as heavy" or "I had a wine I liked that tasted like Ribena", this will help the staff to help you find something to suit you.

6. If you like a wine and can afford it then buy it. I never understand people who spend a whole day tasting wine, remark how much they like some of the wines they try, leave empty-handed and then stop at a bottle-o on the way home. Other than the obvious point that it is nice to support the business that has just invested time and money in your enjoyment, isn't it better to drink wine you know you like? Why take a gamble on a pretty label in a bottle-shop owned by a conglomerate when you have just had a sip of a delightful single-vineyard chardonnay poured for you by a person that cares about the wine. Next time you have to take a bottle to a dinner party, isn't it far preferable to show up with something you know is good (and you might even be able to share a few interesting little facts about the winery) than something that has a purple label (and purple is your favourite colour)?

7. You don't need to know anything about wine unless you want to work in the wine industry. No need to mumble this fact apologetically. All that matters for you is that you know what you like and that is why tasting is encouraged. In the small business where I work there are a lot of skilled people: a couple of budding winemakers, a woman who has a Masters degree in Wine Appreciation and well, me, I've read a lot and know a bit. People study for decades to become sommeliers, it is often a passion as well as a job. Apologising for your wine knowledge is like me watching a bunch of episodes of "The Block" and thinking that I should be able to renovate a house.

8. Learn some words to describe the type of wine you like. If you can taste a bunch of stuff and learn how to describe what you like then you will have better wine experiences for the rest of your life. I am being dramatic, but it's true. If you are in a restaurant, selecting a bottle to have on a special occasion, and you can say to the waiter "I would like a shiraz, I prefer a big fruity style" or "I would like a chardonnay but I don't like them too oaky" then the wine waiter or sommelier can really help you out. Also, no matter what your budget is, don't be afraid to give one with words as simple as "I would like something around the $30 mark". In places with a large wine-list there is usually a huge range of pricing and styles available and it saves everybody time and embarrassment if you can give the staff some sort of guide.

9. Never be afraid to learn, ask questions if you are interested in something. That it what we are all on the planet to do in my opinion. Learn.

If anyone wants to share their good or bad wine experiences I love to hear them.

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