Wine Etiquette 101: Surviving Your First Wine Tasting

So, you just got your first invite to a wine tasting event. In a sense, it’s every enthusiast’s dream to sample an array of carefully curated fine wines. But in reality, it can be a nerve-wracking affair when you’re the only neophyte drinker in the group. As connoisseurs swirl, sniff, and exhale their exaltations or give a cautious but overwhelmingly thorough critique of the wine, you’re left scrambling for the appropriate adjectives to string together.

Now, bear in mind that becoming a wine expert doesn’t happen overnight. Even Robert Parker, the world’s finest wine critic, didn’t become an overnight sensation from the first sip. Practice does make perfect but  the good news is that you won’t have to flounder like fish out of water on the big day. To help you complete your journey from novice drinker to credible wine guru, Singapore Wine Vault has compiled a cheat sheet for you. Sample wine like a pro by following these fun and easy tips.

Look before you Sniff

Before diving into your drink, get an eyeful of your vino first. There’s a lot you can learn about the wine based on its appearance. Its color, density, and opacity are oftentimes dead giveaways for specific varietals and their quality. We recommend carefully examining your wine from birds-eye view to side view, taking note of its gradations in color. Zinfandel and Syrah, for example, are usually on the darker, inky purple side of the color spectrum. While Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and Merlot are often light and pale red in color. Next, hold the glass up to the light to gauge the wine’s clarity. A good vino is often vivid in color and sediment-free. While a murky tipple often indicates fermentation issues.

Follow this up with a good tilt and swirl. By slightly tilting your glass, you can observe the wine as it makes its run to the rim. If the edge of the liquid looks almost watery, then there’s a chance that the vino is thin and has little substance. While an off-colored orange body and rim may indicate oxidation. The wine could be spoiled or past its peak.

Now, for the swirl. Gently twirl your glass and check how  the fluid cascades from the bowl. If the wine has great ‘legs,’ meaning it forms rivulets that slowly descend from the side of the glass, then  you have a ripe, full-bodied wine on your hands.

Know Your Color Clues and Cues

When it comes to fine wine, color matters. It can indicate the age of the wine and its underlying fruit flavors even before you take your initial sip. Use the following descriptions and descriptors as a guide on how to identify your wine.

White Wines: At its youth, white wine is usually pale green in color. But as it matures, the vino develops a more golden shade. Now, when determining the wine’s fruit flavors, take its hue as your cue. Pale yellow and lemon yellow wines usually have a citrusy flavor profile . You’ll get  crisp notes of lemon, lime, grapefruit, and pineapple. A slightly more golden tint hints at tree and orchard fruit notes like peach, nectarine, pear, apple, and apricot.

Red Wines. When it comes to red wines, pale red with an auburn rim speaks of the vino’s youth. A richer shade of red or a brick-like hue connotes extensive oak or bottle aging. As for fruit flavors, it’s a matter of inky purple versus. red. If your wine is more purple than red, expect generous black fruit flavors like black cherry, blackcurrant, prunes, plum, blackberry, raisins, and figs.  But if your wine is more ruby than aubergine, think red fruits like raspberry, strawberry, cranberry, bing cherry, pomegranate, and candied cherry.

Sniff out the Bouquets and Aromas

Now that you’ve eyeballed your wine sufficiently, take your time in sniffing the tipple. Drink in its rich aromas. With a few, quick inhales, you can pick up its fruit, floral, and/or herbal scent. The perfume of flowers are common in fragrant whites like Viognier, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling. Whereas the smell of freshly mowed grass is often associated with Sauvignon Blanc. A whiff of churned butter hints at Chardonnay, while a red with an earthy and herb-driven nose suggests Cabernet Sauvignon.

Aside from attempting to identify your vino through its bouquet, you can also use your sense of smell to pick out its flavors. Oaked varietals usually offer notes of coconut, dark chocolate, mocha and vanilla. You can also sense hints of  roasted nuts, caramel, and tobacco smoke. Terroir-driven wines are different as well. They may have earthy flavors like forest floor, wild mushroom, and old leather.

Lastly, you can give your wine a whiff to ascertain its quality. Wine flaws tend to give off strange odors like wet cardboard (cork taint), and an overpowering vegetal stench (explosive acidity).  Now, if you sense a wine flaw, remember, DPIM—do not put in mouth. Or at least, wait for others to drink first and watch their reaction.

Worst Case Scenario: Can’t smell anything beyond grape? We say fake it ‘til you make it. Just pull out a face of intense concentration. Then agree with the most credible-looking taster. Take comfort in the fact that as the tasting continues, you’ll learn to pick up scents faster. Then you’ll  gain enough confidence to voice out what you actually think of the wine.

Remember: Sip, don’t Guzzle

Now, for the fun part. Take a proper sip of the vino by puckering your mouth and sucking the liquid in, as you would with a straw. You may feel a bit silly at first, but drawing in oxygen alongside the fluid will help aerate the wine. Let the wine coat your entire mouth, hitting all the right spots on your tongue. Post-sniff, this method of drinking wine will help you complete the wine’s flavor profile.

Contemplate its structure, tannin content, sweetness, body, complexity, and acidity. Are the wine’s flavors balanced? Is it too hot or alcohol-driven, too tart, or too sweet? Can you detect its tannins, or is it a wine that falls flat on its face? Does its flavors linger, or disappear almost instantly after touching your tongue? Remember, a balanced or harmonious wine should have well-integrated flavors and aromas. On the other hand, a  complex vino will keep delivering layers of tastes that linger sensuously on the palate.

Should you Spit or Swallow?

While spitting in public is considered rude and vulgar, in wine tastings, it’s pretty much the norm. The reason behind this is simple. At wine tasting events, you’ll be served around 10 wines in succession. Swallow every sip you’re offered and by round 7, you’ll be too tipsy to really ‘taste’ the next vino. Unless you have an incredible tolerance for alcoholic beverages. If you do, and then go and drink all of them. If not, well, the best recourse is to spit out the wine after every round. Don’t worry, most tasting events provide ice buckets or spittoons for the tasters.

Worst Case Scenario: If there are no spittoons in sight, follow the lead of your fellow participants. If they all start spitting the wine into nearby drains, it’s safe to do the same. If they swallow, then embrace the alcohol and swallow away as well.

Evaluate the Wine

Time to speak up. After trying one wine, the tasters are given the floor to judge the vino. Using what you’ve learned in the previous tips, construct a sound sentence using common wine descriptors. Don’t be afraid to get creative when speaking your mind.

Just remember that the words used to describe white wine usually includes its minerality (wet stone, limestone, flinty, steely), fruit flavors (lime zest, lemon meringue, pink grapefruit, canned peach, and baked apple), acidity (fresh, crisp, and zippy), and herbal undertones (dill, parsley, and grassy). For example, when describing Sauvignon Blanc, resist the urge to say “Kitty pee.” Go for: “Very crisp, with a nice hybrid Bermuda grass undertone. It reminds me of a summertime dalliance I had while vacationing in the Hamptons…” instead. Nailed it.

As for reds, we’re talking red and black fruit flavors (blackberry, black cherry, blackcurrant, raspberry, and strawberry), savory elements (tobacco smoke, cigar box, cedar, black pepper, and leather), tannins (robust, muscular, chewy, chocolate, round, and velvety), and style (barnyard, earthy, smoky, and fleshy). For a nice Cabernet Sauvignon, pair “Very succulent, blackberry and charred leather aroma,” with a Bordeaux anecdote for an instant victory. And as for its finish—the length of time the flavors linger—a succinct but sweet, “Nice finish,” would suffice.

Worst Case Scenario: If one of the wine tasters in the group decides to challenge your view, you have two options: agree amicably or stick to your guns. To agree without really surrendering, take another sip and say something along the lines of, “Ah, yes. It’s starting to open up…” But if you’re up to the challenge, cock an eyebrow or tilt your head and say, “No, I don’t think so. I suppose it speaks volumes of the wine’s versatility…” Then cover it up with a lengthy tale or two about your yacht life, until the critic waves his white flag of silence.

Have Fun

This isn’t so much a tip as it is a hard-and-fast rule: loosen up. You’re in a wine tasting event surrounded by the very best vinos from the organizer’s wine cellar. This is your time to try out different varietals, learn about your preferences, and make friends with fellow enthusiasts.