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The Five S's of Wine Tasting


We’ve been talking with Jay Buchsbaum, a wine educator from Royal Wine Corporation, who has taught us a great deal about serving wine with our meals. When I asked him about helping me learn to appreciate fine wines, he promised me a lesson in the “Five S’s.” So here it is – our mini-manual in wine tasting!

Q: Ok, Jay, I’m ready to start really enjoying wine. What are those five S’s of wine-tasting?

A: They are Sight, Swirl, Smell, Savor, Spit (or Swallow). I’ll explain each one.

First: Sight. After you pour the wine into your glass (about 1/3 to 1/2 full), take a good look at it. (For this reason, it’s important to drink out of a clear glass.) You want to identify two visual qualities: color and clarity. The color of a red wine can be from muted purple to a reddish, brick-colored brown. It shouldn’t be actually brown, though, because that would mean that it’s probably too oxidized. If it’s a blue-purple, it’s probably too “young” and would taste better in a few months. The ideal wine should be in the middle range.

White wines can be clear –almost like water -- to a golden brown, if it’s an aged dessert wine such as Sauterne. Moscato is fine if it’s clear. Some wines should be drunk in their first vintage – within 15 months of when the grapes were picked. They’ll still be ok after that, but not at their optimum.

Now about clarity: The wine in the glass should be clear -- nothing floating, not milky. It’s hard to see through reds, but if you hold it to the light and can see it clearly, make sure that it’s not hazy. It’s easier to see through the whites.

Q: Sometimes I see sediment in the bottle. Should I throw it out?

A: Absolutely not! Sediment is ok. Even though wine is usually stored on its side, you stand the bottle for an hour or two before serving, so the sediment can settle. If it remains suspended in solution, that’s not good. Some vintner’s intentionally don’t filter their wine. If you have a wine that’s aged and hasn’t gone through filtration, you just keep pouring it carefully, until the sediment starts getting into the wine. Then you stop.

Q: And the next step is “Swirl.” Sounds like fun. How is it done?

A: The reason we swirl the wine in the glass is to flatten the wine against the sides of the glass as much as possible. That exposes more of it to the air, so it will release as much of the aromas and esters (a chemical compound) as possible. Remember that the aroma is a part of your wine experience. So here’s how you do it: Pour the wine into a stemmed glass and put it on the table. Holding the stem between your thumb and forefinger, make circular motions on the table. You can keep from spilling your wine by not filling the glass! By the way – don’t do this to Champagne or sparkling wines: you’ll lose your bubbles.

Q: So releasing the aroma is important. That brings us to the next “S,” I presume.

A: Yes: Smell.

Q: Give it a little sniff, right?

A: Don’t be afraid! Put your nose right down to the glass. You can’t do it wrong. If you want to maximize the experience, try the professional wine-tasting technique: inhale and blow out through your nose, rest a few seconds, tilt the glass (45° angle to increase the surface area of wine) and put your forehead against the top rim of the glass. (This closes the surface area, so all the aroma is going to your nose.) Then breathe in.

Q: Um, what am I supposed to smell, exactly?

A: There are three basic criteria:

First, judge its intensity. That first whiff –how pronounced is it? For example, Moscato and Gewurztraminer [pronounced gu-VOORTS-truh-MEE-nur] will jump right out of the glass; they’re intensely aromatic. They pop. Younger reds – while more intense - may not have much aromatics initially. It takes longer to release their aromas.

The second quality you’re looking for is genuineness: How specific are the aromas – how clear are the aromatics? When you pour orange juice or lemon juice, most people will recognize it, because it’s familiar. In the same way, many people will recognize the smell of Moscato – that Muscat grape aroma. Chardonnay has a specific aroma, also Bordeaux (even though they’re blends of 3-4 different grapes). It takes time for your nose to become learned. Some people develop this sense quickly. Good cooks will recognize flavors in food easily; it’s the same thing with wine.

And the third criterion is quality: how pleasant is it? For example, if you know your Muscats, you will be able to distinguish between a good one and a bad one. Something might smell “off.” It’s like sniffing orange juice and knowing it’s not fresh-squeezed. You can smell the difference.

Q: Savor is the next “S,” correct?

A: Yes, and not surprisingly, it’s similar to smell. That’s because smell and taste are so interconnected. The three categories for judging taste are the same as smell:

1. Initial intensity: is the taste strong or weak? Think of the range between water (almost unnoticeable) and honey (wow!) The wine’s intensity should be in between.

2. Genuineness: does it taste like the grape that it’s supposed to be? If it’s supposed to be light, it should taste light. If it’s supposed to be rich, it should be rich. You wouldn’t expect a Cabernet to taste like a Riesling.

3. Quality: Is it good or bad? You know the difference between orange juice made from concentrate and OJ that’s fresh-squeezed. Even within that range, most people can tell their favorite brand from another. In wine there are numerous aging components – there might be oak components (if it’s supposed to be there), alcohol components, and there should be balance between them. The more harmonious it is, the better the wine.

Q: I’m not sure I like the last one. Spitting isn’t refined.

A: Professional tasters spit out the wine, because they are drinking several samples at a time. But you don’t have to. You can swallow the wine. The idea is to experience what is called the “finish.” That simply means -- how long does the taste remain with you?

Q: Well how long is the taste supposed to remain with you?

A: Let me explain. When you take a glass of water, there is no flavor after it’s out of your mouth. But if you drink a strong cup of coffee, you can still taste it after you’ve swallowed it; the flavor lingers a bit. Some wines are meant to have shorter or longer finishes than others. Some are meant to go on and on, like a Late Harvest Riesling. It’s flavorful long after you’ve swallowed it. Pino Grigio should have a medium finish because, basically, the food flavors it complements wouldn’t linger. But if you’re eating a roast with strong flavors, the wine should have a long finish.

By the way, the finish could change. It doesn’t just last, your perception of it changes. A sweet dessert wine may taste sweet at first, but other nuances will surface later as the sweetness falls away. You want the finish on any wine to be good – not chalky, not unpleasant – just a nice finish.

Q: So that’s it?

A: Not quite. I’ve added my own sixth “S.”

Q: What’s that?

A: Simcha! Let the wine bring happiness to your life!

Q: Love it!

Do you have any Kosher Wine questions for Jay, our wine expert? He would love to answer them. Please leave your questions and comments in the comment section below. L'Chaim!