It’s the most basic skill in any wine lover’s tool set. Believe it or not, putting it in your mouth and drinking is only part of it, there is a whole procedure steeped in tradition and rooted in science.
So you have a few friends over for supper and one of them has a nice bottle of wine. You like the taste, but could not tell the difference between box wine and a 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Here are a few pointers.
A bottle will develop the longer it stays open, as the oxygen mixes in, the harsher taste will mellow out and the aroma will flourish, but don’t keep it open too long (why would you?) or the oxygen will render it undrinkable. So open it, pour two to three ounces, replace the cork and go on to the next step.
In a clear glass, start by looking at it in front of a white surface; look for color, thickness and limpidity. A young wine will normally have a violet tinge, with age it will turn to a ruby red then amber. Stir the liquid by gently swirling it in the glass, some of it will stick to the glass, that’s the alcohol, the thicker it looks, the more alcohol it has.
Then comes the smell; swirling the wine will make the wine oxygenate and the aroma come out. There are different ways to do it, some people smell with each nostril then both, some at the middle of the glass, then the edge. The hard part is putting names to what you smell: berries, cherries, flowers, herbs, leather, earth, prunes, coconuts, incense, spices, wood, smoke, musk, pepper, etc. If the wine has a strong, earthy smell, like wet dirt, it may indicate that it has turned bad.
Now to taste the wine; take a small portion of liquid in your mouth along with about twice as much air, swish the wine all over your mouth for a good 5 to 10 seconds before swallowing. First there is the ‘mise en bouche’. What are the first tastes that come to your tongue? Then there is the ‘attack’. Does the taste quickly cover your whole mouth or is it subtle? Next, check for acidity and texture. Does it have one overwhelming trait or multiple subtle ones? How long does the taste stay in your mouth? Does it stay uniform, or does it develop?
So have fun, try different wines and, to be honest, box wine is pretty good after all the other bottles are done!