Short Sips – Useful Sips of Wine Info

The world of wine is pretty complex. Lots of technical, geeky things are a part of it. Lots of history and culture define wine around the world. There’s lots of attitude and posturing sometimes and there’s chemistry and science, artistry and creativity too. So I thought I’d offer up a series of posts I’m calling “Short Sips” in order to bring some order to that chaos in bite-sized bits of information, not lengthy posts about each topic of interest. If nothing else I hope these will give you some interesting things to add to a conversation over a nice glass if wine!

The Use of Screwtops.  I love them. And why not? The use of screwtops has grown dramatically because it makes wine easy. In my view they are the ideal way to seal a bottle of every day wine. And the use of a screwtop insures you wont be getting a “corked” bottle. I’ll always love the pop of the cork, and I believe that cork is best for age-worthy wine (another topic), but give me a screwtop for the convenience of every day.

Buying Futures. Buying futures is a strategy for wine acquisition to lock in a price well before the wine is released to the market, basically when it’s in the barrel. It’s a strategy used by collectors and investors who are betting that the wine will be at least worth the price they lock in, and hopefully more. But also by people who want to ensure they get the wine they want. Futures are a good deal for the winery since they get their money upfront – and they can be a great deal for the wine lover too. I’ve even known people who have bought a case of wine this way when a child or grandchild is born as a future (pun) gift. Like any investment do your homework.

About Sulfites. Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist or an MD, but I’ve been around wine for quite a while, so here’s what I think: I believe that any issue of sulfites in wine is over-stated. Virtually all wines contain added sulfites. Sulfur is added during winemaking as a preservative, as it is in many foods. And sulfites even occur in small amounts naturally. I’ve had friends tell me they can drink European wines when on vacation without getting a headache or runny nose because they don’t have sulfites. That’s a myth. They do. Even most organic wines contain sulfites although some do feature “no added sulfites.” US law requires labeling (click to read about labels) for any wine sold here with a base level of sulfites. Often the headache, runny nose culprits are the natural histamines people are reacting to, not the sulfites (although there are small percentage of folks who have an allergy that’s real, and I’m not dissing you here). If you are reacting at all it’s likely from red wine since there is longer grape skin contact – and likely more histamines. If your reaction is across all types of wine then you may truly be one of the approximately 1% who are sulfite sensitive.

So that’s it for the first post of Short Sips – I hope you like having more little sips of wine info add to your wine experiences!

From Vine to Wine – Winemaking!

It’s that time of year, at least if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, the time to harvest the grapes and begin turning them into wine. In fact I just heard from one Napa winemaker that she has three varieties already picked – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. They’re in the winery undergoing the early stages of winemaking. The Cabernet Sauvignon is still hanging on the vines just waiting a bit longer to get to the perfect ripeness for its harvest as well.

Then what happens? At the winery quite a lot!  But for you – Pour a glass of wine, put up your feet and get comfy. Then think about what it is you’re about to sip – and appreciate the magic in your glass.

Getting from vine to wine is where the art and science of winemaking takes over.  And while nothing can substitute for the best grown grapes (remember – great wine begins in the vineyard), it’s also true that the craftsmanship of winemaking can make or break even the best grapes by the time the wine is in the bottle.

So let’s do a some Wine Smarts 101 and go through the steps of winemaking. I find that knowing it makes me even more appreciative of the effort and passion that goes into each Sip I take. Maybe you will too. A quick word – I’ve streamlined the process to give you the best overview without getting too geeky and technical.

Harvest is a terrific time to be in wine country. And if you get the chance, doing some picking –  it’s great fun (and some hard work too).

Crush Camp 001
Ken Picking Grapes

The single biggest determinant about when to pick is the sugar level of the grapes along with a watchful eye on the weather. When the grapes are picked it starts a sequence of activities that happen rather quickly. There is a bit of difference between white and red winemaking but essentially the idea is to get the grape juice fermented and turned into wine. Here’s how that happens.

As the grapes are brought into the winery the first step is typically sorting out damaged and less ripe grapes and bunches and then moving the rest into Step 1. NOTE: There are nuances and additional methods that winemakers can use in each of these steps but we are sticking with the basics.

  1. Step one is the Crusher/Destemmer – a machine that quite literally crushes open the grapes to let the juice out while separating off the stems. This juice is called “Free run” and often it’s captured to keep as the first best start of the wine.
    1. For white wine the crushed grapes are immediately moved to the Press, but not in the case of reds. For whites the Press gently squeezes out all of the juice into a tank to begin Fermentation

      OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
      Antique Wine Press
    2. The reds skip the Press for now and all the crushed goodies go directly into a Fermentation tank to start what is called Maceration. Maceration is letting the juice, skins and seed all stay in contact for a while – this is how the red wine gets red – since all grape juice is basically clear it’s the skins that give the color.
  2. Fermentation is how we get wine from grape juice. Yeast is added to the juice and it gobbles up the sugars and chemically turns it into alcohol.
    1. White wines are fermented cold and it’s best that it happens rather quickly to ensure the delicacy of the fruit flavors aren’t lost. The stainless steel, temp controlled tanks help the winemaker control that speed, and depending on the the wine variety and style, the fermentation can go from about ten days to around a month.IMG_2222.JPG
    2. For reds: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Ok – apologies to Shakespeare’s witches, but reds like to seethe and bubble in the tank. Fermentation is hot and slow, keeping those skins in contact with the juice. As the natural CO2 is released the glop of skins and stuff rises up in the tank forming a cap. The winemaker has to regularly recirculate it to keep it all fermenting (called Cap Management) – usually from two to six weeks depending on the variety, e.g. shorter for Pinot Noir; longer for Cabernet.
  3. Not to confuse anyone but there is a secondary process called Malolactic Fermentation where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.
    1. For white the only wine usually undergoing this is Chardonnay. This takes out tartness and often adds that buttery quality you can taste.
    2. For reds it’s normal to do a Malolactic Fermentation
  4. Now we Clarify the wine. There are several methods winemakers use to make the juice clear – like pumping between one tank to another or barrel to barrel, or filtering, or a process called fining which involves adding things like egg whites to capture the sediments, etc. The important thing is to get the wine clear and the sediments out.
  5. Time to settle and Age the wine.IMG_2256
    1. Most whites stay in the stainless steel tanks, however oak can add complexity to wines like Chardonnay and it’s very typical to put it into barrels for some aging.
    2. Most reds go right into barrels to age and come together by softening the tannins in the new wine.
  6. Blending and Bottling. Blending is a part of winemaking. The winemaker can choose to mix different wines sourced from various vineyards, or from different varieties, etc. For more on Blending see this post. But the key is that when the winemaker is ready to present us with the wine then it’s into the bottle it goes. In many cases there is more aging to be done in the bottle, and some countries there are specific rules about this along with definitions about what makes a Reserve wine. Here’s some further info on that.  However, most of the Every Day wine we drink goes from winery to bottle to the shelf – and it’s time to Sip!

Whew – So that’s how we go from vine to wine.  I hope you’re not worn out by all of this Wine Smarts 101 – I never am!

And that means it’s time to Sip!

Sips’ Guide to Wine Smarts

I have long been fascinated by wine, which should come as no surprise since you are reading this blog!  I love to Sip it and share it. I love to discover new wine experiences and regions, tasty tasting opportunities and the perfect marriage of wine and food. But I have also always enjoyed the complexity of wine. It is a product of nature shaped by winemaking art and science. As such, wine has its own vocabulary, its own “wine words.”

Therefore I’ve put some of the most common terms all in one place called “Smarts – Wine Words” which you can simply click on from the main navigation of the blog whenever you feel the need. This is a permanent page so you can visit it anytime.

There are lots of wine glossaries around, and there’s always Google, so by all means take advantage of any resource if you have questions. But here at Sips I’ve tried to put the definitions into every day language with a minimum of techno wine speak. And you have an open invitation to suggest any additions to the list.

I hope you find it a helpful way to become smarter about wine.

Click on through to the Sips’ Guide to Wine Smarts or take a look at the list below.

Sips’ Guide to Wine Smarts

Acidity Acid is key to a wine’s balance.  There are a number of acids present in wine but the main ones are tartaric, malic and lactic.  The acidity in wine can give it a little zip, make it taste fresh, add some taste notes like green apple or that buttery quality of chardonnay, and even influence the color.
Alcohol Alcohol is the second largest component of wine and to find out how much is in there all you have to do is look at the label. What you’ll generally see is anywhere from 10 – 15%, but dessert wines and fortified wines like port go even higher. Alcohol gives the wine depth and mouthfeel. It seems to add weight to the wine that you can both taste and see.  When you taste higher alcohol wines there is a noticeable fullness to the sip and sometimes it might even seem a little hot. 
Appellation This is a defined and typically regulated area of geography in wine producing regions used to identify common practices and boundaries where grapes are grown.
AVA – American Viticultural Area Clusters of growing regions that truly gives more meaning and definition when it comes to the wine. Each exists because there are some shared characteristics of earth and sky, a confluence of soil and climate that lend distinctiveness to the grapes and wines. There are 230 AVAs in the US and if the AVA is on the label then 85% of the wine is from there.
Body Body is really about how the wine feels in your mouth and much of that has to so with how much alcohol the wine has and the grape variety as well as the wine making style.
Botrytis Botrytis is a fungus that pierces the grape skin which leads to water evaporation and the concentration of sugars.  Sounds bad but tastes great when the wines are made, like the spectacular wines of Sauternes. Also known as “Noble Rot.”
Component Wine is made up of some key elements that are known as components – water, alcohol, sugar, acid and a bunch of magic beans called phenolics. 
Corked A fault in wine caused by “cork taint” from a chemical compound called TCA. It causes the wine to have a noticeable smell of mold, wet cardboard or, my favorite, old gym shoes! It is safe to drink but probably not enjoyable. Return the bottle.
Dry Drycontains less than 1% sugar. When the sugar is below our ability to taste it then the wine is considered Dry.
Estate Wine If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes.
Fermentation Fermentation is the conversion of grape sugars into alcohol through the action of yeast cells.
Fortified Wine Wine with additional alcohol, usually clear brandy or other spirits, added during fermentation. Common fortified wines are sherry, port and marsala. Alcohol levels are typically 18 – 20%.
Lees Lees are the sediments left over from fermentation, mostly the dead yeast cells. 
Legs Also known as Tears. The residue from the evaporation of alcohol in the wine in the glass which appear as visibly thicker yet translucent liquid on the inside of the glass. Slower moving legs indicates higher alcohol because alcohol is volatile and it evaporates faster that water.
Maceration Grape juice from red grapes isn’t red, it’s basically a clear liquid.  All the color for red wines comes from leaving this juice in contact with the red grape skins after they’re crushed and during the fermentation into wine. This is called maceration.
Macroclimate Refers to the climate across a broad wine growing region e.g. Napa Valley
Malolactic Fermentation Malolactic fermentation is a secondary process where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.  It’s a common practice for red wines but Chardonnay is usually the only white treated this way.  This results in the “buttery” taste description.  It gives it that big, more full bodied feel in your mouth.
Meritage If no one grape is 75% of the wine in the bottle then it has to be labeled simply Red Wine or White Wine – this is where you find branded, proprietary blends (example is Oracle from Miner), or may see the word Meritage, which signifies the use of the Bordeaux varieties and membership in an association with governing rules – each grape in the blend must be identified.
Mesoclimate Mesoclimate refers to the climate in a pretty small area, like a vineyard.  Climate is what happens over time, weather is what is basically happening now. There can be significant mesoclimate variation in parcels of vineyard land that are even right next to each other.
Microclimate Microclimate is even a smaller area than mesoclimate, even down to a few rows within a vineyard or down to a particular vine.
Mouthfeel The textural sensation of wine when tasted in the mouth. Often described in terms of weight, viscosity, astringency, smoothness, sharpness, etc.
Noble Rot “Noble Rot” is Botrytis, the fungus that pierces the grape skin which leads to water evaporation and the concentration of sugars.  Sounds bad but tastes great when the wines are made, like the spectacular wines of Sauternes.
Off Dry When there is some sweetness we can taste in the wine it is generally considered Off Dry and this can range considerably between styles and varieties due to the winemaking.
Phenolics These are the compounds that give wine everything from its color and the vibrancy of its taste, to longevity and age-worthiness.
Reserve In the US, Australia/New Zealand and South America, Reserve is not a regulated designation.  In the Old World there is broad European Union regulation of labeling which is then customized in each country. In Italy and Spain there is specific meaning to the term Riserva or Reserva based on the aging of the wine before it is released for sale. It is time focused. 
Residual Sugar When there is some sweetness we can taste then the wine is generally considered Off Dry and this can range considerably. This is known as the Residual Sugar and winemakers specifically make some wines to give us the little hint of sweetness that many folks like.
Single Vineyard You will frequently see the name of a specific vineyard on the label.This means the wine is a single vineyard or vineyard designated wine and, along with featuring the name on the label, there are other considerations that go along with it. If there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard
Structure Structure is the balance between the components of the wine, the relationship between the alcohol, acids, sugars, tannins and other phenolics that you can taste.
Sulfites Refers to the sulfur dioxide added in the winemaking process to act as a preservative. Some sulfites also appear naturally as a by-product of fermentation. Winemakers add sulfur to preserve freshness and retard discoloration. This is a common practice in food production. There is no wine that is truly sulfite free although naturally occurring sulfites are typically found only in minuscule amounts.
Sur Lie Refers to leaving the wine on the lees to enhance flavor. This aging process is call sur lie in the French and it results in creating a fuller bodied and nicely drinking wine. This sur lie aging adds flavor and character to the wine that often is tasted as toasty, wheaty or creamy when you sip it.
Tannin Tannin is a phenolic from the skins and seeds of the grape giving red wine a noticeable astringent quality and are critical to aging. Tannin is also present as the result of oak barrel aging.
Tears Also known as Legs. The residue from the evaporation of alcohol in the wine in the glass which appear as visibly thicker yet translucent liquid on the inside of the glass. Slower moving legs indicates higher alcohol because alcohol is volatile and it evaporates faster that water.
Terroir Terroir is a French word pronounced tehr-wahr  and there is no direct translation into English. Terroir describes everything that is happening in, around, underneath, above and throughout the vineyard – the entire physical environment that impacts the grapes. 

Does the Vintage Year Matter?

It is the most common and consistent item on wine labels around the world- the vintage year.  The vintage year is the year that the grapes were grown, harvested and made into wine. And the short answer to the question, “Does the vintage year matter?” is Yes. But as with most things about wine the short answer needs a little longer explanation!

There is a saying in the winemaking world that “great wine begins in the vineyard,” which is the recognition and acknowledgment that wine is the product of well grown and tended grapes – and nothing impacts the growing more than Mother Nature.

While the grower can control for lots of things throughout the season, and the winemaker can ply his or her craft expertly, it’s really Mother Nature that has the greatest power and influence over the wine that ends up in the bottle.  And we know that Mother Nature can be unpredictable and fickle, especially as we witness our changing climate around the world.

So in a word Yes, the vintage does matter because it allows us to assess the single biggest factor that influenced the wine we are buying – the growing conditions of that season in the field. This is particularly important if the wine we are buying is expensive or expected to improve with age, or with wines that are made to drink young and fresh, like rose’.

For example, if I am willing to spend $50 for a Splurge Sip bottle of wine I would like to know as much about the conditions that helped to create it; or if I want to put away a special bottle until some occasion in the future, then I want to know if it has the staying power.  When it comes to rose’ I like it young and fresh so I want the most recent vintage, the 2016 versus a 2015 sitting next to it on the shelf.  There’s even a wine from Portugal called Vihno Verde, which means ‘green wine’ named not because of its color but to drink when young and at its freshest.

So all things being equal, the vintage year does become an important factor in making certain wine decisions. Some years the growing conditions are simply better than others and that’s reflected in the ability of the winemaker to make the most of it.

But I also maintain that while vintage matters, it is not particularly important  for most of the Every Day Sip wine consumed. In a previous post titled “When Should I Drink It?” I wrote, “Every day wine is just that.  Buy it and drink it.  It’s not scientific but my own rule of thumb is that any wine produced and marketed for $30 or less is made for today’s enjoyment, not years in any cellar.” And now I will add that the vintage of that wine is less important than the “drink it now” enjoyment. So don’t stress about it.  Will there be differences between years? Sure. But the bigger production wines that comprise most of the Every Day Sip bottles on the shelf are less dependent on the specifics of a microclimate and even broader weather influences. Most of these wines are not estate grown or single vineyard wines to begin with but are made from grapes grown over much larger vineyard areas and brought into the winery.

Here are some resources to help you be the judge about whether vintage matters as well as a couple of earlier posts to guide you through the wine label.

Reading the Wine Label
What is a Single Vineyard Wine?

Vintage References
eRobertParker Vintage Chart
Wine Enthusiast Vintage Chart
Wine Spectator Vintage Charts

All of this writing has made me ready for a break – so I think it’s definitely time for a Sip!

Ode to Greek Wines

A few weeks ago I went to a tasting hosted by the Wines of Greece.  It was pretty timely because, if you follow along with me, you know that I have some resolutions that I am keeping up with throughout the year. One of them was to share some info about Greek wine: June – let’s stay in the Mediterranean and sail on to Greece.  They’ve only been making wine there since Homer was a boy! 

I love it when a plan comes together!

The tasting was terrific and the visiting winemakers and other staff from the wineries and distributors couldn’t have been nicer – or more informative about their wines. Too often the wine from Greece is associated with simple Roditis along with shouts of “Opa” at the restaurant or aggressive Retsina, but don’t’ let that fool you into misunderstanding how much quality wine there is to enjoy from Greece.  The Greeks are making wonderful wines from their indigenous grapes, but also from the international varieties too, meaning Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.  And the result is some unique blending which can offer us wines with familiar names on the label alongside grapes new to many of us. In my view that’s the ideal way to introduce us to the wines of Greece.

There are four local varieties I’d like to highlight: The whites are Assyrtiko and Moschofilero.  The reds are Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko.

Assyrtiko. This is the white wine of Santorini and if there is a wine that is the ideal partner for the bounty of the sea, this is it.  santorini_greek_island_greeceAssyrtiko has vivid acidity along with citrusy flavor and telltale mineralty.  Whenever we see the word mineralty Chablis comes to mind, but unlike chardonnay, Assyrtiko leads with a fresh lemon zest quality that seems perfect for sun-drenched sipping. And this grape blends particularly well with Sauvignon Blanc giving us delightful wine that is very food friendly.

Moschofilero.  Tropical flowers and food friendly acidity make Moschofilero a lively choice for everyday white sipping. Much like Pinot Grigio, it’s the kind of wine that is pleasant and refreshing all by itself yet shines when you put some steamed clams on the table. I think it’s a lovely starter wine with salad.

Xinomavro. From the northern part of Greece comes Xinomavro, a red wine that typically is more medium bodied with bright acidity and red berry flavors.  Most often people compare it to Pinot Noir.  In my own tasting I wouldn’t disagree, however I found it to be more like Nebbiolo, the wine of Italy’s Piedmont, that kept coming back at me – a flavor with roses and violets. That said, the Pinot comparison is a great way to quickly shortcut to Xinmavro’s versatility with food.

Agiorgitiko.  This is perhaps the best known of the Greek reds, but you may know it by its English name, St. George. I really like these wines. They have good structure and are tannic enough for meaty dishes.  Mostly I tasted black cherries and dried fruit with a little spicy quality. Well made and aged in oak, these wine have complexity and all of the nuance one would expect from a world class wine.

The one challenge to enjoying Greek wine is finding them. The Wines of Greece hosted a tasting for restauranteurs, retailers and the media – to get the word out that there are terrific wines just waiting to be discovered. The good news is more retailers are carrying them, and we can let our fingers do the walking online.  On your behalf I let my fingers walk so here are some Greek wines for your to explore.

Every Day Sip
Santo Santorini Assyrtiko 2015 $14
Nasiakos Moschofilero 2015 $16
Boutari Moschofilero $18
Skouras St. George, Nemea $18
Gaia Agiorgitiko 2015 $20
Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro 2012 $24

Guest Sip
Domaine Karydas Xinomavro 2012 $28
2015 Tselepos Assyrtiko $30

Many Napa Valleys

When it comes to defining wine in the US most people probably sort right away to Napa Valley.  It was the wines of Napa that really put the US on the world wine map, and Napa seems to serve as the shorthand for our wine in general, California wine more specifically, and all of the images and texture that conjure up “wine country.” And that’s all good for sure.  But there’s a lot more to Napa than those generalities capture.  In fact there are many Napa Valleys. No, not geographically, but within the confines of this amazingly special county there are clusters of growing regions that truly give it more meaning and definition when it comes to the wine.

These are called AVAs – American Viticultural Areas, and within the Napa Valley, which is an appellation all on its own,  there are sixteen sub-regions.  Each exists because there are some shared characteristics of earth and sky, a confluence of soil and climate that lend distinctiveness to the grapes and wines.  When it comes to getting deeper into the bottle and appreciating the magic of wine, the more you know about where and how its grown, and how its made, the more each Sip becomes more than just a taste.  So when you see an AVA on the label it’s your first clue about what’s in the bottle.

Here are the 16 Napa Valley AVAs along with a map from the Napa Valley Vintners.  And if you visit their site here there’s even more detail.  But I’d like hit a few of the highlights from my own, nontechnical perspective.

  • Atlas PeakNapaValley AVA Map
  • Calistoga
  • Chiles Valley
  • Coomsbville
  • Diamond Mountain
  • Howell Mountain
  • Los Carneros
  • Mount Veeder
  • Oak Knoll
  • Oakville
  • Rutherford
  • Spring Mountain
  • St. Helena
  • Stags Leap
  • Wild Horse Valley
  • Yountville

I don’t pick favorites (insert the smiley face emoji here!) – but I love

  • The Cabernets from Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap. To me these valley floor growing areas are what Napa Cab is all about – ripe and lush, structured and textured with layers of taste and tannin to drink now or park for a while.
  • That Los Carneros is unique and is a shared AVA with Sonoma – and its an area that greets us with the cooler and windy influences of San Pablo Bay, which means Pinot Noir with bright berry fruitiness and tingly acidity and Chardonnays that seem to mimic the mineralty of Chablis
  • The grapes from the mountain ridges where they grow above the fog line, ripening in the sunshine to robust flavors. From Spring Mountain to Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain to Diamond Mountain the Cabs are powerful and the Merlot are lip-smackers.
  • That the northern part of the valley up by Calistoga and St. Helena is the warmest. I like it for the big tastes of Zin and Syrah and for Cabs that are densely fruity. We paid a visit to Calistoga in an earlier post you can check out.  This is also where I get my favorite Cabernet Franc direct from the winery.

Napa Valley is many wines and many Sips and no single post can possibly capture them all.  But as you dive in a little deeper and choose some wines from the different AVAs you’ll find the diversity and nuance, as well as the variety and vitality, that make the many Napas the quintessential wine country.

Here are some Sips for you to explore – as well as some tips on paying a visit to Napa Valley.

Every Day Sip
2015 Frog’s Leap Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc $12
Cameron Hughes Lot Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $20
Martin Ray Chardonnay Los Carneros $20

Guest Sip
BV Rutherford Cabernet $28
Steltzner Cabernet Stags Leap District $35
Cuvaison Pinot Noir Carneros $35
Mondavi Oakville Cabernet $40
Ballentine 2014 Cabernet Franc Pocai Vineyard Calistoga $48
Terra Valentine Cabernet Spring Mountain $48
Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain, 2012 $50

Splurge Sip
Groth Cabernet Oakville $55
Chimney Rock Cabernet Stags Leap $70
2012 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $180

The Sips Approach to Wine Tasting

You’ve all seen it. Most, if not all of you, have done it.  The it is the ritual of tasting wine. Sometimes all that swirling and sniffing looks pretty affected – But the truth of the matter is that engaging with the wine in the glass is the best way to enhance your Sip appreciation. First, a simple tasting ritual can tell you if the wine has any faults that will hinder or prevent you from enjoying it.  Then there’s the fact having a regular way to taste the wine in your glass will jumpstart your sipping experiences – kind of like lighting up your tastebuds!  Finally, there’s an opportunity to know a bit more about wine every time you raise a glass to you lips, and I think that adds to the overall enjoyment and entertainment we get from this amazing beverage.

So how can we create a tasting process that does those things, and without appearing to be some snooty wine aficionado?  The answer is to keep it simple and keep it real.  There are five easy steps that I call the Sips Approach to digging wine: See, Swirl, Smell, Sip and Savor.  Here’s what they mean:

See.  Be aware.  Look at the wine in your glass.  What you See can tell you a lot about what you’re going to taste and experience.  While we all know there is red, white and rose’ wine, within those very broad definitions is a wide variety of shade and texture. For example, if you just poured a taste of chardonnay what do you see?  Is it rich yellow or pale straw? Is it golden or honey-like with tint of amber. Typically the richer golden color will tell you that this chard came from a warmer year or region or spent some time barrel aging. And without taking a sip you can anticipate a more peachy or tropical fruit taste, probably with a fuller feel in your mouth. Each wine variety has its own color and texture profile and the more you See and become aware, the more you’ll come to know wine.

Swirl. Yep – do it. Don’t feel intimidated.  Swirling the wine in the glass is not only a great way to also See and admire it more, it’s the wine’s handspring out of the bottle. Swirling releases the aroma, essentially aerates the wine so that more of the wine is exposed to the air and flavor molecules are ready for your nose. Also, it can tell us a bit about the alcohol too.  Since our taste is driven by smell, swirling the wine in the glass activates the evaporation of some of the alcohol which carries the odor that we will Smell and lets us See the “tears” or “legs” on the side of the glass. Long slow legs indicates higher alcohol which tells us the wine will be more full tasting. Now…

Smell.  That’s it, stick your nose in that glass and give it a good whiff!  This is a fun one. But it’s also where folks get carried away.  Here’s where to keep it simple.  When I Smell I try to look for three types of aromas or odors. First anything bad or off-putting. Common faults are cork taint (think smelly gym socks) or acetone (nail polish) or like a Band-Aid and other unnatural smelling things. If it doesn’t smell right it’s probably not right so send it back or return the bottle to the store. Next, the fruit. Each variety has characteristic smells of fruit and I like to smell for a predominant one – not a litany of every fruit I’ve ever had (like some wine reviewers)! Next there are indicators of how the wine was made so I smell for the oakyness (vanilla, toasty or woody) or things like sur lie aging (yeasty or bready), and so on.  In future posts I’ll give you a whole list of Smell by different grape varieties and winemaking styles. But start now and trust your nose!

Sip.  Yes, you get to actually sip the wine! Here’s where I like to keep it real. Let the wine work around the inside of your mouth, let the aroma work back from your mouth to your nose. What’s there? Don’t try to name everything you experience… pick three, whether they be different fruits, herbal or vegetal qualities, flowers or zippy acidity, woodiness or style, body or astringency, just let the wine live in your mouth before you swallow it.  And then…

Savor. This is where the magic happens. This is where it all comes together – or not. This is where the awareness of what you See in the glass, the liveliness of the Swirl, the aroma assault of the Smell and the payoff of the Sip becomes a wine experience. And as you continue to try different wines and practice the Sips Approach the whole world of wine will be more open, more familiar, less intimidating and more entertaining for you.

Have I got you hooked?  If so here’s a terrific app to help you along the way.  It’s from the University of Adelaide in Australia and it is an interactive way to taste along and keep up with the experiences you Sip.  Find it for iPhone or Android: My Wine World (TM) produced by the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, the University of Adelaide.

Let’s Sip!