Drinking your favorite wine with friends or co-workers can be one of life’s great pleasures. But for those unfamiliar with wine and wine-tasting etiquette, it can be daunting.
As with many social experiences, there is a certain basic etiquette to wine tasting. But once mastered, it is appropriate for any vino and vintage.
While wine tasting is as ancient as its production, the modern wine-tasting ritual first came into popularity in the 14th century. It combines five basic steps in wine tasting or inspecting color, smell, swirl, taste, and savor — known to some as the five S’s: See, Sniff, Swirl, Sip and Savor.
Like the four C’s in diamond inspection, the five S’s determine the quality of a wine. Each step is essential. Seeing confirms the wine is a clear liquid with vibrant color. Swirling shows any floating bits — excess sediment or pieces of cork. It also warms and aerates the wine. Sniffing determines the maturity and drinkability of the wine. A wine that has turned is immediately discernible with a vinegar-like or wet cardboard-like smell. And lastly, savoring helps confirm the wine’s health and introduces its layered complexities.
Now that we know the basics, on to the ritual.
Wine lists can be terrifying, but most sommeliers are excited to recommend and help. When your wine steward asks, be honest about the price range and tell them your favorite wine or type of wine. Once selected, it is on to presentation and tasting.
First, the bottle is presented to the person who ordered it, allowing them to confirm the bottle. Now is the time to check if the vintage, year and type of wine are correct. If it’s an older bottle of wine, look at the fill level. Anything below the top of the bottle’s shoulder could indicate cork compromise. If the bottle and label are correct, indicate so. The server should open the bottle tableside and set the cork on the table.
To cork or not to cork? While many will squeeze or sniff the cork, don’t; the cork is not a fidget toy. Do glance at the cork or gently touch it to confirm that it is intact, as a crumbling cork might indicate an issue with the wine.
Next, the server will pour a small taste of the wine. Experiencing the wine is the final step for approval. And even though the taster is center stage, this is not the time to prove your dramatic skills.
When tasting a wine, be subtle. Quickly check the wine for clarity – no cloudiness or floating little bits. Now to swirling, don’t go overboard, one or two swirls will do. Swirling needs to be practiced, but it has a purpose: to warm and aerate the liquid. Now, take a deep sniff and a small sip. The smell and taste of the wine should tell you everything you need to know and are sufficient actions to declare a wine suitable.
If there is something wrong with the wine, you will know instantly. In the rare instance that you think the wine is off, speak up politely. Ask the sommelier to try the wine themselves and see what they think if you are unsure, and some wines will need to breathe a bit first.
Once approved, the server will pour the wine for everyone at the table. And then, the server will fill the taster’s glass last.
Related: How to Open and Serve Wine
If you are attending a tasting party or winery event, the same rules apply. But there are a few additional road rules at tasting events where multiple wine styles and makers are encountered.
Mind your manners. Don’t wear too much cologne or perfume. These affect the smell and taste of the wine, for you and everyone around you.
Do drink the water. It clears the palate and hydrates the mouth and taste buds.
Also, don’t be afraid to spit. When tasting wine, you are not trying to get drunk. Instead, you are there to experience the wine, determining if it is drinkable, enjoyable and appropriate for you.
Wine-tasting etiquette is about the wine. Once understood, wine tasting transforms from a daunting, almost terrifying task into a familiar pastime. And while there may always be some vintner snobbery, no one will complain as long as you follow the basic steps.
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