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Amplify Your Taste, Bud!

The wine tasting technique that I describe in this article was developed over the last fifteen years out of sheer frustration. As a wine sales representative, I’ve made hundreds of wine presentations to chefs, maître d’s, sommeliers and restaurant owners. I’ve poured wine in restaurant kitchens, bars and dining rooms, and I’ve tasted wine out of glass, paper, plastic and even styrofoam cups. It’s discouraging to confess how many times I’ve heard even the wine experts say something like this: “I don’t get what they’re saying in this wine description.”

I needed a wine-tasting technique that experts and novices alike could master in minutes. I also wanted to help people new to wine tasting get excited immediately about the aromas and flavors in wine. I wanted to hear them say, “I never knew wine could taste this good.” Or “I can really taste the wine for the first time!”

So I developed a method I call “Power Tasting.” It’s easy to learn, and it works. I can’t back that statement up with academic studies or empirical data, but the positive comments of nearly a thousand wine tasters have convinced me that any wine aficionado should give Power Tasting a try.

How do you taste a wine?

There are many factors to consider when tasting a wine: the container or glass, the wine, the eye, nose, lips, mouth and tongue, the soft palate, the nasal passage and throat, and last of all, the stomach (or the spittoon). Each serves a specific purpose.

The glass is the most unpredictable factor in the tasting process, varying from a plastic cup to crystal stemware. The eye visually whets the appetite. The nose can be an effective tool to facilitate taste but many times is hindered by distractions — the scent of dinner or a summer breeze, to name a few. The lips should be pursed to help contain a small amount of wine. The mouth, for obvious reasons, is a critical tool in any wine-tasting technique. The tongue is the center of basic sensations — sweet, sour, bitter and salt. The soft palate is where the finish of a wine resides. The nasal passage carries the wine’s aroma to the olfactory organs. The throat is the place through which good wine will pass. Finally, there’s the stomach (or spittoon!), where all wine, good or bad, eventually will reside.

When evaluating a wine, the standard technique considers sight, smell, taste, finish and an overall impression. The idea behind Power Tasting is to maximize this available information.

Standard tasting techniques are all over the board. There is what I call the OTDT technique (Over the Tongue and Down the Throat). This method yields not much more than the basic tongue sensations of sweet, sour, bitter and salt. The second technique, one that many tasters new to wine employ, is what I call ALS (A Little Sip). This results in the appreciation of a little flavor that wafts its way through the senses, but it is an ineffective way to evaluate a wine. The third approach is probably the most widely used by experienced tasters. I call it the TS (Traditional Slurpy). A complete explanation of this technique can be found on pages 95 and 96 of Emile Peynaud’s classic book, “The Taste of Wine.” (It takes two pages for Peynaud to describe this venerated wine-tasting technique, and I challenge any novice to follow successfully along.) Luckily, there is a simpler and better way.

Simply put, my Power Tasting technique is a seven-step process:

  1. Take a small sip.
  2. Swish the liquid in your mouth for approximately 10 seconds.
  3. Swallow or spit.
  4. Breathe in through your mouth, as if through a straw.
  5. Close your mouth and breathe out through your nose, pausing to reflect on the flavors and aromas.
  6. Breathe in through your nose.
  7. Breathe out through that “straw.”

Here are a few additional thoughts on the seven steps. Step 1) A small sip is all you need; generally, an eighth of an ounce will do. Step 2) Swishing the wine in the mouth for this length of time acclimatizes the mouth to the wine, giving you a better sense of the wine’s body, balance and acidity — especially when tasting different wine styles. I even find this method effective when switching back and forth between red and white, sweet and dry wines. Step 4) Drawing in a breath to a moderate three-count is about right.

The key to the success of Power Tasting is “going retro.” In Step 4, you collect the wine’s vapors. In Step 5, you propel these vapors in a focused stream up through the retro nasal passage into the nasal cavity and olfactory center, rather than depending on the nose. High up in your nasal passage is a small slit or recess where a mucous layer with protruding hairs, the olfactory mucosa, link nerves to the olfactory bulb, which is part of the brain. This whole area is about the size of dime. In order to get as much information to that area as possible, using the retro nasal passage is the most direct approach, rather than depending on the intake of vapors through the nose.

The ability to taste is largely a result of the ability to smell. In fact, many experts will tell you that taste is 70 to 80 percent smell. So an effective way of getting a large amount of information to the olfactory center, where aromas are “sorted out,” can only enhance the ability to taste. The “sorting out” process involves the olfactory mucosa translating aroma molecules into electrical impulses and then sending the impulses to our associative memory. Once there, our associative memory works to find a match with a prior experience. When there is a match, “BAM!” (with homage to Emeril). The corresponding information is transmitted to our thought processes, where we casually verbalize the aroma as “a racy raspberry with a touch of forest floor.”

You can provide even more focus by pausing to savor the feedback, preferably with your eyes closed. With practice you can even determine approximate alcohol levels from the sensations created by vapors passing through your nasal cavity in Steps 5 and 6. In Step 7, breathing out through your mouth creates friction on the inside of your cheeks, causing the saliva glands to kick in and replenish the moisture stripped away by the acidity and/or tannin in the wine. I call this the “gush rush.” It enhances the finish for good wines and brings out objectionable characteristics in others, while resetting the palate for the next wine to be tasted. This also affords the taster an opportunity to take secondary breaths in through the mouth and up through the nostrils to further identify other aspects of a wine.

All wine tasters, experienced or not, are a product of the surrounding environment. The library of aromas and tastes in our associative memory has been built by our life experiences, from growing up on a farm to eating our favorite foods. Science tells us that most of these libraries contain well over a thousand entries. Calling up these entries is not always easy. It takes practice. A novice taster can access about 50 entries. An experienced taster might access 200.

A wonderful tasting tool is Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel. Have you ever been tasting wine with a friend, and they ask whether you get a hint of anise in a wine, and suddenly the anise pops out at you? Scanning the wheel as you are tasting helps you focus on 90-plus aromas associated with wine. If this is too much to handle, use my “Starting Points” (see below), which gives a few aromas and flavors that can be associated with common grape varieties.

With proper use of the Power Tasting technique, the wine’s “nose” becomes a valuable supplement to the information you gather about a wine when you taste it. Varying your technique helps in gathering additional information. First “nose” the glass from the center, then next to the rim, and finally from 2 to 3 inches above the rim, in quick sniffing bursts and in long slow draws. Each technique captures different esters and aromatics.

Regarding glassware: There is nothing finer than drinking wine from the correct crystal stemware, but with Power Tasting, even wine from a paper cup will show you all of the subtle flavors and aromas that it has to offer. That’s because the key aromas are carried forcefully to the olfactory area through the retro nasal passages instead of being sniffed up through the nostrils. So happy Power Tasting, and may you soon be able to detect even the slightest hint of racy raspberry or damp forest floor!

Starting Points

  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Cassis • Blackberry • Cherry • Herbs • Mint • Vanilla • Cedar • Chocolate (after aging)
  • Merlot: Berry • Plum • Cherry • Vanilla • Spices
  • Zinfandel: Blackberry • Raspberry • Berry Jam • Black Pepper • Vanilla
  • Pinot Noir: Strawberry • Cherry • Violets • Vanilla • Spices • Soy/Earth (after aging)
  • Chardonnay: Pineapple • Pear • Green Apple • Citrus • Vanilla • Butter • Nuts • Spices
  • Sauvignon Blanc: Grapefruit • Lemon • Floral Notes • Melon • Dried Herbs • Bell Pepper • Vanilla • Butter
  • Riesling: Honeysuckle • Peach Apricot • Green Apple • Pear • Honey