Savoring the Sip
Now you may taste the wine
The series of steps that contribute to a wine experience move from aromas to the place where, idiomatically, the grape meets the road. Tasting wine is the object of wine tasting. It can sometimes throw you.
Here’s my mea culpa: In late 2014, I went out to taste some wine, but first scarfed down a brisket sandwich in Newberg. That’s not normally my mode. I like to taste wine on a relatively empty stomach so as not to clutter my febrile mind or my palate. But passengers cannot always have their way. So, up we drove to Panther Creek. After several different wines, we encountered a premium Pinot Gris. However, my olfactory senses were in the breakroom and what my brain said had zero to do with what shimmered in my stem. “I think this a pleasant Chardonnay, very restrained and subtly fruitful.”
Wrong! I believe the misconception arose directly from the barbecue pit.
The reason dry crackers and low-moisture cheeses appear in tasting rooms is they don’t leave a sensory trail both labyrinthine and misleading. Likewise, wine tastings often begin with a starter wine or two as palate teasers; they help jump start our private wine reference libraries.
The party in your mouth
The tongue and salivary glands form the organs of taste; with our teeth, used more for food than wine, we can take a bite out of texture. The tongue comes equipped with buds — 3,000 to 10,000 per person — and these sensors register sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami, or savory. Known as papillae, they are found not just on top of the tongue, but in cheeks and far back in glottal regions of the mouth. The taste bud cells replenish about every two weeks; one might say nature has provided us a built-in palate cleaner.
As we expose the papillae to wine throughout the mouth, flavors come into focus. But if you are affected by a condition or disease that impairs your salivation, you will soon discover your apprehension of taste will diminish or disappear. The nares located in the upper rear of our mouths add further olfaction, or sense of smell, to the wine experience, so please, 86 your cologne and tobacco.
In addition to minimizing schnozzola overload, a few moments of silence helps to focus attention on the wines rather than the latest gossip. During some tastings, we issue a gag order of 10 minutes, so we can individually draw our inferences from the stories told by the grapes.
People new to this rite will perhaps think everyone is crazy. They sip and then appear to gargle like actors in a Listerine commercial. What’s this about? Aeration, to begin. The aerodynamics have been compared to drinking with a straw, but I don’t drink wine with a straw. The effort intends to get the wine to the papillae in front and elsewhere in our mouths. The taste is not a frat house gulp; it draws perhaps 1.5 ounces of wine — less is more — in the stem and calls for concentration and focus.
Next, we swallow and linger; let the wine express its varietal characters and winemakers’ skill. Allow the impression to remain, as if you just kissed your sweetie good night. Like a sunset or musical diminuendo, the wine’s finish should be lengthy, unlike dropping a custard pie off a stepladder.
What about the spit? First of all, in a sequenced tasting where a vast number of different wines in generous pours face you, it may be advantageous on the first pass to get rid of the wine by pouring the remnants into an aptly named “dump bucket.” Failing that, outdoor tastings have bushes. I prefer “spew” to spit — more Rococo Cupid than Bowery — and “swallow” to both.
Even the most assiduous “dump bucketeer” will absorb alcohol. I recently participated as judge in a competition of 140 Oregon wines. Even though I “spewed” many of the wines, I would have been cautioned not to operate any heavy machinery.
The entire tasting is for inquiry not intoxication. But remember, good balance applies to more than the wine in your stem. We gather impressions at our peril, but the insights and discoveries are usually worth it. So, if you’ve enjoyed the sip, confer dignity on it by swallowing.
We taste flavors or adumbrations of flavors — coffee, eucalyptus, mint — that we perceive as our taste buds do their thing. But depth, fullness, harmony are we might say the metaphysics of tasting wine. They convey character, and the relationship between flavor and effect makes “the sip” a moment of private truth.
Ken Friedenreich is currently writing a book on Oregon wine called “Decoding the Grape.” He also contributes regularly to various publications as a wine editor and columnist.