You've seen 'em in the bars, swirlin', sniffin' and swishin', haughtily practicing this sacred wine snob ritual and coaxing a wine to its pinnacle of deliciousness. Is it over-emphasized and overdone? Probably. But does the act improve the flavor of the wine? Absolutely.
Consider a sweater stored in a trunk over summer. When finally pulled from its former tomb, it sports a musty, stale aroma. But once the fabric aerates for a while, it absorbs oxygen in the air, transforming the odiferous into the acceptable. Wine works in a similar fashion. The liquid has been bottled up for months or years or, if you're lucky, decades, stewing in its own aromas and flavors. When you pour it into a glass, the wine is taking its first breath of fresh air since it was bottled. Giving it 10-20 minutes to breathe and stretch its legs clears out the cobwebs. Breathing, a go-to word in wine, is not just a figurative term; the wine actually takes in oxygen. However, simply uncorking the bottle doesn't allow it to aerate enough -- the small opening in the bottle neck isn't wide enough to allow an exchange. Imagine 10-20 minutes on the treadmill while breathing through a straw. You'll get better results by pouring wine into glasses.
Swirling facilitates oxygen exposure more quickly. Restaurants usually serve big red wines in big red wine glasses in order to accommodate serious swirling. Try this experiment: Grab two glasses and open up a bottle of your favorite red. (Skip whites. They don't remarkably improve with swirling, and spinning sparkling wine dissipates the bubbles.) Pour a small amount of wine into each glass, then sniff and sip the first one. What does it taste like? Does it have drying effect on your tongue and the roof of your mouth (an indication of tannin, a natural by-product of red grapes)? With the other glass, swirl the liquid for a minute or two (best done by keeping the stem stand on the table and rotating with your wrist). Take a sip and compare it with the un-swirled glass. With additional time and swirling, the wine will "open up" even more, smoothing out the rough flavors and returning to what the winemaker intended.
The mouth-swishing move serves a completely different purpose. By moving the wine around in your mouth, it spreads the flavor across the taste bud regions of your tongue -- sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami (the fifth protein-reactive region). As the wine flows over these gustatory areas, they help the brain form an opinion and the complete picture of the flavor. If the wine is too bitter when you first put it in your mouth, swish it around, and see if that introduces a more pleasant experience. Or add some cheese to the equation and taste everything change.
Although it may seem obnoxious, it's actually a good thing to perfect these exercises. It opens up a whole new bottle of fun.
Marrimiero 2006 Anima Trebbiano d'Abruzzo (Italy) A beautiful, fruity aroma floats from the glass: bananas soaked in pure vanilla. On the tongue, smooth banana follows, along with elegant white peaches, a dash of citrus and a gorgeous lasting finish. Might be tough to find but worth the effort. SW, HS, S. $18. 4.5 stars
Ca' del Solo 2005 Nebbiolo Monterey Originally from Italy's Piedmont region, Nebbiolo has found a home in California. More aromatic and softer than its counterpart Barolo and Barbaresco in Europe, this interpretation still has dried cherries and leathery tannins, but it happily skips into the raspberry patch for a bit fun. Biodynamically farmed. S, T. $22. 4 stars
Sweet (SW), Hypersensitive (HS), Sensitive (S) and Tolerant (T). Find out your tasting profile at budometer.com.