Wine tasting brings all senses to the forefront, except maybe the ears. But I've begun salivating at the pop of a Champagne cork so I'm thinking they might count, too. To truly assess a wine, professionals must factor out all other external noise -- dog barking, food wafts, a woman's scurrilous perfume -- and focus all their senses on the liquid in their glass. But analyzing wine isn't as self-important or daunting as pedantic wine snobs want you to think. You simply need to engage your senses.
Begin with your eyes. Sure, it's pretty obvious that a wine is white, red or rosé, but did you know color reveals the age as well? Whites actually gain color after only a few years, oxidizing like an apple to a delicious, golden tint. But, over time, reds lose their purple, burgundy-ness as the pigment degenerates to black, sludgy sediment. The color transforms into a warm, rusted brown that appears where the wine kisses the edge of the glass. Then you swirl it, not necessarily to smell or aerate, but to observe its viscosity. In mega-alcoholic or sweet wines, the liquid forms "tears" or "legs" after it's spun and the slower the droplets flow down the sides, the richer and fuller bodied the wine will taste.
Then sniffing starts. The nose knows the scents rising from the beverage but the brain may not. It takes time and training to decipher and identify smells, but trust your free-flowing thoughts. If you detect Mom's butter biscuits or your sweaty socks, then so be it. Take an aroma road trip and free think. That's how the pros started. No one wakes up one day with a depthless essence lexicon so don't be intimidated. But there exist some shortcuts to teach your nose -- should you be so inclined -- like using a wine sensory kit, but frequent tasting will train you, too. And, unlike boot camp, it's the kind of training you want to do.
Swish. We've all seen people who gargle wine with alacrity unbecoming of a human. This behavior isn't just for show. It's one way to assess the wine's body. If it's Marilyn Monroe, it's heavier-bodied like cream. If Twiggy, then it's light-bodied like skim milk. But the main reason for swishing is to evaluate the wine's structure. You need to flood all areas of the tongue and mouth -- the roof (and the finish) assesses astringent tannins; the sides of the tongue and cheeks sense acidity; and the front of the tongue signals sweetness. As the wine flows over these gustatory areas, they help the brain form an opinion and a complete flavor profile.
And finally, the best part: the swallow. After all the work you've done for the last 30 seconds, a harmonious, lasting finish can be a welcome work of art. Creating a wine with a beautiful, seductive ending takes years of winemaking practice. If you're left with a sensation of fruit and possibly some vanilla tannins, the winemaker has scored, but you're the winner.
Cellar No. 8 2006 Zinfandel California I've admired their zins for their reliably high quality and low price. This one smacks of smoky and spicy cherry, bright raspberry and a finish of leather and semi-sweet chocolate. Silky tannins. Welcome wine with any steak or BBQ. Sw=1. $10. 3 stars.
Cellar No. 8 2008 Pinot Noir California A prime example of over-farmed, over-hyped pinot noir. Thin and listless with too much earth and not enough fruit. They should stick to zinfandel. Sw=2. $10. 2 stars.