If you’re spending some time on the East End of Long Island this season, there are any number of occasions that might call for a little wine know-how: a day trip to one of the region’s nearly 60 wineries, attending a tasting party or buying a good bottle of wine to gift.
Just like mingling and small talk, wine tasting is something of an art form. There’s a method to tasting, a skill that’s essential for the pros and helpful for the rest of us who want to learn how to savor and appreciate the finer things. Buying wine is also a learned skill, but it can prove overwhelming when confronted with a shelf full of tempting options. Here are a few basics for becoming a bit more wine savvy in both tasting and buying — whether you’re the host or the hosted.
THE BASICS: SWIRL, SIP, SWISH, SPIT
If you’ve spent any time around wine, you know, for the most part, it comes in three colors: red, white and rosé. The process for tasting and evaluating is the same for all three styles. If you’re at a formal tasting, say at a winery tasting room or in a wine shop, you’ll likely be guided through the steps. Here’s what to expect.
Typical pours at a tasting consist of one to two ounces. The main reason for this — aside from preventing participants from getting sloshed — is to allow enough room in the glass to swirl the wine and release the aromas, a critical aspect of evaluating wine. If you plan to attend a tasting, leave the perfume or cologne at home; those scents will interfere with the taster’s ability to properly assess the wine’s true bouquet.
Swirling is easy. Hold your glass by the stem, never the bowl, and slowly rotate your wrist, giving the vino a gentle twirl — but not so much that it splashes out of the glass. Some find it easier to keep the glass on the table and slide it around for the same effect. After a few spins, hold the glass still and, like the pros, stick your nose way in and inhale. Depending on the style of wine, the way it’s made and its age, you’ll detect various aromas of fruit, spice and wood, and maybe even hints of tobacco, leather, smoke or even a matchstick.
Next, take a small sip and swish it around in your mouth, letting the wine hit the insides of your cheeks, your teeth and all over your tongue. You’ll feel different sensations in different parts of your mouth, from tingly (that’s the acid) to sweet. The wine might feel austere and fresh or it might feel a little more weighty and glycerol (“round” in pro terms).
Keep in mind, one flavor profile is not “better” than another: It all depends on the grape variety and the decisions of the winemaker — such as whether to age in stainless steel, which will give a more direct hit of fruit, or in an oak cask, which will impart spice and wood flavors, or to use a technique called malolactic fermentation, which converts malic acid to the softer-textured, “rounder” lactic acid.
Now that you’ve coated your mouth with the wine, spit it out into a bucket or cup. (If there isn’t one available, don’t be afraid to ask.) This should be done forcefully enough that the liquid comes out in a clean shot, not a drool, but not so forceful as to splash. You might want to practice this at home so you feel more comfortable.
You’ll want to experience that initial textural sensation in the mouth again, so take a second small sip and repeat the pattern, but this time swallow. Here, you’re looking not only for how the wine tastes, but how it finishes: Is the flavor gone once the wine is down the hatch or does it linger in your mouth and leave you with an impression? In general, higher quality wines will have a longer finish — and linger awhile.
HOW TO PICK A BOTTLE
Before you read the label, look at the general conditions of how the wine is stored and presented. In most restaurants featuring a wine list, it’s safe to assume the establishment uses adequate storage methods in a dedicated wine cave (fridge) or cellar. But in a store or tasting room, you’re on your own.
First, avoid bottles that have been displayed under bright lighting or near a heat source. If the wine has a cork stopper, choose a bottle that has been stored on its side. That technique keeps the cork damp and fully expanded in the neck of the bottle to minimize oxygen infiltration and maintain the wine’s optimal freshness. You can also look at the fill level in the neck. A wine in good condition will have an inch or less of empty space between the top of the wine to top of the bottle.
You can also glean a lot of useful information from a wine’s label — though it can also be a source of confusion and frustration for many a wine novice. One of the world’s foremost experts, Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, recommends looking for wines that are bottled as close as possible to where the grapes were grown. If you’re tasting Long Island wines at a local winery, then no worries, as 85% of the grapes used in a wine labeled Long Island must be locally grown. But if you’re buying out of region, look for terms such as “estate grown and bottled,” which ensures the shortest route from vineyard to vessel. And don’t forget to check the back label for additional clues: many producers will include notes from the winemaker, detail the variety of grapes and even suggest food pairings.
ABV: WHEN LESS IS MORE
You’ll also want to check the alcohol level, which is not just a measure of potency, but can also help with entertaining and menu planning. Lower-alcohol wines (12.5% or less alcohol by volume) don’t necessarily mean a reduction in flavor, intensity or quality, but it could mean you might enjoy them for different occasions — say by the pool or on the beach — and perhaps for longer periods of time when accompanied by food (rosé all day!). High-alcohol wines (14% to 16%) cry for substantial meals as pairing partners (hello, BBQ!). Wines with even higher alcohol levels start creeping out of the still wine category and into fortified (such as port) or dessert varieties. Most everyday wines — including those from Long Island — fall into the 12.5% to 13.5% range. But no matter what the alcohol level, you’ll want to drink responsibly and monitor your intake.