Swirl, Sniff, Sip: How to Drink Wine Like an Expert
Navigating the vast world of wine drinking can be daunting for new wine drinkers. Oenophiles and wine experts are notorious for overwhelming beginners with technical terms and intimidating rules.
While you might roll your eyes at such pretension, remember that all you really need to drink wine properly is to be curious and eager to try new things. Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a few handy tips and techniques to enhance your wine tasting experience. With that in mind, consider this your guide on how to drink wine like a pro.
A Beginner’s Primer on Wine
Before you pop that cork, there are a few essentials you should know. (And if you consider yourself a bit of a connoisseur already, it never hurts to brush up on the basics.) Having at least a general understanding of winemaking techniques and the words used to describe a wine's aromas, texture, and taste will help you appreciate the subject more as you continue to learn and experiment.
Different Types of Wine
Wine flavors can be dry or sweet. Dry wine has no residual sugars, therefore it doesn’t leave any sweetness on the palate. These wines are often served as aperitifs or during dinner. On the other hand, sweet wines are typically served after meals as dessert wines, or paired with cheese. There are several types of wine:
- Red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, is made from black-skinned grapes. The skin and juice make contact during processing, which results in a rich red color.
- White wines like Chardonnay are usually colorless since the grape skins don’t make contact with the grape juice.
- Sparkling wine, such as Brut or Champagne, is often made using a two-step fermentation process and is considerably more labor-intensive than other winemaking techniques.
- Rosé wine is made by blending white and red grapes, or only red grapes.
- Orange wines (yes, they exist) are made from white wine grapes using the same skin-contact process as red wines.
How to Drink Wine at the Right Temperature
Forget everything you’ve been told about only serving red wine at room temperature or chilling white wine hours before opening. While these are often cited as set-in-stone rules, they are more general guidelines that don’t require strict adherence.
That said, wine temperature shouldn’t be ignored since it does affect the way wine tastes. The crisp flavors of white wine can be muted when served too cold, while red wines that are served too warm can taste overly acidic. Serving wine at the right temperature brings out its full flavor, texture, and character.
- White wines, sparkling wines, and rosés are ideal between 45-50 degrees, depending on the varietal.
- Heavier white wines like Chardonnay, or lighter reds like pinot noir, should be served between 55-60 degrees.
- Generally speaking, red wine is best served between 60-65 degrees.
You can use a wine thermometer around the bottle to check the temperature. To cool it down, simply submerge the bottle in a bucket of iced water. To warm it up, place the bottle in a container of warm water.
The Importance of Wine Glasses
Along with having the right tools and suitable serving temperature, each variety of wine needs a particular style of glass. Sure, you can drink wine out of any container (we certainly won’t judge if you want to drink it straight out of the bottle), but the type of glass you choose can make a significant impact on your wine drinking experience.
When it comes to choosing a wine glass, the most important feature is the surface diameter of the top of the glass. It should be large enough for you to breathe in a wine’s aromas and swirl your fill without making a mess.
If you can’t smell the wine you’re drinking, you won’t be able to taste it properly. To test this theory out, the next time you eat something spicy, try pinching your nose. You’ll find that you lose some of the burning sensation in your mouth. Even though you’ll get the impression of heat, you'll miss the precise essence. The same goes when tasting wine.
Wine glasses with a larger brim allow more aromas to waft into your nose. Glasses with a smaller circumference consolidate those aromas. Sommeliers that have dedicated their lives to smelling and tasting wine can often tell you details such as the variety of grape, where it was grown, and when it was bottled from a simple spin and sniff of a glass of wine.
Red Wine Glasses
Glasses for red wine tend to have a larger bowl, which lets the wine easily come into contact with oxygen. This allows the wine to breathe and enhances its overall flavor.
Red wine drinkers who prefer bold and robust blends often prefer a tall glass (bowl) that allows oxygen to access the wine's tannins, and thereby reduce the wine’s bitter taste. The shape of the glass pushes the wine to the back of your mouth, allowing you to take full advantage of the flavors. With Bordeaux, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon there are a lot of tannins that need to breathe — a tall bowl that narrows slightly at the brim allows plenty of room for the aeration process.
White Wine Glasses
Glasses for white wine have a U-shaped bowl, which serves to keep the wine cooler for a longer period. Compared to red wines, these wines need less oxygen to release their aromatics.
Sauvignon Blanc is best served in a smaller glass (with a slightly tapered mouth) as it encourages the wine to the middle of your mouth. By contrast, Chardonnay is best served in a wide white wine glass that allows plenty of oxygen inside to amplify the aromas.
The Chardonnay wine glass is generally recognized as the largest and widest glass associated with white wine, and the shape of the glass — with its narrow rim — lets the wine flow toward the middle of the tongue, allowing drinkers to appreciate the balance of fruit and acidity.
Chardonnay should be served six degrees warmer than most white wines, which is another reason why the glass is so broad compared to a typical white wine glass that needs to keep the wine much cooler.
Rosé Wine Glasses
Since rosé should be served cold, the perfect glass shape for this type of wine depends on the blend. A glass with a long stem and a flared lip is ideal for serving young rosé wines, whereas a squat bowl-shaped glass or stemless wine glass will accentuate the aroma of a mature rosé.
Sparkling Wine Glasses
Sparkling wine and Champagne is traditionally served in a fluted wine glass with a short-to-medium stem and a tall, narrow bowl. This shape is considered ideal for all things bubbly because it maintains the effervescence and preserves the taste. Unique beads at the base of the glass group the bubbles together and encourage them to travel up to the surface.
How to Drink Wine Properly
It might sound simplistic, but knowing how to drink wine includes understanding how to properly hold a wine glass. The modern trend of stemless glasses is the easiest to hold – you can just grab them like you would a normal water tumbler.
On the other hand, wine glasses with stems require that you hold them from the base with your thumb, middle finger, and index finger. The rest of your fingers should rest lightly on the base.
If you're drinking wine from glasses with stems, make sure you use them — they keep your warm hands away from the wine. Conversely, if your wine has been served too cold, you can warm the glass with your hands. Here are a few other handy tips to keep in mind when drinking wine.
Have Fun Swirling
Swirling plays an important role in drinking wine as it allows the wine to oxygenate, bringing out complex aromatics. It’s no surprise that wine tastes better when it’s been aired for a few minutes. To swirl efficiently, you need enough space in your glass.
Don’t Let Your Cup Runneth Over
Never fill your glass to the brim — wine glasses are designed to hold between ⅓ to ½ of a fill. Some glassware is designed in such a way that the correct fill level corresponds with the widest circumference point of the glass. If in doubt, try to keep the pour to around ⅓ of the glass. A low fill level also allows the drinker to control the temperature of the wine.
If you fill the glass all the way to the top, not only will the wine taste tight and suffocated, but you won’t be able to swirl it without making a mess. On the other hand, if you don’t fill the glass high enough, you risk over-oxygenating the wine, which can cause a loss of aromas and flavor. Imagine what happens to a piece of fruit that has been peeled and left in the sun. The flavors become lackluster and the fresh aromas vanish. The same process happens with wine.
Forget Assumptions About Age
While there’s a prevailing notion that the older the vintage, the better the wine, that’s not always the case. Most white wines are best opened and consumed within one or two years of bottling, while red wines should be opened within 3-5 years.
The few wines that age well require high acidity and flavor compounds and, where red wine is concerned, high tannins. These wines can age for 10-20 years or more. Wines like Burgundy, Barolo, and Bordeaux are famously age-worthy, but so is Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay. However, most wine is meant to be enjoyed young — only a tiny portion of wine is designed to improve with age.
Learn How to Examine a Bottle of Wine
Before you open a bottle of wine, check the position of the cork. A bulging cork is a sign that the wine may have suffered from heat damage, which alters the flavor of the wine.
A bulging cork may also be a sign that the bottle hasn’t been sealed properly. A badly sealed cork will have space around it, and this may indicate the wine has been prematurely oxidized and spoiled. Alternatively, if the cork is wedged in so tightly that you have difficulty opening it, the wine may not have gotten adequate oxygen, thus negatively affecting the development of flavors.
The cork itself, once removed, should be only slightly marked from the wine. A cork that has soaked up wine or one that falls apart during opening are signs that the bottle has spoiled in storage. If you’re looking at a screw-top wine, then you don’t have to worry about corkage. These corkless tops ensure that no oxygen gets into the wine, so it’s virtually impossible that the wine would spoil through oxidation.
Using your sense of smell is another way to determine if a bottle is worth drinking. If it smells bad upon opening, it’s probably going to taste bad. Some say an “off” bottle odor smells like a wet dog or pungent vinegar. Meanwhile, a young wine that has oxidized sometimes has a strong odor of overripe fruit.
The color of the wine is also important — if it’s tawny or brown in color you probably have an oxidized wine. Wine that tastes off is easy to identify because you will want to spit it out as soon as you taste it. In this case, it might taste moldy or vinegar-esque.
Knowing How to Drink Wine Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated
Whether you’re new to wines or simply want to get reacquainted with this spirited world, knowing how to drink wine doesn’t need to be an arduous process. Armed with the right tools and an understanding of wine terminology, varietals, and the winemaking processes, the rest comes down to personal preference and a willingness to try new things.
Drinking wine is a multisensory experience that each drinker will embrace in their own unique way. The best way to gain knowledge of wine is to drink a variety of bottles and develop your own palate. If you can do that, then you’ll understand the intense pleasure that humans have felt for centuries when popping the cork on a bottle of wine.