Do I spit it out? A wine tasting 101

Last week, I talked about rituals around wine drinking. I mentioned that pulling the cork was one aspect and discussed that in some detail. I said that wine tasting was the other matter that can intimidate the uninitiated. That is my topic this week.

There are actually two quite distinct scenarios which might be called “wine tasting” …

For “ordinary” people [as opposed to professionals in the wine trade], the two kinds of wine tasting are:

  • a formal, maybe tutored, tasting of a number of wines
  • the sampling of wine ordered in a restaurant

As these are different situations, I will consider each in turn.

Wine tasting sessions are run by various organizations for different reasons. A winery may run sessions with a view to selling you some wine and may or may not make a charge. Tutored wine tastings are typically run on a commercial basis – a charge is made to cover the cost of the wine, staff, venue etc. In any case, the goal is to sample a number of wines to ascertain what is to your liking and maybe learn something about different styles of wine at the same time.

Normally, you are provided with a list of the wines to taste – often with a few notes about the wine – each of which is numbered. You move from table to table, where there is someone on hand to pour you some wine. Do not expect a full glass! Apart from the fact that a wine glass should never be filled to the brim, if you drank a full glass of, say, 20 wines, you would be a little worse for wear by then end of the evening.

This brings me on the to topic of spitting. At almost all wine tastings large pots of some kind are provided for the disposal of “waste”. If you want to taste many wines and not get drunk, you simply swill the wine around your mouth to get the flavors, then spit it out instead of swallowing. These pots are also for you to empty the remains of the wine in your glass when you have finished tasting it. When I go to a wine tasting, I ensure that I am not driving and I have never employed one of these pots for either purpose.


Now I will consider the situation where you are asked to taste a wine in a restaurant.

This is a completely different scenario from a formal wine tasting and has a different purpose. When wine is stored, the bottle is kept on its side, so the wine is in contact with the cork. This allows a minuscule ingress of air, which progresses the aging process. Sometimes this process goes wrong and the wine reacts with the cork. The result is a vile tasting wine, which is described as “corked”. This is quite rare nowadays – indeed it is impossible with a plastic “cork” or screw top – but was quite common in years past. Hence the ritual of offering a wine for tasting before serving.

So, when a wine waiter asks you if you would like to taste the wine, he is not asking you to critique it or even to say whether you like it [even though they might ask that, oddly enough]; he is inviting you to check that it is not corked. Personally, I feel that this is ridiculous for two reasons. First, when the cork is extracted, the waiter should smell it; that will give an immediate indication that the wine is corked. So, by the time it is poured, he should be quite clear that the wine is OK. Second, this silly tasting ritual is often practiced with wine that has a plastic cork or screw top, when it is just a pretentious waste of time.

Sadly, the word “pretentious” is often applied to wine tasting. People you go to tastings are often moved to offer incredibly complex descriptions of wines, which they feel is a requirement [but I do not!]. Restaurants are commonly shrines to pretentiousness in numerous ways. A fine example of my own experience took place in a restaurant in Seattle [a city from which I expect greater realism]:

When we sat down, I ordered a glass of white wine as an aperitif. It arrived in a tiny carafe, from which the waiter poured a splash for me to taste. Why? When the bottle of wine arrived, it was presented to be for inspection before opening [which is correct procedure – making sure that it was the correct wine]. Then the plastic cork was removed and the tasting farce performed. The waiter asked if I liked it. I wondered what would have happened if I had said no, it was not to my taste. How many bottles would they open in order to satisfy my whim? Having “cleared” the wine with me, the waiter then sploshed the entire bottle into a carafe. This is wrong on numerous levels. A carafe or decanter is used for various reasons. It might be a cheap wine which is drawn from a barrel and brought to table that way. Or it may be an old, fine wine, which has a heavy sediment. In this case, the wine should be very carefully poured off of the sediment into the decanter [not sploshed]. In fact, wine should never really be handled in this way, as all the extra air exposure changes the character of the wine. With a good wine [and I am sure that this Seattle place would claim that theirs is good], that change will not be for the better.

A useful tip: If you have some very young, cheap wine, splashing it around can artificially age it and make it better. Anyway, if it is really cheap, it has to be worth a try!

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