Contrary to what some believe, wine tasting etiquette can be a straight forward process and thankfully it does not require you to be a wine connoisseur.
The first point to remember is that the aim of the wine tasting is to check that the wine is not corked. A corked wine is one that has musty, mushroomy aromas and flavours.
The tasting also provides an opportunity to check the temperature of the bottle, so if you feel it needs warming up, cooling down or decanting then this is the perfect opportunity to say so.
The purpose of wine tasting etiquette is not to check if you like it, if the choice of wine is a bad one then unfortunately you must live with it!
The first part of wine tasting etiquette is to check the label of the wine to ensure you have received the wine and vintage that you have ordered.
Once you have confirmed this is correct, the sommelier will then open the wine in front of you. I would advise you to pay special attention to the vintage you are being served, I have experienced several occasions where the year was incorrect and this can be the make or break of a wine, and of course the price you pay will reflect the vintage chosen.
A wine bottle is not just a container; it is a sealed vessel in which the wine is protected from the air ready for the day of drinking.
Once the bottle is opened the wine is exposed to the destructive effects of oxygen and there is no going back. This results in a certain drama of pulling the cork, and what a lovely sound it is!
Your wine server should have perfect wine tasting etiquette and open the bottle and place the cork on the table next to you so that you can examine it.
Never smell it though, the sommelier will have done this. Your job is to check the cork bears a label the same as the wine you have ordered and that it is not dry or crumbly.
Nowadays many bottles have a screw top and therefore the only reason to taste it is for the temperature. A screw top bottle cannot be corked as there is nowhere for the air to enter the bottle.
They also have the benefit of speed, but I don’t think you can beat the anticipation of opening a bottle with a corkscrew.
You may also take this opportunity to touch the bottle to see if it is the right temperature. I have been guilty of over chilling white wine and serving it straight from the fridge, where it may have been residing for a few weeks. Most domestic fridges have a temperature of about 4 degrees which is far too cold for many whites.
Most white wines should be slightly chilled so that the flavour and aroma are at their best. Champagne and dry whites are best served at a temperature of 8 to 10 degrees Celsius. This can normally be achieved by just under an hour in the fridge door.
Inexpensive whites and sweet white wines are better a little colder at a temperature of between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius which can be achieved by about two hours in the fridge door.
The ideal serving temperature of a fine red wine is about 14 to 18 degrees Celsius which is somewhat cooler than the “room temperature” of many centrally heated houses, and so may well benefit from an hour in the fridge before serving. Reds from warmer climates are generally good at 16 to 18 degrees Celsius.
It is worth investing in a wine thermometer so that you can enjoy your wine to the maximum.
Most of us will ask for an ice bucket for a white wine but if the wine is cool enough already then you run the risk of making the wine too cold and ruining the flavour.
Rosé wines are served slightly colder than a white wine and are therefore perfect for a hot summer’s day.
It is normal for the host to taste the wine and therefore is it important that they are confident with wine tasting etiquette, although they may ask another guest to do so.
The sommelier will then pour a small amount into the glass and present you with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate your wine tasting etiquette:
1. Take a good look at the glass by picking it up and tilting it slightly, preferably against a white background, perfect if the tablecloth is white. The colour should tell you a lot about the age of the wine; reds become lighter when older and whites become deeper in colour.
2. Place the glass back on the table and gently swirl the glass in a circular motion whilst holding the stem. This brings oxygen into the wine which releases its aromas.
3. Sniff the wine. This is very important in wine tasting etiquette as the majority of taste is due to the sense of smell. If the wine is corked this is when you will know. You should be able to detect anything from herbs to flowers to smoke.
4. Finally, you can taste the wine if you wish, but it is not absolutely necessary if you have smelt it first. You should hold the wine in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it.
Once you have completed these 4 stages you must determine whether the wine is OK. If I suspect a wine is corked I will normally ask the server's opinion and I think that’s completely acceptable even when you are confident with your wine tasting etiquette skills.
Sometimes it is quite obvious when a wine is corked but often it can be a subtle whiff of something not quite right. 10% of wines are corked so whilst it does occur.
If the wine is corked then the sommelier will bring another bottle of the same wine. If it is not available then they will normally suggest a similar one.
If the wine is fine then simply say “it’s good, please serve it”. If you had some help in choosing it then remember to thank that person for the recommendation. The wine should then be poured clockwise to the right, women first. The host’s glass is topped up last.
Having wine tasting etiquette means not making a big song and dance about the process. It should only take a couple of minutes and should not distract your your guests from their conversation.
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