Wine lovers develop certain habits that in polite company might seem strange. Those customs and rituals are part of wine appreciation. They are also easy to ridicule, and to the uninitiated they become the basis of wine snobbery. Yet they (almost always) serve a role in enhancing our enjoyment of the wine.
We will hold our glass up to the light and gaze intently at the liquid within as if it holds the secret of life. In truth, it might hold the secret of only the next few minutes, but that visual inspection allows us to evaluate the wine’s clarity. Similarly, by tilting the glass against a white background, we can assess the wine’s color and glean a clue to its age and condition. The color of the wine around the rim changes with age, and if the wine (white or red) seems murky, it might be over the hill or have been stored improperly and exposed to heat.
That visual inspection is also why we hold the glass by the stem; fingerprints on the bowl are unsightly, and our hands might warm the wine. True wine geeks will hold the glass by its foot, with or without the pinky extended. That shows sophistication but requires care in performing the next tasting ritual: the swirl. Holding the foot of the glass gives less control, increasing the risk of clothing stains and social embarrassment. (I speak from experience.)
Swirling the glass becomes second nature to wine lovers; we’ve been spotted swirling water glasses in unguarded moments. It serves two purposes.
First, it completes our visual appreciation as we note how the wine cascades down the side of the glass.
Try this experiment: Take two identical wineglasses and fill one about one-quarter full with water. Then pour an equal amount of red wine into the second glass. Swirl both glasses. The water will simply fall back to the bottom, but the wine should form rivulets that flow more slowly, as if clinging to the side of the glass. Those rivulets are called “legs” or “tears,” depending on whether you’re feeling physical or emotional. A wine that has “nice legs” will have good body and will taste richer, perhaps with more alcohol, than one that leaves little to behold after a good swirl.
The swirl’s second purpose is to release the wine’s aromas into the bowl of the glass so we can perform the next step: Stick our nose in the glass and inhale deeply. (Swirling and sticking one’s proboscis below the rim are two good reasons not to fill the glass too high!)
Finally, after all that rigmarole, we actually put the wine into our mouth. But we don’t swallow it at first. Rather, we gargle it. By aerating the wine and swishing it noisily around our gums, we theoretically release more of the wine’s flavors. We certainly annoy anyone around us. A sommelier friend of mine chews his wine so noisily, I had to ask him to be quiet when we were judging a wine competition together. I could hardly hear myself taste.
Even after we swallow (or spit, if we’re at a wine tasting), we’re not done. There’s still the “oooh – ahh” of sucking in air to enjoy the leftover flavors that linger in the mouth. No, we’re not Army veterans. This is yet another way of accentuating the wine’s flavors.
And then, maybe we’ll smile. But there’s still one more ritual: We pull out our smartphones and post a photo of the wine on Delectable or Vivino, two apps for cataloguing and bragging about the wines we drink. For what’s the point of enjoying a wine if we can’t share it?