Holiday gatherings are a tapestry of flavors and scents, where wines and spirits not only enhance food and conversation, but are an integral part of the festivities. To add to this ambience, invite your dinner guests to engage in the fine art of tasting, so that they may reap maximum pleasure from snifter and glass. Although perceived by some as an affectation, the tasting ritual is a carefully crafted process that enhances the enjoyment of whiskey and wine. However, like any ritual, there are right and wrong ways to perform it.
Sniff Before You Sip
Tasting begins before a wine or a whiskey ever reaches the lips. The drink should first be swirled in the glass, then nosed to identify its many aromas. Swirling brings more of the liquid’s surface into contact with the air, releasing additional aromatics (more than 500 exist in wines) and uncovering hidden nuances. For example, Niebaum-Coppola’s 1995 Rubicon is a big, bold, estate-grown Bordeaux blend from Napa Valley. Yet nose a glass, and you may find delicate traces of lemon and flowers, essences that are overshadowed by the robust cherries, spices, and velvety tannins that thunder forward in the taste.
Many connoisseurs, eager to show off their swirling skills, elevate their glasses and rapidly agitate the wine as if it were a liquid carousel. This dramatic technique is best reserved for formal wine tastings, not the dinner table, where it is sure to cause a distraction, if not stain the tablecloth and clothes. It is less obtrusive to hold the glass by the base of the stem and swirl gently. An even easier technique is to make circular motions with the base of the glass on the table.
No Swirls in Champagne
Champagne poses an exception to the rule of swirling before drinking. Swirling agitates the bubbles and makes the sparkling wine go flat before its time. Champagne also should never be served in those wide, shallow glasses known as coupes (sometimes referred to as Antoinettes, because, legend has it, they were shaped after the queen of France’s breasts). This design releases too many bubbles at once, does not concentrate the aroma, and barely holds enough bubbly to let you finish a good conversation. The long, slender shape of a flute, however, is perfectly suited for savoring Champagne.
A Silent Pop
There is a great temptation to open a bottle of Champagne with a loud “pop!” firing the cork across the room. While festive, this technique expels too much effervescence at once, thereby cutting down on those equally festive bubbles. Take a cue from sommeliers and gently release the cork silently. This is done by grasping the cork tightly with the right hand and slowly twisting the bottle with the left. Be sure the neck is pointing away from people and objects. At a black-tie party a few years ago, I met a dapper-looking man who wore an eye patch that matched his cummerbund and bow tie. Naturally, I was curious, and at an opportune time, I inquired about the patch. “Fencing?” I asked. “Champagne cork,” he replied.
About Those Bubbles
There are approximately 8 million bubbles in a six-ounce flute of Champagne, and generally speaking, the smaller and more prominent the bubbles (an indication of age), the more complex and elegant the flavor. Only three varieties of grapes are permitted in Champagne, and taste is a clue as to which were used: Pinot Noir emotes berry flavors; Chardonnay offers a hint of vanilla; and Pinot Meunier lends a fruity characteristic. Another commonly encountered aroma is toast, which is emitted from the yeast used in the fermentation.
The Transparent Truth
The size and shape of a glass affect the taste of wine, a fact that goes beyond the basic red and white categories. A California Chardonnay loses some of its creaminess in a taper-bottomed glass meant for Sauternes, and a Cabernet Sauvignon loses much of its richness in a smaller goblet normally used for Chianti. Because both the Chardonnay and Cabernet are full-bodied wines, they benefit from a wide-bottomed glass that exposes more of their surface to aerate their bouquets, then narrows slightly to channel the aromas while still permitting the nose and the mouth to approach the glass simultaneously when drinking. Less intense wines usually do not require wide-bottomed glasses, which would dissipate their fragile bouquets. Rather, these glasses tend to be narrower, with a slight taper toward the lip that concentrates the more delicate aromas. This is the rationale behind Riedel’s Sommeliers series, which offers individually styled glasses for 35 different whiskies and wines.
At professional tastings, most participants take a sip of wine, then spit it into a bucket or paper cup. It is best not to try this at your dinner party. Even if spitting were acceptable table manners, it would limit your guests’ appreciation of the wine to what their taste buds could detect. The tongue is divided into only four taste zones—the tip detects sweetness, the rear responds to bitterness, the forward edges sense saltiness, and the back edges taste sourness. The nose is far more acute, with an average of 75 million different sensory receptors. After swirling and nosing, take a sip of wine and chew it as if it was food, isolating as many flavor characteristics as possible. Then swallow the wine and slowly breathe out through your nose to detect more complex layers of fruits and spices.
Temperatures can alter the taste of a spirit or wine. For example, Champagne is best served at 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but when the temperature is slightly warmer, new flavors may appear. I discovered this while having lunch with Jean-Marie Barillère, Perrier-Jouët’s CEO, and Hervé Deschamps, the company’s chef de caves (head winemaker). The coppery-pink Perrier-Jouët 1995 Fleur de Champagne Rosé was not quite chilled, but we decided to drink it anyway. Typically I find cinnamon and strawberries in this sparkler, but this time I noticed a hint of grapefruit. “Grapefruit?” an incredulous Jean-Marie exclaimed. After a sip, he and Hervé agreed. Not that I am advocating drinking warm Champagne, but it does prove the point that, for better or worse, a few degrees will change a Champagne’s flavor.
Likewise, when tasting vodka or gin, I sip it first at room temperature to extract all of its nuances. Chilling tends to dull flavors. This is even true with white wines, which are often served too cold, deadening their complexities. Normally the best temperature range for whites is between 42 and 52 degrees Fahrenheit, with some of the heavier wines closer to the top of this scale. Reds should be served at around 68 degrees, slightly cooler than the traditional “room temperature.” Spirits, on the other hand, are best at actual room temperature. Warming can bring out more of the bouquet, but avoid the misguided tradition of heating your Cognac over a candle. This intense heat will release the sting of alcohol, making nosing ineffective. If you must warm your Cognac, simply cradle the aptly designed round-bodied snifter in your hand for a few minutes.
Many professional Cognac and rum tasters prefer a long-stemmed glass with a “balloon” on the bottom that thins into a narrow chimney as it reaches the top. This permits a suitable portion of spirit to be poured and funnels the aroma into a more confined area.
Malt whisky tasting glasses are slightly tear-shaped for this same reason and feature a cupped glass plate for covering the glass and locking in the bouquet until the moment of nosing. Georg Riedel’s malt whisky glass flares at the lip to direct the whisky back onto the sour and bitter regions of the tongue, where malt and barley flavors can be more accurately defined.
Do Not Add Water
Although swirling after-dinner libations opens their bouquets, many people prefer a splash of distilled water to bring out hidden aromas in whiskies. The ratio is usually one-third water to two-thirds spirits. Unfortunately, this also dilutes the flavor and waters down a whisky that a distiller has already cut to his preferred strength (alcoholic proof). In addition, many whiskies, such as the cask-strength Talisker, are unfiltered, which means they become unappealingly cloudy when water is added.
When nosing spirits, open your mouth to reduce the alcoholic sting to your nose and to allow more of the flavor to come through. Because spirits are stronger proofs than wine, you do not need to get as close to the glass to breathe their vapors. Notice the legs of the whisky or Cognac as they trickle down the inside of your glass. The slower they travel, the older the spirit, because the legs reflect a spirit’s oils and texture, both of which traditionally increase with age.
A Palate of Flavors
You will find the greatest variety of flavors in single-malt whiskies. They range from the light and floral Glenfiddich to the buttery heather of Oban to the thick, velvety smoke of Ardbeg 17 Years Old. And when deciding which Cognac to pour, side-by-side tastings will reveal that each has a “house” character; compare the fruitiness of Rémy Martin with the woodsy tones of Hennessy, for example.
There is a definite terminology used when describing whiskies or wines. Professional tasters speak of a wine as “flabby” (not balanced in taste) or “zesty” (crisp and lively). Whisky tasters use words such as winey (reminiscent of wine barrels used in aging), peaty (smoky), and floral. Some words are easy to interpret, others can be daunting.
When discussing flavors, try to steer clear of misleading buzz words such as austere (hard and tight, as in a very young wine) or piquant (overly fruity and sharp). Instead, encourage your guests to offer original, descriptive interpretations.
Brian Armenio, the maître d’ at Campanile in Los Angeles, once described a 2000 Araujo (Eisele Vineyards) Sauvignon Blanc as smelling like “a wet dog rolling in the grass.”
Iain Henderson, the distillery manager at Laphroaig, often speaks of this Islay whisky’s “medicinal” taste, referring to its iodinelike seaweed characteristics.
I once described a high-proof bourbon as “a slap across the face.”
A Clean Taste
Before and after a tasting, make sure your glasses have been washed with boiling water and nothing else—crystal has a way of absorbing sudsy residue.
At a wine tasting at the Beverly Hills Hotel a few years ago, I was asked to name the most prominent characteristic in a particular vintage that I was sipping.
“Soap,” I replied.