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To taste or to drink? That is the question.

March 25, 2010

There was a time when my wine buying strategy was Spain, Portugal and, if I felt like a splurge, France or Chianti. This strategy was developed  shortly after I was able to walk into a store and peruse the aisles freely with the intention of legally procuring alcohol. Wine was often the item that offered the greatest variety of choices and I found that in my $8-12 price range Spain and Portugal offered the most interesting wines. I would spend a little more to get a Cotes-du-Rhone because the really cheap ones were usually too light and fruity and stuck to Ruffino Chianti when I wanted to splurge for pasta (lately I prefer almost any Chianti Rufina). In retrospect I probably should have been trying other southern French wines as well as Italian and Chilean wines with more regularity but I’d found a niche in Iberia and stuck with it for some time. In the case of many of these Iberians I liked their distinct characters but often found them tough and rustic so I developed the (short-lived mind you) idea that each wine had it’s proper way to be swallowed. I thought that I could figure out a way to swallow any wine so as to make it perfect. I also thought that letting a wine hang around in your mouth for any sustained period was a not a good idea because it would make any wine taste bad. By the time I’d had a glass or two I’d usually developed a sipping strategy particular to the individual wine. Some wines did well to let rest on the tip of  the tongue for a second before swishing it swiftly down the hatch. Others needed to go down as fast as possible while some I let touch the sides of the tongue briefly. This was an extremely delicate yet decidedly inexact science and I have come to believe that maybe it just took a glass or two to convince me that the wine was fantastic by any means.

These days I give each and every wine fair and due process. It took a few tries to get used to letting a wine coat the whole oral cavity and I still believe that most wines do not stand up well to this type of analysis. The elements of a wine become obvious and it is here that many observations, upon which an objective position on a wine might be based, are made.  The period of time after a wine has evacuated the mouth usually gives me a better idea about how much I like a wine or what it might pair with at the table. This contorted process of analysis is likely to cause anyone to become at least a little more picky about wine because in my experience only really good wine finishes well after it’s been swishing around in your mouth for more than a few seconds.

I think however that I’ve  gone too far with this tasting process. I’ve caught myself swirling a glass of tap water, giving it a sniff, coating my mouth with it and  slurping its meager vapors, all the while trying to consider chlorine and fluoride. Nuts, I know. The elaborate ritual with water doesn’t happen very often but it cause me to realize that beverage has become inextricable from task when it comes to that first sip. Most people have no problem remembering to enjoy their drink but I guess I sometimes do. Lately instead of trying to remember to analyze the taste of a wine I have been trying to remember those ill-informed days when I tried my best to make every sip pleasurable (not measurable) and let a swig take its natural gravitational course every once in awhile. One of my favorite things to do when I’ve got a great wine is to take the tiniest sip and place the liquid in the center of my tongue and just let it spread out. This is far and away from a good way to analyze a wine (though it might be a good way to judge it’s mineral content) but if it is a sufficiently concentrated wine it can show you a really interesting side of its personality. Plus it’s a way, if a bit harried, to take advantage of the forgetful drop that always seems to miss the last toss.

So, to taste or to drink? It should be easy to do both simultaneously. For most people it undoubtedly is. I always encourage people to take some time to learn how to taste a wine for its quantifiable elements but I also hope you won’t end up like me. You won’t and I’ll get better, no worries.

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