The essences of wine tasting

The essences of wine tasting
Stefano Poggi of Batasiolo Wines in Piedmont Italy demonstrates the smell and grip of a wine glass. Photo by Frank Mangio

Last week I got to thumbing through my very first wine columns some nine years ago.  The wine world has changed so much since those halcyon days when life was a little calmer, prosperous and most of the wine we reported on was Cabernet and Chardonnay.

But what hasn’t changed, and what I focused on in those first columns, is that wine is a celebration of life and it makes sense to know how to celebrate to get the most out of it.  Pour about a third of a glass of your favorite red and stay with me as I take you through the basics of elevating your celebration, with a review of the five “S’s.”

The first thing that happens in this five-part harmony in the romance of wine is the SIGHT of the wine. It should be poured into a clear tulip-shaped glass with a long stem to grip.

The color will vary from a deep red approaching black, found in wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, found in France and the Napa Valley, and the Nebbiolo grape, found in Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont Italy.

Brick red might be a Pinot Noir, Merlot or a Sangiovese and other light red colored wine.  You are also scanning for any foreign objects in the wine, which would compromise the flavor. It could be cork fragments, even tiny sticks or other impurities from the crush of the grapes prior to barreling.  Color intensity, which is the pigments in the skins of the grape, is no guarantee of a great glass of wine, but it will give you an idea of the purity of the wine.

SWIRL:  Swirling, the 2nd of the five S’s, is done to prepare the sinuses for the smell as it aerates the wine allowing oxygen to mix with the wine to create a perfumed smell and flavor.  When swirling, hold the glass firmly vertical by the stem and briskly move it in a circular motion.  “Legs,” or “tears,” may be seen running down the inside of the glass after the swirl.  These result from higher levels of alcohol and sugar and hint at the wine’s power. On my trips to meet Italian wine makers in Italy, I always got a laugh out of the vigorous swirling of their wines while expressing themselves, concluding it was just a nervous habit.  Not at all!  They were simply seeking the maximum “bouquet,” a combination of smell and taste.  Salute!

SMELL: The total smell of a wine is its “bouquet.”  It’s a fitting description like the best flowers bundled up into a bouquet as a gift for a loved one.  Another expression would be the “nose” of the wine.  The human nose can distinguish thousands of unique smells and wines have over 200 of their own.  So get your nose down in the glass as close to the wine as possible.  Take deep, short, sharp inhalations and try to detect smells such as flowers, fruit, herbs, oak, coffee, and licorice.  Younger reds will smell fruity, old wines will smell earthier.

SIP AND SWALLOW: The sip or taste of the wine and the swallow are indeed the most enjoyable of the five-part harmony.  With the smell still lingering in the nose, place the glass to your lips and take in a healthy mouthful. Work it around your mouth, but make sure it’s not so much that you have to swallow right away.  Keep the wine making contact with your palate and tongue with an awareness of the flavors it presents, as well as body, and acidity which will come from the tannins in the wine, essential for maturity.  The last sensation of wine tasting is the finish or swallow. In the swallow, be aware of how long the taste lasts in your mouth.  Great wines have a long finish that lasts as long as a minute.  It should leave a very pleasant after-taste.  It is your final impression of a wine and should reflect its overall quality.

My short video on wine tasting produced by the talented Mike Bragg has been playing on for a number of years and has double the number of hits of any other of its kind.  Look it up under “Wine Tasting Tip,” then scroll down to Mike Bragg and Frank Mangio’s video and see what you think. It was chosen to be presented to the Japanese as an introduction to wine appreciation on


Meritage Wine Market in Encinitas presents a re-creation of the Judgment of Paris Blind Tasting, the wine event of all time, May 23 from 6 to 8 p.m.  $20.  Call (760) 479-2500 for details.

San Diego Wine Company has a Cabernet Sauvignon wine tasting May 31 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Call for names at (858) 586-WINE.  $10.

The 31st Annual Wine and Roses Charity Wine Tasting is June 1 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Grand Del Mar Resort.  These are award-winning wines from the San Diego International Wine Competition with great food from over 20 area restaurants. A silent auction and raffle drawings supports Camp Oliver in Descanso. Tickets are $100 and are available at More information at (619) 222-2486.

The 11th annual Encinitas Rotary Wine & Food Festival Fundraiser will be held June 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas.  Twenty-one local charities are supported; 20 restaurants will participate plus 14 wineries and six breweries.  Top musicians will play in the outside setting. Several levels of ticket prices, starting at $60.  See

Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator.  His columns can be viewed at  He is one of the top wine commentators on the web.  Reach him at


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