If you're hosting a Christmas party this week, wine is probably a factor. And if you're not an expert, choosing the right bottle for your occasion and budget can be overwhelming. Here, LearnVest's Gabrielle Karol explains how to use the "4 S's" to up your wine game and impress your guests.
Image via Konstantin Sutyagin (Shutterstock).
What's the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, anyway? (Answer: They're made from the same grape, but Pinot Gris is produced in France, while Pinot Grigio derives from Italy.) And is it really possible to pick out an affordable bottle of wine that doesn't taste, well…cheap? We turned to an expert for the best advice: Leslie Sbrocco, author of The Simple & Savvy Wine Guide: Buying, Pairing and Sharing for All. Sbrocco walked us through the "4 S's" of wine tasting and how to get great value at the wine store.
The 4 S's: Seeing, Swirling, Smelling and Sipping
"The most important way to learn about wine is to taste as much of it as possible," says Sbrocco. But you can't just drink a bottle of wine each night and expect to breeze your way through a conversation with a sommelier. That's where the "4 S's" come in. By breaking up the tasting process into four components — seeing, swirling, smelling and sipping — you'll start to properly identify the different components of a wine. This will help you to eventually figure out your personal tastes, as well as what to look for when choosing a wine.
Step 1: Seeing
Once you've poured your wine into a clear glass, examine the colour. As a general rule, white wine will be darker if it's older, while red wine will be lighter if it's aged for a longer period of time. The colour can also tell you about the process used to make the wine: Chardonnay, for instance, will be golden due to its ageing process, which typically occurs in oak barrels.
Step 2: Swirling
Move the wine around the glass gently, aiming to coat the sides of the cup. This will release the aromatics of the wine, which will help you to better identify scents.
Step 3: Smelling
"If initially you simply smell ‘red' or ‘white', that's fine!" say Sbrocco. Keep sniffing in order to identify the following scents:
If it's a white wine, see if you can identify citrus notes, like grapefruit, lemon and lime; or ripe, tropical fruits, such as pineapple or melon. Cooler places will generally produce more citrusy or tangy-smelling wines, while ripe smells indicate warmer locales. Additionally, some white wines may produce aromas of vanilla or oak.
If it's a red wine, most red wines will either have red berry scents, like cherry and strawberry, or darker, riper smells, including blackberry and plum. Wines produced in cooler places will tend toward the red berry side of the spectrum, while warmer locations will lend themselves to a darker, riper scent. Red wines can also have earthier aromas, like coffee, smoke or chocolate.
Step 4: Sipping
When you take your first sip, what you taste is a combination of the actual flavours of the wine, as well as the scent because taste is heavily influenced by smell.
"The first question to ask yourself: Do you like it? Or do you not like it?" says Sbrocco. Then try to identify the different flavours you've smelled, along with characteristics such as sweetness, tanginess and alcohol content.
How to Put Those "4 S's" to Good Use
The information derived from the process of seeing, swirling, smelling and sipping is most helpful if it's documented. By recording your thoughts on the wine you've sampled, you'll start to identify patterns in wines you've enjoyed — and ones that have missed the mark.
Sbrocco herself takes photos of wines she's tried on her smartphone, and then she sends herself an email with additional notes. You can try an app like Hello Vino, which lets you take a photo of the bottle and add such information as year, price, rating, sweetness, smell and alcohol content.
So now that you know why trying as many wines as possible is so important, the next question is: What's the most cost-effective way to taste-test new bottles?
"Many wine shops have free tastings," says Sbrocco. "This is a great way to try new bottles, and learn from professionals with a lot of experience."
Another fun idea is to form your own tasting group — if everyone brings a bottle, you can try a number of different wines and compare notes. "Organize monthly tastings around themes," says Sbrocco. "You can make it as broad as ‘red wine' or you can go more specific, like ‘wines from California.'"
They key is to sample different varieties of reds and whites from varied countries. Sbrocco recommends the following picks, which encompass a spectrum of flavours, from light and juicy to full-bodied and heavy.
To get you started with some affordable picks, Sbrocco has selected five of her recent favourites, including two bonus sparkling wines:
2011 Gainey "Limited Selection" Riesling, Santa Ynez Valley, California 2011 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages, Beaujolais, France 2010 Concha y Toro "Casillero Del Diablo," Carmenere, Chile Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, Cava, Spain 2011 Medici Ermete "Concerto," Lambrusco, Italy
Why You Need to Keep an Open Mind About Wine
Sbrocco's final piece of advice: Don't get too hung up on how long a wine has been aged or whether it has a screw top.
"When it comes to white wine, it can be produced very quickly — I just tried a great bottle from 2012. You won't see good reds quite as quickly, but there are definitely solid options from 2011, 2010 and 2009," says Sbrocco. "A lot of reds will benefit from more age, but there's no hard and fast rule. Sure, you can age a California Cabernet for 25 years, but it could be just as good — if not better — after 10."
And sceptics needn't be put off by screw tops, she says. "The container doesn't predict the quality of the wine. There are fantastic wines that come with screw tops, and bad wines with corks."
Sbrocco is also a huge fan of the recent resurgence of boxed wines: "The value is tremendous — a three-litre box is equivalent to four bottles of wine. Plus, the technology helps the wine stay fresh for months."
Luckily, it's clear that becoming a wine connoisseur doesn't necessarily depend on spending a ton of money — it really comes down to paying attention (and drinking more)!
Gabrielle Karol is an editorial assistant at LearnVest. She recently graduated with a BA in English from Yale University. Before LearnVest, she wrote for Patch and The Yale Herald. She also has television and radio experience, interning at WTNH in New Haven, CT, and WNPR in Hartford, CT. Gabrielle saves up money for dance classes and exploring new restaurants and bars in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @GabrielleKarol.