You fumble your way through the pages of the wine list. Château something, random Classico, and then you spot a word you recognise, something you and your dining partner like and within budget, perfect! You order it from the waiter and wait patiently. The bottle is brought to the table and shown to you. You nod approvingly, trying not to let anyone around you know that you only picked the bottle because of that one word you recognised and as long as it says that same thing on the label you’ll take it! The bottle is opened and a little of the wine poured into your glass. You pick up the glass, you swirl and try not to throw wine everywhere. You sniff, you sip and you look back at the waiter and give that approving nod that seemed convincing enough a moment ago.
All of us have been through the same routine when ordering wine in a restaurant without really knowing what the hell is going on. I work in a restaurant and I recently hosted a food and wine matching evening for some guests. One of the first questions that came up at the table was “why do we swirl the wine?” This lead on to a discussion as to the reason behind the process of checking wine that is brought to the table when people will swirl, sniff and taste their wine.
Firstly, you are checking that the wine is what you actually ordered. This is why it is shown or presented to you. You should be checking that it is not only the correct grape, but the same producer and also the right vintage (year). Next, the wine is poured and this is when you swirl, sniff and taste. One thing you are checking for is whether the wine is corked. A popular misconception is that corked wine has pieces of cork broken off and floating around in the wine. Corked wine is actually when bacteria in the cork has tainted the wine and affected the smell and taste. In these days of screw top wine though the chances of corked wine is getting smaller, although the wine could still be spoilt in other ways. What does a spoilt wine smell like though? Here are a few tip of what to look (and smell) for:
Check the colour – Is the wine cloudy? If it isn’t clear and transparent when you hold it to the light then this could be a sign of something wrong with the wine. As well as this check for general colour. If a red wine has a brown or brickish colour this can be a sign of oxidization, so the wine may have been exposed to the air and will have lost its fruit and a lot of the flavour.
Musty Smell – A musty smell will be a sign of cork taint. When a wine is corked it doesn’t mean that it has bits of cork in it, but rather that the cork has tainted the smell and taste of the wine. This will usually give the smell like moldy newspaper or wet dog. As every person has a different level of sensitivity though, it can also be hard for some people to detect cork taint.
Fizz on the Tongue – Has the wine got a sparkle to it when it shouldn’t? Or was there a pssst when opening the bottle? Some wines may have had a bit of secondary fermentation when it wasn’t meant to and as a result you have a wine that tastes strange. A lovely Bordeaux with a fizz just doesn’t go together, for example. Some wines though, may have a slight fizz added by the winemaker such as some whites like Vinho Verde. So check with your waiter.
Heat Damage – This isn’t so easy to detect. This would normally be the result of something that has happened in storage somewhere along the way. The wine will have a jammed, processed taste. This sort of fault is normally accompanied by oxidation though as the expanding and contracting of the wine seal will usually let air in and destroy the wine. If this has happened though the wine had basically been cooked in the bottle and will have lost any complexity and finesse.
These are the most common faults and will usually be pretty obvious. If you find a fault with a wine don’t be worried about sending it back, as this is the whole point of going through the process of checking the wine. With more and more winemakers using screw tops there is a movement towards trying to eradicate the cork taint fault in a wine. But as we’ve just seen there can be other faults and until you open a bottle you can never really be sure of what it will taste like.
So next time the waiter brings the bottle over, look, swirl, sniff, taste and enjoy!