With so many wine bars and tasting rooms at our disposal, we Portlanders are no strangers to wine tasting. But while many of us may understand the difference between a pinot noir and a pinot gris, the nuances of the practice—is that leather or graphite I’m smelling?—can often seem impossibly intimidating and obscure. After you sip, do you spit or swallow? How many sniffs should you take? Why do we swirl the wine first? What’s the difference between a woodsy aroma and a woody one? Does any of this even really matter?
With these questions in mind, I tasted a flight of Oregon pinot noirs with Cole Danehower, who daily tastes dozens of wines for his Oregon Wine Report. Are there any easy answers? According to Danehower, there are—but he thinks we should do the work to find them.
When you are tasting a flight of wines, what are you looking for? Where do you start?
I look at the label and try to understand where the wine came from. This one is a Willamette Valley winemaker’s cuvée, which tells me that it’s a blend of pinot noir grapes from different locations.
Then what do you do?
Look at the color. If it’s a little darker and a little browner, then it may be a little older. If it’s more purple, it may be younger. Old is not bad. It’s not necessarily better. It just depends. Then—and this is a little different from most tasters—I smell the wine without swirling, very intentionally trying not to disturb it.
Why do you do that?
Aromas that are allowed to sit are different from aromas that are produced when you vigorously swirl and add oxygen. Sometimes I pick up things that don’t smell good before I swirl—it may be a little musty or a little moldy. If I swirl and it goes away, it’s not a problem.
Do you always smell wine before you drink it?
I do—mostly to make sure it isn’t corked, which is that musty, wet-dog smell that destroys the flavor of the wine. But the smell is 80 percent of the total experience. Try to think about associations the smell creates. I might tell you it smells like leather, but it might give you a different association. Is it a simple smell or is it complex? How complex those aromas are tends to be an indicator of the quality of the wine.
So what are you smelling other than leather in this wine?
I smell nice fruit—blackberries and cherries, which is typical for pinot noir. It’s not real deep and real rich. There’s a little bit of a woody quality. I say woody, not woodsy.
What’s the difference between woody and woodsy?
A lot of wines are aged in barrels, and the smell of that wood can get into the wine. You can sometimes smell cut or sawed wood.Woodsy is a little more herbal and earthy. A little bit of that can be very pleasant. Woody isn’t always desirable. The key is balance. If one smell or taste is predominating, generally it’s not as desirable as having all the elements float in balance.
Are you ever unable to taste what you’ve just smelled?
Yes. I’ve smelled a wine that had a gorgeous nose—cherries, raspberries, sweet grass and flower blossoms—and I thought, I can’t wait to taste this. And when I did, it was kind of flat and simple. The best wines are wines that match that rich, complex nose with a rich, complex set of flavors.
What else are you looking for when you smell the wine?
I look for anything that smells off. It could smell like vinegar or nail polish. If you smell something that isn’t pleasant, ask the sommelier to smell it or just reject the wine. Don’t hesitate to do that. It’s more important to smell than to taste wine.
When you taste, should you swallow or spit?
If you are going to taste a lot of wines you might want to spit, but it’s not necessary. Do two things after you take the first sip. Breathe in a little oxygen with the wine to help release those chemical compounds and then swirl it around in your mouth. Literally chew it. Don’t just gulp it.
As you "chew" on the wine, what should you be noticing?
It’s remarkable how textures of wines can differ. They can be silky, velvety, harsh, gritty, sharp. The feel on the tongue and the sides of the cheeks has a lot to do with tannins and acidity. Too much acidity can make the wine seem sharp.
Are there different parts of your tongue that feel these sensations better?
Yes and no. The idea of the tongue having little taste zones has pretty well been disproven. It will differ among people.
Should you always taste flights of wine made from one kind of grape?
Taste pinot against pinot and merlot against merlot. Or compare the same style of blends.
Are there questions that are helpful to ask when you are tasting at a wine bar or winery?
If you ask where the grapes come from or what clones they are, even if you know nothing about what the answer means, you’ll probably be offered more information just because they realize you’re curious. Often they’ll say, "We’re not serving this to everybody, but try this and see what you think."
In his book, The Accidental Connoisseur, Lawrence Osborne says that even though he’s tasted thousands of wines, sometimes he wonders, "Do I really know what I’m tasting?" Does that happen to you?
All the time. But there’s no right or wrong. There’s a whole mystique around wine. Wine is a beverage. It’s not made for you to see God in a glass. Tasting wine should just be to develop your own history of taste so that you are comfortable with what you like, not what you think you should like. In America everyone wants somebody else to tell them. I do that to some degree in my own publication, because I put a score on wine. But it’s just my opinion. Taste it for yourself. You do the work.