If you taste a lot of wine, eventually you're going to develop some stylistic tics. Will you take itty-bitty sips, swishing lightly before fastidiously spitting with a pursed-lip squirt? Or will you go for a mighty draught, swishing so loudly that bystanders will think they're at a mouthwash convention, then expectorating with brio and verve in a vigorous stream, raising a great, frothy head on the spit bucket?
Maybe you'll settle somewhere in between. Recently, senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson scolded me for too much mouthwork in my own tasting style (I slurp, I spit hard). "You must feel the weight of the wine, you must allow it to sink into the tongue," he said, eyes closed as if he were accessing a core sense memory from deep in his databanks.
I gave it a shot. He had a point: the wine sank in, and my tastebuds flared in response to the peppery white Burgundy. Excitement built. Mild embarrassment washed over me. I felt like a bumpkin. (Mansson lives in Europe, where "le swish Americain" is doubtless viewed as a colonial vulgarity.) He had my number. I felt like a guy at a steakhouse who'd just been told to stop eating with his hands.
Of course, I relapsed in an hurry; before too long, I was again slurping and swishing like crazy. A languid, vaguely decadent Manssonian exhalation of wine was replaced by my obnoxious old firehosing technique. (Still, I now reserve Per's technique for all Chardonnay-based wines, where it does seem to make a difference.)
Swishing is just one aspect of tasting style. There are many, many more. But the one that has preoccupied me of late -- and, interestingly, the one I've discussed the most with other wine professionals and observed in colleagues -- involves swishing's precursor, swirling.
That's right, swirling. Simple, right? You spin the wine in your glass, allow the vortex to subside, give it a whiff as the wine evaporates off the glass's interior, and ... poof! Aromatics! Like magic. Look at me, I'm tasting wine!
Of course, there are as many styles of swirling as there are styles of spitting. Beginners are usually counseled to rest the stem of the glass on a tabletop, securing their swirl against an abrupt slosh. This way, they're less likely to stain their shirt, or the shirts of others.
After that, however, the sky's the limit. Almost every taster I've ever seen has developed his or her own moves. Mansson, for example, employs a mellow wrist roll (about 6 inches above the table, leaning forward), followed by a decided wrist tilt, a levering that angles the glass 45 degrees, to facilitate a generous nosing.
Tasting director Bruce Sanderson and tasting coordinator James Molesworth, both based here in our New York office, go for a crisp, cocked-wrist approach. Molesworth maintains a more upright posture; Sanderson tends to lean back in his chair. Both execute the actual swirl with a relatively brisk and repetitive tempo, but one that never seems rushed. New York style, I'd say (even though Sanderson is from Canada).
Executive editor Thomas Matthews and managing editor Kim Marcus are, by contrast, slower swirlers. Matthews is also a restrained spitter, while Marcus really goes for it. As swirlers, I'd label Matthews and Marcus "classicists," Sanderson and Molesworth "modernists," and Mansson a "sensualist."
Of our other senior editors, I've seen James Suckling taste only once or twice, and James Laube or Harvey Steiman never. But I have spent some time with associate editor Daniel Sogg, a "bowl swirler" (doesn't grip the glass by its stem; uses minimal wrist action) and a moderately forceful spitter. Slightly unorthodox, but effective, and low-impact. He can swirl all day long and certainly doesn't risk tendonitis. Sogg will be swirling long after some of us have hung up the stems.
Me, I'm a hodgepodge: I swirl excessively, with a lot of (probably needless) wrist action. I really get that wine whipping around the bowl. Lately, I've been "clockwising," changing capriciously, and sometimes sloppily, from my normal counter-clockwise spin. I've also been switch-hitting, trying to bring my left hand up to speed. I just can't settle on a single style. What does this mean? For one thing, the likelihood that I'll ever become a Master of Swirl, like my colleagues, is diminished. My technique is too postmodern, too jangly. I have been yelled at when I become preoccupied with it. "Just drink the wine!" my critics insist.
But I don't. At least not right away. The centrifugal whirl is far too captivating. It's wine in motion. It's vigor in the glass.
What's your tasting technique? Swirl into our forums.
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