How to Drink Pinot Noir by Robert Wolfe.
“Heck,” you may say, “I already know how to drink pinot noir.” And, indeed, you may be quite competent in cork pulling, wine swigging, and even in eloquent description. But there’s more to wine tasting that all of that. If you drink your pinot noir the correct way, you will enjoy more flavors, experience greater intensity, spot flaws and problems more easily, and – as a beneficial side effect – you will drink your wine a bit more slowly. There are two stages to the pinot noir drinking process. The first stage is preparation, which deals with the tools, setting, and environmental considerations. The second stage is actually drinking the wine.
Temperature is the first critical piece of the pinot drinking puzzle. It’s gotta be cool, but not too cool. Red wine consumed too warm loses delicate flavors, and tastes alcoholic. Red wine consumed too cool loses delicate flavors, and tastes like nothing at all. The happy medium is cool room temperature, around 65 F. Even 70F is fine, but much warmer than that and the wine starts to fall apart. If I’m in a cool room, I’ll warm the glass up between my hands before drinking. Too warm? Stick the wine in the fridge for a few minutes. Decanting is the next important step. Most big red wines benefit from some exposure to air. It softens the tannins, and allows the fruit expression to expand. Decant the wine into a vessel large enough to accommodate the entire bottle. A wide or voluminous decanter allows more surface area of the wine to be exposed to oxygen, hastening the process. The only drawback to decanting occurs when you plan to save part of a bottle for the next day – the rapid exposure to oxygen caused by decanting may oxidize the wine to the point where it is not drinkable the next day. There are some who pooh-pooh decanting as a waste of time. I’ve conducted experiments where identical bottles are consumed, one from the bottle, one from a decanter. Decanter wins. Now, it’s not as important for a fresh, light, young wine – those may not need any air. And, for really old wine, decanting may hasten the oxidation that will turn the wine from a delicate flower to vinegar. But for most young-to-middle-aged reds with some body, decanting is the way to go. Next, let’s touch on stemware. The fact is, the glass you drink from makes a huge difference in the wine’s flavor. Tiny glasses with no room for vigorous swirling are the worst, and drinking your pinot from one of those is a big waste of time and money. (Let’s be frank, however; at certain parties, I won’t hesitate to drink my wine from a Miss Piggy Commemorative Glass from McDonalds.) Choose a wine glass with a large bowl. It needn’t be a hand-blown, flown across the ocean via the Concord and transported to your door in a limo. But it should be large enough to allow for a modest portion of wine to be vigorously swirled. Hint: if you take the glass out of a cupboard, rinse it before use to get rid of “cupboard funk.” Also, give the empty glass a sniff to make sure it does not smell like bleach. Finally, let’s talk about personal grooming. Things like toothpaste, cologne, and perfume are fine. But not when you’re tasting wine. And not when your standing anywhere near another wine taster. If you want to take your wine seriously, don’t brush your teeth for a couple of hours before drinking. And because you want to smell the wine, don’t wear scents. Similarly, don’t schedule your pinot noir evaluation session for downtown Gilroy during the Garlic Festival. Get it? Okay!
You’ve got some wine in a large-bowled glass, which you poured from a decanter, the temperature is perfect, and you can smell the wine instead of your companions. Now what do you do? Wait! Don’t drink that wine yet! First, consider that the drinking itself has several stages. First, you prepare to drink. This involves several mechanical actions, as well as sensory evaluation. Then, you drink. But, you must drink in a certain way. Finally, you evaluate the wine. Let’s start at the beginning. Take your big-bowled glass with wine and swirl at around vigorously. (Talented tasters can swirl either clockwise or counterclockwise. More advanced techniques include doing so with either hand.) This hastens the beneficial aeration. It also spreads wine around on the inside surface of the glass, increasing the available evaporative surface area, greatly enhancing the wine’s aroma. And we’ve all heard that taste is closely linked to smell. When swirling, I also take note of the ‘weight’ of the wine in the glass. Some wines just weigh more, are more viscous and heavy in the glass. Don’t forget to eyeball your beverage, also. The more senses you can bring into play, the more fun this will be. Then, stick your nose in the glass and sniff. Don’t be afraid to get your snout well into the stemware. Actually snorting a drop or two of wine is common, and real tasters won’t even notice. In terms of technique, a series of shallow, gentle sniffs works much better than one huge hoover-like sniff. Okay, time to taste. When tasting, I always think of the advice Fred gave Barney about drinking wine. “It’s easy,” said Fred. “You just sip, suck, swirl, and swallow.” Fred was a genius.
Take a sip of wine. Suck air into your mouth, causing the wine to bubble and swirl. Agitate the wine back and forth across your palate with your tongue. Coat all of your mouth surfaces with wine, bringing into play as many taste buds as possible. Then, swallow the wine. But don’t quite swallow. Let the wine trickle down your throat, all while gently breathing out through your mouth and nose at the same time. Pause to inhale if necessary. Take care not to dribble, and for goodness’ sake don’t let the wine go down the wrong pipe. This takes practice, and it can also draw curious stares from onlookers. But, done properly, this technique saturates the palate with wine flavors, and saturates the nose with wine aromas. It also causes the alcohol to be rapidly absorbed into various mucus membranes, causing a brief, giddy sensation. Good wine will have its flavors and aromas beautifully displayed in this manner. Flawed wine will have it’s shortcomings clearly laid bare.
Having tasted, you can now evaluate. You can rank the wine by it’s precise score out of a possible one hundred points, or assign some stars, both methods favored by big-name critics. I put the wine into one of three categories: Yuck, Okay, and Yum! It’s a system that’s easy to understand, avoiding confusion, and helps prevent wine snobbery overload.
By what criteria should the wine be judged? Intensity, complexity, length, and most important of all, balance. First, it’s desirable to have a wine with intense flavors. A thin, mildly flavored wine is best avoided. A small sip should fill the mouth with flavor, inviting yet another taste. If that intense flavor changes and evolves the longer you hold the wine in your mouth (all while sucking, swirling, and breathing), it is also a complex wine. Lucky you! But if the wine flavors start out with one flavor and retain exactly that flavor throughout the taste, then the wine is sadly simple – the opposite of complex. In the best case scenario, those intense, complex flavors also last a long, long time. If the flavors persist as long as you can reasonably hold the wine in your mouth – say, up to 45 seconds or even a minute – and then the flavors continue even after you swallow, then the wine has a highly-desirable long finish. But, if the flavors fade quickly, leaving you with a mouthful of colored water, the wine has a short finish.
Most important of all, the wine must be balanced. By this I mean that the sugars, acids, tannins, fruit flavors and oak flavors should blend and mingle in a pleasing fashion. No element should dominate (especially the acid or oak). This one is subjective; some folks like a forest of oak flavors, while others do not. But in general, you want a bit of everything, and not too much of any one thing to make a balanced wine. So! You have a complex, intense, lengthy wine that you’re sipping from your big-bowled glass at the correct temperature, and it has been decanted long enough to reach the peak of its flavor. Now what? Take another sip, of course!
Sincerely, Robert Wolfe
Oregon Pinot Noir Club