Sunday, April 22, 2007

To Swirl or Not to Swirl?

When conducting tutored wine seminars, I often demonstrate basic tasting techniques. Foremost among those techniques, I always stress the importance of sniffing. I see far too many people just grabbing a glass of wine and chugging away. Slow down folks! Taking a good whiff of a wine before sipping is a great way to preview what’s to come on the palate. And I always find it interesting to discover the similarities and the differences between aroma and flavor.

An easy way to enhance the sniffing experience and to increase one’s overall enjoyment of the wine experience is to master the art of the swirl. Whether on a table top or freeform, left-handed or right-handed, there’s a point to it beyond just trying to look like a member of the cognoscenti. The act of swirling coats a greater surface area of the glass with a thin layer of liquid, encouraging dispersal and evaporation of esters – the aromatic compounds in wine. By swirling, you’ll get a much more complete exposure to the range of smells, good or bad. And that should increase not just your overall enjoyment of imbibing but also your understanding of what differentiates one wine from the next.

An increasing number of restaurants, recognizing the importance of wine to the overall dining experience, have incorporated a form of the swirl called “seasoning” into their sommelier services. A small bit of the wine to be consumed is poured into your glass and swirled while tipping the glass, coating the entire inner surface before being poured into the next glass where the process is repeated. The idea is both to remove any remaining vestige of dish soap or lint from a polishing cloth and also to prepare the glass for receipt of the small test pour and, once the wine is accepted, a full pour. Think of it as full-service swirling. It takes only an ounce or so to season the stemware for the entire table. Babbo, Mario Batali’s flagship Manhattan restaurant, has developed a reputation for seasoning glasses. It’s the kind of practice that can lead to rather spirited discussions between admirers and detractors.

Of course, there are times when swirling can be a bit over the top. I occasionally find myself absentmindedly swirling a glass of water. A coworker’s boys grew up swirling their milk, a trick learned from their dad but a practice they quickly unlearned in the school cafeteria. For adults, the habit can be harder to break.

As important as swirling is to the wine experience, it is anathema to tasting and analyzing spirits. Swirling wine, remember, helps to release beneficial aromatic esters from the thin coating distributed inside the glass. Do the same with your favorite straight spirit, though, and you’ll quickly find yourself with a snoot full of little other than the burn of alcohol. When making the switch from fermented beverages to distillates, the rules change. Once the alcohol percentage crosses into the twenties and higher, the nature of the drink becomes more volatile. The higher rate of evaporation occurring in drinks of greater strength is enough, glass left still, to lift and release the full aromatic spectrum. Swirling will only intensify the perception of alcohol which will, in turn, obscure the more subtle and pleasing aromas of the libation itself. And sniff that after dinner grappa gently, my friend. Wine rewards deep breaths; spirits punish them.

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If you're only going to own one glass...

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