WineInk: Talking about Wine

by Kelly J. Hayes
The best way to learn about a wine is to use your senses. See. Smell. Sip. It’s easy.
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Chappellet 2014 Chardonnay (Napa Valley)

It had been a while since I tasted this wine but there it was in my hotel. A tribute to the hostelry and to the wine. Light in color but full in body, the wine had the aromas and the flavors that are associated with the broad valley of its origin. Summer fruits, with apples, oranges and lemon scents lingered on the nose followed by clean but rich texture on the tongue. I had forgotten just how pleasant and pleasing a Chappelett chard could be, but this one took me back to the beauty of these wines.

It’s happened to all of us. You’re sitting at the table and someone orders a bottle of wine. You may be with a group of friends or perhaps business associates. The people around you start to talk about the wine.

And you’re intimidated.

Not because you don’t know wine. You enjoy and drink it all the time. But rather, because you feel that you don’t know enough to talk about wine. That it is too hard to put what you know into wine words. Au contraire. If you can see, smell or taste wine, you have the basic tools to discuss it. All you need is to trust your own senses and have a few words in your wine vocabulary to describe what they tell you.

Always start by looking at the glass. Red or white? Light or dark? Thin or dense? You know what each of those words means. As you look, make those determinations moving from the simplest, the color of the wine, to its opacity and then its texture. That was pretty easy, wasn’t it? Now you’re in the game.

Look a little bit more intently at the wine. If it is a red wine, is it a dark purple or a ruby red? The purple may lead you to think it is a wine made from grapes that are a little bit more concentrated and bold, like a cabernet sauvignon or a even an Italian Barolo made from nebbiolo, the grape of kings. A lighter, thinner shade of red may indicate that it is a pinot noir, or perhaps a sangiovese.

If it is a white wine, and you can tell that just by looking at it, the next thing is to determine whether it is clear and clean like a glass of water, or perhaps a deeper straw color. Maybe it even has a pink hue. If it is pink then it has spent some time on the skins of the grapes from which it was made and is likely a rosé. Clear and clean? It may be a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or perhaps a Gruner Veltliner from Austria or any one of a hundred different young, white wines made around the world. The color of yellow straw? Opt for a barrel-aged chardonnay.

Give it a swirl. Does the liquid cling a bit to the sides of the glass and then drain down slowly? If it does, wait for one of the young business associates to exclaim in a semi-lurid way, “Wow, look at the legs on that thing.” He is referring, of course, to the oldest cliché in wine. A slow groove down the sides of the glass indicates that the wine may be “hot,” or high in alcohol. But don’t be the one to comment on the “legs.”

By simply spending a few seconds of your time looking at the glass, you already are more comfortable with defining and expressing what your senses say to you. You have passed the stage of concern.

So now it is time for the moments that make wine such a glorious gift. That first tilt of the head and whiff of the wine. Swirl it one more time, then drop your nose into the glass. Breathe deep and don’t think too much. Just enjoy. What do you smell? If it’s a white wine you may smell white or citrus fruits. Peaches? Pineapples? Oranges? Lemons? How about clean slate or stone? If it’s a dark red you may get a hit of leather or maybe chocolate or dirt. Just blurt it out. Once you say the first aroma that comes to your mind the others around the table will dip their noses into their glasses to see if they can smell what you smell.

By this time, you own the table and the conversation has turned toward what you are experiencing. Lean back and enjoy. Take a sip of the wine and quickly swallow. What are you feeling? Is it a dry wine, or is there a touch of sweetness? Does it make you pucker? Is it soft or does it feel powerful? Take a deeper, longer, more satisfying drink. Let it linger in your mouth a bit.

Look for balance. Is the wine too hot? Does the alcohol overpower? How about the tannins? Do they dry out your mouth? Is the wine flabby or cloying? Or is it smooth, rich, elegant?

At this point, the intimidation has diminished and the most important thing is not to talk about the wine, but to simply enjoy it.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at