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Running a winery and vineyard is a year-round business, but many wineries’ tasting rooms are open only during the summer season, from May to October or November. Rather than turning up on the doorstep to find a “Closed” notice on the door, call ahead or check the website for the winery’s hours. If you are travelling in a large group, phone ahead and advise the tasting room when you’re arriving. The weekends are the busy time and, if you want special treatment as a group, ask if there is a private tasting room. My advice is to avoid visiting wineries on holiday weekends if you want to ask the staff questions. They’ll be too busy to spend much time with you.
If you’re driving, don’t block access to doorways or to your fellow visitors with your car. If you’re cycling, make sure you park your bike so that no one will back over it. Many wineries now have bike racks.
You will be greeted with open arms as long as you are there to sample the wines and not to party. Most wineries don’t charge for a sample pour and will be happy to serve you up to four selections. You may have to pay for their specialty wines, such as Icewine. It is de rigeur for professional wine tasters to spit, so don’t be afraid to follow this custom. Spittoons and dump buckets are provided, but make sure your aim is true. And don’t feel you have to finish each sample. You won’t offend the tasting-room staff if you dump the sample after one sip. Keep your opinion to yourself and move on.
Don’t start with Icewine and then try to taste a Sauvignon Blanc, because the initial sweetness will make the wine that follows taste sour. Begin with the dry white wines, move to the dry red wines, and finish with the Late Harvest and dessert wines.
If you’re on a guided tour, don’t carry on a conversation with your friends/partner/strangers while your guide is explaining the winemaking process. And don’t monopolize the guide’s attention by asking too many questions. Others may have questions, too. Avoid touching anything to see if it’s working or if it’s full (knocking on barrels or tanks), and keep your eyes open for hoses or anything else that’s lying around. Be sure to close doors after you: wines have to be kept at a cool temperature.
Sign the guest book. This way you can receive information about the winery’s upcoming events. Tour the wine store and pick up some wine. You will find a much better selection here — older vintages, small lots, experimental wines — than you will find at any liquor store or even the winery’s off-premise stores. There is an old joke: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Answer: Start with a large one. Remember, wineries are in business to make money. To show your gratitude for a tour and tasting, pick up a bottle or two of your favourite wines on the way out.
Three Steps to Tasting
Wine appeals to all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. But it’s mainly the first three you use when judging the quality of a wine, and in that order as well. The first sensory response you have is to the colour of the wine, then to the smell as you lift the glass to your nose, and, finally, to the taste.
Step 1: Sight. Hold the glass against a white background or a good source of light. The wine should look clean and bright. Study the colour and tilt the glass so you can see the rim where the wine touches the glass. Young wines hold their colour to the rim; older wines begin to fade at the edge. White wines start life as white as water and gain a golden colour with age. Red wines begin as a deep purple and lose colour over time. Browning edges in a red wine are a warning sign and suggest age or oxidation. A browning of the yellow of white wine suggests maderization (oxidation that gives a sherry-like flavour to the wine).
Swirl the glass and watch the transparent wet residue on the sides form into tears, or legs, and slide down the glass. This residue is the alcohol in suspension on the side of the glass. The thicker and more slow moving these legs, the higher the alcohol content.
Step 2: Smell. Swirl the wine in the glass. This action causes the esters that carry the wine’s aromatics to evaporate and rise, and you’ll get a more concentrated bouquet. You can tell 75 percent about a wine on your nose. The bouquet will tell you what the wine will taste like; the only thing it won’t tell you is how long the wine will linger on your palate.
Look for faults first. Are there any off-odours, such as the smell of vinegar (volatile acidity) or prunes (oxidation) or damp basements (corkiness)? The wine, depending on the variety or blend, should generally smell of fruits, flowers, sometimes vegetables (especially Sauvignon Blanc), and it will have the scent of vanilla or coconut, toast, and smoke if aged in oak.
Step 3: Taste. Take a sip and let the wine wash over your entire palate. The first sensation you’ll notice is the wine’s sweetness. (The taste buds that register sweetness are on the tip of the tongue.) As the wine works its way to the back of the mouth you’ll experience acidity (a lemon-like flavour) and, in red wines, a slight bitterness caused by tannin, a natural compound found in the skins, pits, and stalks of grapes. Tannin is a preservative that allows red wines to age. Astringent when young, the tannins soften with the years and, eventually, in old wines, will precipitate out as sediment.
Feel the weight of the wine in your mouth. High-alcohol wines, whether red, white, or rosé, will be full bodies and mouth filling. Low-alcohol wines will feel lighter.
Ask yourself if the wine is balanced. A great wine will be seamless: the fruit, acidity, alcohol, oak, and tannin will be in harmony. If the wine is over-acidic, over-oaked, highly tannic, or shy on fruit, it will be unbalanced. You should not be able to pick out one particular element of its composition if the wine is well balanced.
A taster’s secret: suck in air when the wine is in your mouth. You’ll extract more flavour, just as you get more of the wine’s bouquet by swirling it.