feature image by Alina Nechaeva via Getty Images
Welcome to Uncommon Pairings, a new Autostraddle column about wine! Over the next several months, we’ll be digging into this beloved fermented beverage that boasts a more than an eight thousand year history and at least one massive insect-related blight. Bug gays, rejoice.
You might already be familiar with my approach to wine — that is, gay and deeply unserious (see: this piece on sparkling wine and Takis). It’s an intentional choice and a response to the dominant narrative around wine in the Western world: that the people in it are white, cis, and serious, and that “good wine” comes from the “old world” (ew). There are definitely folks changing the wine scene for the better— check out this Them piece on Kalchē Wine Co if you want to learn more — but for the most part, the wine industry is still pretty homogenous.
This piece is meant to serve as a foundation, because part of drinking wine is tasting it. Whether you’re a spitter or a swallower, by the end of this, you’ll have a new way to describe what you like in a wine. We’re going to approach this with a three-step process, each step involving a different sense (sight, smell, and taste). If you have a glass of wine handy, great! You can use that to follow along. If you’re not a drinker, feel free to grab a different beverage (water is probably the only option that won’t work here).
Whether you go for wine, kombucha, or tea, just make sure that your chosen bev is inside a clear drinking vessel. It’ll be much easier to figure out what color your wine is if you’re able to hold it up to the light!
The easiest and first question we answer is what color the wine is. Is it white, red, or something more orangey or pink? From there, we can go a bit further to determine what shade within the color family it is. If it’s white, maybe it’s closer to straw or gold! Or maybe it has a slight greenish tint. If it’s red, is it closer to ruby or garnet? You don’t have to use these exact shades to describe the color of your wine. Maybe the wine in your glass is the same color as fake blood! IMHO wine gets way more fun when it becomes personal.
If you’re having a tough time figuring out where in the shade family your wine belongs, I recommend holding it against a white backdrop. A white wall, a loose sheet of paper on your desk, or even just a white paper towel will work well here.
Two other things you want to look out for are bubbles and sediment. Both are pretty easy to spot. If you see bubbles rising to the surface of your glass, congrats! You’ve got a sparkling, or at least something lightly effervescent. If you have floaty bits in your wine, or what looks like sand hanging out at the bottom of the bottle, you probably have some sediment. Sometimes winemakers choose to leave sediment in the wine on purpose, and it’s totally fine to drink, but if you’d prefer to have a sediment-free glass, just filter it out with a strainer.
The steps in this process get progressively more fun, so I am glad we are out of sight and onto sniff. It’s time to figure out what the wine’s “nose” is! Hold the glass up to your nostrils and inhale. With this first sniff, all we’re trying to do is get a sense of what aromas might be present in the wine. As you get used to the wine, take some deeper inhales and really sit with them. Close your eyes if that helps.
The first stage is to identify what type of smells you’re getting. In the more traditional wine space, the categories could include: herbaceous, woody, fruity, floral, earthy, chemical, and a few others. Once you’ve landed on a category or perhaps a few, it’s time to go deeper.
If those first few sniffs yielded fruity, what kind of fruit is it? Is it tropical? A berry? The idea here is to start with broad strokes (the categories), and then get progressively more specific. The UC Davis Wine Wheel is a great partner here if you’re looking for inspiration, but it is pretty Western (I think) and smell is deeply personal and cultural. If a wine smells like your summer camp’s lake, or your grandmother’s masala blend, use those words instead!
Time to actually put our tongues to work!! Taste is a combination of structural and flavor elements. I think the structure bits are easier — it’s mostly following rules and plotting things along axes in a relative comparison way. Flavor’s a little more subjective.
A couple things to pay attention to: sweetness, acidity, tannins, and length.
Sweetness is exactly what it sounds like. The two ends of the spectrum here are dry and sweet (you’d think dry and wet, but no). If a wine is extremely dry, it’s considered “bone dry” which I honestly had never thought hard about until writing this piece and as it turns out, it’s called that because of the way bones dry in the sun! Or at least that’s what the Internet has led me to believe.
Acid is measured from low to high, same with tannins. If you’re a fan of citrus-y things, you might like high acid wines. But if you’re a fan of bitter things, you’re probably into high tannin wines.
Length is my personal favorite. It’s measured by how long a sip of wine “lasts” in your mouth after you’ve swallowed. If the flavor sticks around for 2-3 seconds, it’s short. Probably an easy-drinking wine great for picnics! If it’s around longer than that, it’s either medium (5-6 seconds), or long (8-10 seconds).
Once we’ve finished up these bits, it’s time to tackle flavor — which is the hardest job, but also the most rewarding. Yes, we technically smelled the wine when identifying the nose, but sometimes wine will smell like something and taste like something else, kind of like how LaCroix tastes like absolutely nothing other than bubbles, but still has its designated fruit’s smell.
You can absolutely use the UC Davis wheel I mentioned earlier, but like I said, I think wine gets more fun when it’s personal. Sit with the wine and really think about what it evokes. If it feels like watching The Lizzie McGuire Movie on the big screen, that’s your truth (and please let me know what wine that is because I have been trying to capture that feeling since 2003).
And that’s it, really! A supremely condensed approach to wine “tasting.” The next time you’re drinking a glass of wine, maybe try out some of this! If you find a flavor you really love, it could be worth seeking out again. You could also go extremely scientific here and make a big spreadsheet of all the wine you drink. I did that for a few months in 2021 but forgot to update it and now it’s just a shell of what it could have been! Anyway, meet me in the comments with what you’re drinking because I would love to know!