Scott McCullough is the staff writer/editor at the Missouri Division of Tourism. He is a wine aficionado who has visited 90% of Missouri’s wineries, as well as many wineries throughout the U.S. and Italy. These suggestions are his own.
Traveling to Missouri's wineries and sampling their product is a very popular activity. A lot of folks wonder, what's the process? What should I do and not do? To help, here are some guidelines to make your wine tasting excursion enjoyable.
Important point: There aren't many absolute "must dos" – it's your experience, so you decide. That said, here are some standard procedures and hints.
Start with the light whites and progress to the heavy reds; leave the sweeter ‘dessert’ wines to the end. Don't forget the ports and fruit wines (blueberry wine is a particular favorite of mine); and mead – wine made from honey (no, it is not as sweet as it sounds). Mead is the oldest known fermented beverage on earth.
Always hold the glass by the stem or bottom, not the actual bowl of the glass, so the heat from your hand doesn’t affect the temperature of the wine. The exceptions are port and brandy, which should be cradled in the hand to warm the liquid. Here are the normal practices for the actual tasting.
- Look at the wine against a close white surface to experience its color and clarity; whites and reds come in a variety of hues. You’ll soon learn which ‘shades’ you prefer.
- Swirl the wine in the glass to aerate (incorporate air into) the wine and release the aromas and flavor nuances.
- Sniff the wine to detect the abundance of fragrances that lead to the wine’s flavor. This is an important step, because half of your sense of taste is controlled by smell. So get your nose right down into that glass and breathe in slowly. This is where you really start to taste the wine.
- Slurp. Let the wine mingle with your taste buds, tongue and roof of the mouth; each area has different sensors (That’s okay – slurping at a winery is perfect etiquette.) Take a small amount into your mouth and simply breathe through the wine, like sucking up a spaghetti noodle. This aerates the wine in your mouth and brings your nasal senses to the game.
- Swallow (not too much) as you exhale through your nose. Note the finish (aftertaste) and length of time the flavors linger. Remember, you are tasting, not drinking.
- Use the crackers. The crackers and pieces of bread are there to refresh your palate so each wine does not blend into the next. Don't eat the whole bowl; just take a bite between wine tastes so your palate is set up and ready for the next wine.
Every once in a while you will see someone swirl their glass of wine, raise it towards the light and watch with bated breath for the wine's "legs" to appear (the pattern the wine makes as it clings to the side of the glass). They think the legs are an indicator of the wine’s quality and/or sugar content. Not so. The legs have more to do with physics than they do with the wine's content. The legs are affected by temperature, barometric pressure and even the surface texture of the glass. I am happy to dispel that myth.
The samples are small, but they add up throughout the day. You don’t have to sample every wine; if you don’t like dry reds, skip them. However, this is a good place to experiment with a variety you may not usually buy. You might be surprised. Also, you don't have to finish a sample you don't like. If you try one that is not to your liking, pour it or spit it out and grab a cracker. (Again, spitting is good etiquette at a wine tasting.) Every tasting bar has a dump bucket for that reason; if you don’t see one, ask for it.
Every wine at every winery is different, even wines made from the same grape. Just because you didn’t like the Chardonel at one stop doesn’t mean you won’t like the Chardonel at the next winery. That’s a good reason to taste – to compare.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to rinse your glass between tastes. (Another myth dispelled.) Water will ruin the PH balance left in the glass and can negatively affect the next wine sample. The only time to rinse is is when switching from whites to reds to sweets – better yet, ask for a clean glass.
A minor point, but a key one: don’t wear perfume or cologne to a wine event. It interferes with the tasting experience (for you and others around you) and can cause confusion when trying to pick up the various aromas of the wine – remember, your sense of taste is often controlled by smell.
Drink water. A good rule of thumb is one 12oz bottle of water per winery. Wine (and beer for that matter) is dehydrating. Water keeps your fluid level up and keeps you from becoming dehydrated and more intoxicated by the wine.
Don't visit too many wineries in a single day; after a while, your palate won’t be able to tell the difference. Four or five should be the limit. Take your time. Wine tasting is more than just the wine; it’s the atmosphere, the conservation and the camaraderie. Rushing because you want to visit a lot of wineries in one day takes away from the experience and adds to your alcohol level. Besides, there are probably other attractions you want to visit between vineyards; a zipline for example.
Eat. Food is a great palate cleanser and it helps dilute the alcohol in you. Many wineries have beautiful patios and decks where you can spread an afternoon with a nice lunch or snack. Many have in-house food service, even a full menu restaurant, while others allow you to bring your own picnic (no fast-food please) – best to check first. NOTE: it is against Missouri law to carry any off-site beverages (even soda) onto a winery’s property.
Ask questions, but don’t try to impress the server with your vast knowledge. A winery visit is about the full experience, not just the wines. You never know, the servers may pour you a wine that is not on the menu, or better yet, do some barrel tasting. Connect with the servers and they will likely remember you the next time you visit. Leave a nice tip.
Take an empty box (get one form your local wine store), a wine caddy. You don’t want loose bottles of wine rattling around in your car. Keep wines out of the hot car; a 170+ degree trunk can ruin a good bottle of wine.
It’s a nice gesture to buy a bottle or two at each stop, but don’t feel pressured to do so. You can always go back or have a larger quantity shipped to you. We tend to get carried away at wineries and buy more bottles than we intended. If you do purchase, here’s a good tip: a wine that is chilled won’t be harmed if you let it come to room temperature and re-chill it later (same with beer); likewise, a red can be cooled and returned to room temp without harm.
Speaking of temperature. Wine should be served at 'cellar' temp, not necessarily room temperature. Sweet and dessert wines can be served cold. White and rose' wine stored in the fridge should be set out 10 minutes before serving so they are cool, not cold. Red wine stored at room temperature should be placed in the fridge 10 minutes to come to 'cellar' temp before serving. To quickly chill a wine, place the bottle in ice water (not ice alone) for 15-20 minutes.
And as to what wine with what food. Well, highly trained gastronomic experts can, maybe, tell the difference, but the best rule is: drink whatever you like with whatever food you like. It’s that simple. In this writer’s opinion, a dry red is frightfully good with grilled fish. You decide what’s good to you and let the ‘experts’ live in their own world.
Finally: The wines you bought at the winery might not taste as good at home as they did at the winery. Sorry to end this list with a downer, but it’s true. That's not to say it won't be wonderful. When you’re at the winery, surrounded by the ambiance and sounds of a tasting room, hearing comments from other shoppers, the wine tastes special. You simply can’t replicate those conditions at home. But, that is exactly why you should go taste wine at a winery more often.
So...hopefully that will help. Now get out and visit some Missouri wineries. To find some, search Winery on VisitMO.com.
As of April 2015, Missouri had more than 125 wineries. It’s hard to keep track because that number is on the increase as the popularity of wine in the United States grows astronomically.