Elevate Your Tasting with the 5 S’s

Engaging different senses can help you make the most of your wine sampling experience
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Did you know there can be much more to wine tasting than, well, tasting?

You can learn a lot about any given wine — and get more out of your tasting as a result — if you engage your other senses as well. One way to do this is by following the five S’s: see, swirl, smell, sip, and savor.

Using this method is a way to taste wine more mindfully and ultimately have a more fulfilling experience, says Chuck Jackson, a wine consultant at House of Pure Vin in Detroit and chair of the Michigan Wine Collaborative’s Inclusion and Expansion Committee.

“I look at wine tasting similar to the Japanese tea ceremony,” he says. “You could just pour some tea in your cup, or you can run through this ritual that actually makes you focus more on exactly what you’re doing and exactly what you can get out of it.”

The next time you visit a tasting room or open a bottle of your favorite Michigan wine at home, give the five S’s a try and see what you can pick up about the wine you’re drinking. Here’s how the steps work.

Step 1: See.
Before you dive into tasting your wine, observe it.

Jeremy Duggan. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Duggan

“Looking at a wine is a huge hidden clue to what that wine is and what that wine’s going to deliver for you,” says Jeremy Duggan, sommelier and general manager at the Dusty’s Cellar wine bar and restaurant in Okemos. “You can tell whether or not it’s grown in a hot climate. You can tell whether or not it’s a thick-skin grape or a thin-skin grape just by looking to see if you could read a newspaper through it or if it’s inky and purple or if it’s watery on the rim.

“So sight gives you so many clues into what the wine could be or what to expect from the wine.”

Take color: The hue of a wine hints at what that wine is and even more obviously indicates what it is not.

“If it’s purple and it’s inky, you know maybe it’s Malbec; maybe it’s Syrah,” Duggan says. “But it’s certainly not Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, or Sangiovese.”

Step 2: Swirl.
Swirling serves a couple of purposes: It aerates the wine, which sets the stage for smelling and sipping, and it also goes hand in hand with seeing.

When you swirl your wine, you can watch the droplets — or “legs” — roll down the sides of the glass and get a sense of the wine’s viscosity, which in turn gives clues about its alcohol and sugar content.

Chuck Jackson. Photo by Andre McWilliams, courtesy of Chuck Jackson

“I start swirling as soon as I pour the wine because I’m trying to get it open,” Jackson says. “Also, when I go to see and check the color, I’m also looking at the legs for the viscosity of the wine to see how thick it is or thin it is. Because generally, the thicker-viscosity wines … may give you a tell-tale sign that it’s basically higher residual sugar, and so you may get a fruitiness.”

The higher the aggregate alcohol and sugar content, the more slowly the legs will roll down the sides of the glass. In addition, the color of the legs hints at the type and origin of the wine grapes.

“[Swirling] can tell people, is it a dark, thick-skin grape from a hot climate, or is it a thin-skin grape from a cool climate?” Duggan says.

Consider a hot-climate wine from Spain, or a Malbec from Argentina: “They’re going to have more extraction and they’re going to move more slowly down the glass,” Duggan says, “and they’re also going to have more pigment, so more staining on the sides of the glass than, say, a Michigan Pinot Noir, which is a thin-skin grape from a cool climate.”

Step 3: Smell.
A wine’s aroma can reveal a lot — and what you smell won’t always match what you taste.

“Aroma, to me, it’s the key,” Duggan says, noting that “our ability to sense through our nose is a thousandfold beyond what we can do on our tongue.”

In fact, he says, the aroma is where you can uncover much of a wine’s intricacy.

“The best bottles of wine I could just smell without even tasting for hours because you can go that deep within it,” Duggan says. “That’s really where the complexity goes and where the hedonism, to me, comes out.”

There’s a lot you can consider when you’re smelling a wine: “Is it red fruited? Is it black fruited? Is it earthy? Is it oaky?” Duggan says. “To me, the senses are all about deduction, so it’s all about eliminating things, and then you let what rises to the top rise to the top. What’s the most obvious characteristic of the wine?”

Different sommeliers may prefer different methods for smelling a wine. You can start by putting your nose into the glass and sniffing lightly into each nostril and then drawing a deep breath. Or, you can dive straight into the big inhale.

The first method may help you pick up “subtle” aromas, Jackson says, before you pull in the more dominant notes with a deeper draw.

Step 4: Sip.
During this step, you can note the major flavors of the wine as well as its weight and acidity. To do that, you want the wine to hit every part of your mouth and, consequently, all of your different receptors so you can pick up all of its complexity — or note if complexity is lacking. That’s where the idea of “chewing” the wine comes in.

“By chewing, I’m rolling the wine over my tongue completely so that every receptor can get what it’s supposed to get,” Jackson says, “… because to me, a wine is complex when it has all of those components to it. And if you don’t get the wine over your tongue completely, you’re possibly missing some of the complexity of the wine. Or, actually, you may by doing that be able to … discover that the wine is truly one-dimensional.”

You can also try slurping your wine before you chew it to add air.

“Throughout the entire process, you’re trying to basically add as much air to this wine as you can to see how that air impacts the wine,” Jackson says. “Does it make it better? Does it make it worse?”

Once the wine is in your mouth, you can gauge its acidity. If the wine is very acidic, your mouth will water to counteract that.

“If you hold [a highly acidic wine] up to the roof of your mouth, your mouth should feel like it’s raining inside your palate,” Duggan says.

Finally, when you hold the wine on your tongue and bounce it up and down, you can sense its weight, Duggan says. The heavier the wine, the higher the aggregate alcohol and sugar content.

Duggan sums up the sipping process like this: “The most important thing is just put some wine in your mouth, splash it around, and breathe in through your mouth.”

Step 5: Savor.
The final step is perhaps the least intuitive — what does it mean to “savor” a wine?

“To me, ‘savor’ means to linger over it, to truly discern whether or not this is something that’s pleasurable or unpleasurable,” Jackson says. “Because if it’s pleasurable, you can savor it and say, ‘Pour me another glass.’ If it’s unpleasurable, you’re like, ‘You know, I’m kind of done with this.’”

Although five steps might seem like a lot for a small pour of wine, the whole process doesn’t have to take very long. Professionals evaluating wine following a similar procedure only spend about 4.5 to 5 minutes per glass.

But to enjoy your tasting to the fullest, try taking Jackson’s advice and slow down, injecting a bit of “savor” into each step. And remember: The ultimate purpose of the five S’s is to enhance your tasting experience and help you discover what you like. After all, wine preferences are very personal.

“Everybody’s nose is different,” Jackson says. “Everybody’s palate is different. What somebody may find enjoyable, you may find nasty. What some people find pleasing, you might not. So this process is really to hone in on what you like and what you don’t like.”

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