Swirling your wine in your glass before tasting it isn't just to make you look sophisticated. This guide will explain the reasoning and how to swirl wine.
You’ve been there: You notice a couple at the table next to you. One of them has a long graceful neck, is sitting in an upright attentive posture, and has some expensive brand showing. The other is voluptuous with ruby red lips in stilettos.
It’s clear that they are in love. You watch them, wondering about the secret behind their relationship.
Then there it is. The wine is poured. You watch them swirl wine, then take a sniff, and then take a sip.
It looks so cool, so sophisticated. They must know what they’re doing, right? Does it really make a difference, that swirl? Read on to find out.
Understanding Wine and Oxygen
To understand what swirling does is to understand the effect of oxygen and oxidation. Oxidation is the dangerous effect of too much oxygen from the wine-making process.
During the first week of winemaking, the juice goes through a primary fermentation where yeast is added to convert sugar to alcohol. This is where the liquid is the most active. This is like the child phase of wine, where oxygen doesn’t matter.
After primary fermentation, the wine is moved to a different vessel for secondary fermentation. This is to let the yeast finish its job converting the rest of the sugar.
This is a long, months-long process where the wine is undisturbed and oxygen starts to matter. This is like the teenager phase of wine, where it’s learning to pick up the initial characteristics that will hint at what it will taste like once it matures.
After secondary fermentation, slight adjustments are made to acid levels and clarity. The wine is moved to an aging vessel such as an oak barrel to move it to the final product.
After the bulk aging (often up to a year), the wine is moved to a bottle, where it sits sideways undisturbed for years. This is when the wine becomes an adult with set characteristics.
In this whole time, any agitation or exposure to oxygen is completely minimized to prevent oxidation. Oxidation at any point in the entire process after primary fermentation will potentially ruin the wine.
Swirl Wine to Open that Personality
For some big Bordeaux wines such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the bottles might be sitting in a cellar for 5, 10, or even 20 years. That means the wine could be sitting for an entire decade without any exposure to oxygen.
If you take a sip of wine from such an old bottle, it will taste flat and probably underwhelming. You’re tasting wine where the characteristics have been suppressed for a decade.
Your relationship with wine at this point can be like one of those boring couples. You bring your shy partner of yours to a party and you pretty much know what you’re getting.
What you don’t know is that you’ve been taking your partner for granted. All that was ever needed was a little momentum, a bit of fresh air, and some room on the dance floor to release that hidden attitude to become the unexpected life of party.
By reintroducing oxygen back to the wine, it opens up the aromas that have been dormant. Simply swirl the wine by holding the stem (don’t hold the glass directly or your hand may warm the wine).
Bury your nose into that glass and inhale deeply. Try it a couple of times. The floral and citrus notes will be more dominant as it wakes up.
Take a sip and you’ll find the mouthfeel is soft. This is due to the mellowing of the tannins of the wine. Tannins are the protective element that comes from the skins.
With oxygen, the flavors will be more prominent and noticeable with less sharpness. The result is a practical party of fruit, acid, and structure that uses your entire tongue as a dance floor.
Ways to Keep the Party Going
Swirling is one way to add oxygen to wine. Another way is to decant the wine by pouring it into a different vessel. This adds some agitation that will introduce oxygen.
A much better way is to use a wine aerator that plugs into the opening of the bottle. An aerator comes in many forms, but the purpose is to add immediate oxygen while you pour. It provides the same effect as swirling.
Another method is to add oxygen while drinking. Try your first sip of wine straight. Then try again after chewing the next sip. Agitating the wine in your mouth before swallowing introduces a new level of appreciation.
Want to take it up another notch? Right before chewing, suck in some air while the wine is in your mouth. That direct exposure to oxygen puts the wine into overdrive for a huge experience. Try this with a value wine and watch how much more “expensive” it tastes.
What you don’t need to do is to let the bottle breathe by opening it up hours beforehand. This method has been debunked and doesn’t actually add any oxygen to the wine.
Fall in Love Again
It’s your turn. You’ve seen that couple at the other table. Now it can be you.
The one with the long neck, great posture, and expensive brand? That’s the bottle that’s been waiting faithfully for you for a decade.
The other with the curves, red lips, and stilettos? That’s your glass of red wine, ready for the chance on the dance floor.
It’s your turn to swirl wine and fall in love.
It is love, after all. And it’s time to jump in feet first.