Swish & swirl 

The method to the madness

Swish, swirl ... whatever. Wine snobs often haughtily demonstrate the ancient, sacred ritual of swirling wine in a high-rimmed glass before sipping. Is it over-emphasized and overdone? Maybe. Does it improve the flavor of the wine? Absolutely, in some cases.

Think of a sweater that has been in a trunk for a while. When you pull it from its tomb, it normally sports a musty, stale smell. Once it airs for a while, the fabric absorbs the oxygen in the air and changes the odiferous into the acceptable. Wine works in a similar fashion. The liquid has been bottled up for months, stewing in its own smells and flavors. But if you open up, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon, pour some in a glass and let it sit for 10 or 20 minutes, the oxygen has a chance to mingle with the wine and clear out the cobwebs. Ever heard the word "breathe" associated with wine? It's not just a figurative term; the wine actually takes in oxygen.

Simply uncorking the bottle and letting it aerate does not help the wine breathe much. The small opening is not wide enough to allow much air to enter. You'll get better results by pouring wine into glasses and airing it that way.

Swirling the wine facilitates even more oxygen exposure. In a restaurant, you might be served a smaller amount in order to accommodate serious swirling. Try this experiment at home or out in a restaurant: Grab two glasses and open up a bottle of your favorite red wine (in general, white wines don't improve with swirling). Pour a small amount of wine into each glass, and take a sip of one. What does it taste like? Does it have a drying effect on your tongue and on the roof of your mouth (caused by tannin, a natural by-product of red grapes)? Does it taste fruity like grapes? What other flavors do you taste? With the other glass, swirl the wine for about a minute (best done by keeping the stem touching the table and rotating with your wrist. This is like stirring with your fingers but using the sides of the glass. Looks cool, too.) Note the difference in taste from the non-swirled red wine. With additional time and swirling, the wine will "open up" even more, smoothing out the flavors and getting back to its intended state.

The swish move serves a completely different purpose. By moving the wine around in your mouth, it spreads the flavor across the taste bud regions of your tongue -- sweet, salt, sour and bitter. (There is even talk of a fifth protein-reactive region -- umami. More on that at a later date.) When you swish the wine around your mouth, these four gustatory qualities help you form your opinion of the flavor. If the wine is too bitter when you first put it in your mouth, swish it around and see if that introduces a better experience.

Experiment with several different grape varieties, and notice the differences. Write them down, maybe start a wine diary that chronicles your wine-tasting ventures. This way, you can figure out your favorites.

Wines for this experiment
St. Supery 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, $22. This wine shows off the swirling experiment quite nicely. Dark, dank flavors first emerge from the non-swirled wine and then lighten up once swirled. Good stuff in the end.

Chateau de Parenchere 1997, Bordeaux Superieur, $11. This is a Bordeaux Cabernet/Merlot blend at its earthy best. Somewhat lacking in fruit when you first pour it, this one mellows out with some good swirling. Don't worry, the fruit comes out in the flavor eventually.

Haywood 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, $14. The tannins in this wine first bowl you over, but then the juicy, grapey fruit flavor comes through. Swirl this to your heart's content.

Have a wine or wine experience you want to share with us? E-mail corkscrew@ creativeloafing.com or mail to Corkscrew, 1310 East 9th Ave., Tampa, FL 33605.


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