Tasting Wine: Swirl, Stare, Sniff

You’ve seen the moves—the Swirl, the Stare, the Sniff. Perhaps you’ve even performed them yourself. But do you really know why you’re swirling your wine or what you’re looking for when you hold your glass up to the light? Don’t worry! If you still have some lingering doubts, we won’t tell anyone, and we’ll even make sure you know enough to do it the right way!

First off, whenever you see anyone swirling, inspecting, or sniffing their wine, they’re just trying to get to know it better. Though it would seem that the best way to do this would be to dive right in and take a big sip, taking some time to register a wine’s appearance and scent can be surprisingly enlightening. You might feel a little funny doing it the first couple of times, but as soon as you get the hang of things it will become so second-nature that next thing you know you’ll be absentmindedly swirling and sniffing your lemonade and water—trust us, we’ve seen it happen!

Below you’ll find a handy guide to understanding and mastering the moves that can help you get the most out of your next encounter with a glass of wine.

The Swirl

The move: Place two fingers on the base of the glass, one on each side of the stem and, without lifting the glass from whatever surface it’s resting on, start to swirl the glass in a counterclockwise motion. You want to achieve a motion that causes the wine to rise up and wash the sides of the glass. You don’t have to do this for very long—a couple seconds should do the trick.

The point: For a long time it was thought that the Swirl helped encourage a wine to “open up” by getting air into it. However, the Swirl, it turns out, is pretty inefficient towards this goal. A wine will open up better with time or a decanter than with a few spins around the wineglass. While the Swirl doesn’t do much to open up a wine’s flavors, it does prove rather effective in amping up a wine’s scent. By coating the sides of the glass, the wine gets closer to one’s nose and enables more subtle scents to be detected.

The Stare

The move: Hold the wineglass up to the light post-Swirl in order to watch the wine on the sides of the glass drip back down into itself, leaving thin trails of wine that are called “legs.”

The point: A wine with “good legs” or “long legs” was once thought to be an indicator of a wine’s high quality, but as it turns out, legs indicate the levels of alcohol. A slower drip generally indicates a higher concentration of alcohol. So be careful with those long-legged wines!

The Sniff

The move: You can tell just how serious someone is about wine by how far they stick their nose into a wineglass. To get all the benefits of the Sniff, you want to swirl your wine and tilt the glass towards your nose, to get the wine as close as possible to your nostrils. Go ahead and inhale deeply and then take the wine away from your nose as you exhale.

The point: The reticent who only venture to sniff the air at the top of their wineglass are missing out on all the pleasures afforded by a good deep sniff. Half of taste is smell, and the nose of a wine can be just as essential to its enjoyment as its taste. Smell is an intensely personal sense and powerful in its ability to trigger memories. Similarly, sometimes a wine’s scent is much more revealing about its past than its taste can be. So make sure that a big part of tasting wine is allowing your sense of smell to be deeply involved in the process.

For tips on selecting a wineglass, click Wineglasses: What to Look For.