Wait, What? Swirling

The Monarch Wine staff is teaming with experts… and also Kevin Chesley. It’s no contest, he’s the Monarch Correspondent that knows the absolute least about vino – which makes him uniquely qualified for investigative reporting into the delicious language wine geniuses use that make us all say, “Wait… what?”

The first few dozen times I saw someone swirl I hardly noticed. It’s a small, playful enough little motion that it almost seems involuntary – the wine lover’s delicious version of a fidget spinner. As I tasted in more and more places, head on a swivel as I tried to learn how to do it right, I started to dabble in swirling my wine so that I at least looked like I knew what I was doing.

It’s not just for keeping up appearances, however. That’s the real lesson for today. Swirling your wine has physical and chemical superpowers to make your experience taste even better. Okay, so not superpowers, just science. If you know your wine, it’s just something you know to do. I asked two certified sommeliers if they swirl. The answer was lickety-split, LA-based Brianne Cohen said, “Nonstop. I can’t NOT swirl.” Sherry Specialist Paige Bindel admitted, “I have to be honest. I’ve caught myself swirling water.” They’re addicted to it.

However, many of those same experts will laugh off the idea that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to do it. You should listen to them a lot… but don’t buy into that lie. Turns out, there is ABSOLUTELY a correct way that makes you look as high-end as your wine will end up tasting. By the end of this piece, you’ll have that method in your toolbox. Style AND a nicer dance across the taste buds? Winner winner chardonnay spinner.

She Wine-ded Me With Science (sorrynotsorry)

First of all, let’s get into the “why” behind swirling. There are actually a few solid “whys” about it, and all of them involve oxygen’s effect on the wine itself. The goal isn’t about sloshing the wine around the glass but instead focus on aerating it (letting as much oxygen touch the surface of the wine as possible). This process is also called “agitating” the wine – but that term seems a little snippy, don’t you think? Instead, consider that what you’re doing is “opening the wine up.” You’re breaking up the tannins for a smoother mouthfeel as well. Technically, good swirls even help along a small amount of evaporation – but don’t worry, it’s not making the good stuff go away. Instead, it’s removing the bad-smelling elements like sulfites and sulfides.

This gets to the truth behind why somms pour just a taste of wine for you to try at first. They aren’t being stingy; they’re wanting you to get a perfect sip – one in which every drop has been exposed to oxygen.

It’s also a good reason when you’re choosing a wine glass, to go big. It may seem like a small thing but, again, it’s just science – the larger the surface area of the wine when it’s at rest in the glass, the more of it is getting oxygenated (hence the magic of a decanter). Now, what is this a Wine Education piece? Enough with the science already…

Spin It By A Nose

There’s a stronger, yet more sensual, reason to “agitate” your wine, as well. One rooted in pleasure. The true goal of swirling becomes beautifully clear as it awakens the aromas that a wine has to offer. We actually “taste” better with our nose than our mouths.

The tongue stays in its five lanes. It brings in the salts and sweets, the bitters and sours and… umami. (I know. “Umami” feels like it was forced on us a few years back. It pretty much means savory, but a Japanese chemist planted the flag on naming it. It’s probably a topic for a future “Wait, What?” but, for now, just wow your friends at dinner parties by using it and moving on in the conversation like nothing happened.) Anyway—

– for truly next level taste experiences, you have to waft way past just those taste buds. It’s the nose that knows. A wine’s aroma is the key to picking up those more earthy flavors – the fruits, herbs, minerals and pine. Nicole Mallari, founder of Vintnoir, reminds us that swirling makes, “the aroma compounds come out to greet you.” Those compounds – where separate aromas are detected – can be doubly surprising and worth the investigation (“Am I really picking up BOTH bell pepper and grapefruit?” Yes, you are, but only because of your nose).

Those hints of everything from berries to shoe leather smoke to vanilla; they’re all chemical compounds called stereoisomers. They’re the delicious flavors trapped in the sugars of the grapes until fermentation… and that swirl is exactly the right move to wake ‘em up. So it’s important! And tastier! How do you look savvy while you do it?

Here It Is… The Right Way To Swirl

The secret to how to swirl right isn’t in how you do it. It’s about when you do it. This is perfectly illustrated as Paige Bindel remembers, “I was blind tasting once, and a Master Sommelier said he was impressed because I didn’t swirl the wine first. I smelled each glass before I swirled. He said that was powerful… because the wine will change.”

So THAT is how you get the most out of your swirl – and your wine experience. “Smell then Swirl then Smell then Sip.” That way, you first encounter the wine as is… and THEN you swirl! Right after that, the invigorated aromatics of that second sniff will allow you to witness the delicious transformation and make a swirling addict out of you, too.

Smell then Swirl then Smell then Sip.

Now that you know the real secret, practice building up a swirling style all your own. Some like a mid-air flick of the wrist, others prefer placing the base of the glass on a table to give a few little mini-circles without danger of spilling. Own your swirl… and you’ll be ready to take wine tasting for a whole new spin.

For Kevin, being a writer has always required a great deal of wine. He never dreamed he’d be able to combine his love for the two. His screenwriting includes works for Paramount, MTV, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Bad Robot, and his role as Executive Story Editor on “Blood & Treasure,” an action adventure show on CBS and Amazon. Before that, his thirst for sketch comedy led to pieces for The Onion and National Lampoon – as well as the stages of UCB, HBO Workspace, Comedy Central Stage and festivals in San Francisco, NYC, Vancouver and beyond. He’s a write-at-home dad always ready for a winery road trip… especially a dog-friendly one.