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Sniff or sip – what's the best way to judge a wine?

The question

When a waiter provides you with a small amount of wine that you have selected, do you need to taste it? I find that nosing the wine provides sufficient information to determine if the wine is off.

The answer

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I merely sniff, rarely taste, before accepting or rejecting the bottle.

The custom of presenting a small pour for examination is widely misunderstood. It's rooted in the fact that wine is frequently plagued by faults. The patron is supposed to verify that it's in sound condition, free of chemical flaws, such as cork taint (a mouldy smell caused by a contaminated cork), volatile acidity (the smell of vinegar) and the like.

I regret to say the ritual has nothing to do with whether you like the wine or not, assuming it's in sound condition. Restaurants can't – and, in fairness, should not be expected to – guarantee you'll be happy with the quality or style of wine. (You ordered it for a reason, after all.) That said, some fine restaurants will occasionally offer to replace a wine you don't like, but this is generally understood to be at the waiter's discretion.

Most technical flaws, such as those I've outlined, reveal themselves in the aroma, which is why I rarely bother to taste the sample. Another reason I usually don't bother has to do with palate readiness. If you've just brushed your teeth before heading to the restaurant, the minty residue will play havoc with your palate. I find my nose tends to be sharper than my tongue after I've brushed or, say, munched on garlicky bruschetta while waiting for the bottle to arrive.

In any case, should you find later in the meal that the wine is indeed faulty, feel free to bring this to the waiter's attention. There's no shame; I've dined with astute experts – winemakers and top sommeliers – who have missed the cork taint at first, only to be alerted later by someone else at the table that the wine is indeed subtly corked. Most good restaurants will be keen to replace the bottle even halfway through the meal if it's defective. Sommeliers are usually quite happy to take back the bottle and return it to the importer; they're in the business because they care about this sort of thing.

The important thing, I think, is to not feel pressured into speed-sniffing that first pour. Take your time and consider passing the glass to another guest at the table for a second opinion if you're in doubt. The pretense that tends to surround wine can put people on the spot, and that's a lousy place to be when you're out to have a good time.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear on The Globe and Mail website.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Beppi Crosariol writes about wine and spirits in the Globe Life and Style sections.He has been The Globe's wine and spirits columnist for more than 10 years. In the late 1990s, he also wrote a food trends column called The Biting Edge.Beppi used to cover business law for ROB and previously edited the paper's weekly technology section. More


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