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Why Do We Swirl Wine?

Why do people swirl wine? Is it mere pretense, trying to look sophisticated? While there is no denying an artfully swirled glass of wine looks cool, there in fact are very good and sensible reasons for mastering the technique. Plus, it won’t take long to learn to do it like a pro!

When first opened and poured, some wines may exhibit certain undesirable odors that linger briefly. These may include byproducts of the common use of sulfur in winemaking, like sulfur dioxide (matchstick) or hydrogen sulfide (rotten eggs). Or volatile acidity may be in evidence, with the telltale sign being an aroma like nail polish remover. These of course sound and smell awful, but in many cases – and in the absence of a serious flaw -- a vigorous swirl will allow these scents to blow off quickly.

Now that you’ve eliminated the things you don’t want to smell, it’s time to focus on the good stuff, which brings us to the next reason to swirl. Swirling is simply a fantastic way to aerate your wine once it’s in your glass (using a decanter to aerate is something we cover in a separate blog post). There are literally hundreds of compounds in wine, many of them esters, terpenes and others that impart the aromas and flavors we enjoy. The inherent volatility of these molecules – the ease with which they evaporate – is enhanced by swirling. This means you get extra helpings of those pleasant aromas wafting upward. Just don’t be timid about smelling your wine. Put your nose right in the glass and take a few authoritative whiffs!

Okay, we know what swirling does, but why does smell matter? In short, because it is enormously important in how we taste. We actually have two centers of olfaction, one of course in the nose and one at the back of the mouth, and the millions of nerve cells therein definitely earn their keep. Researchers assert that our sense of smell constitutes as much as 80% of our taste impressions. The tongue is also important, allowing us to assess texture as well as the primary characteristics of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory. But smell rules the day.

A few important points remain to be considered. First, the type of wine glass definitely matters, as does the size of your pour. For most wines you want a sizable glass that tapers at least somewhat toward the rim, to help concentrate the aromas. Second, don’t fill it! A small to moderate pour enables you to swirl vigorously without giving yourself a wine bath. Also keep in mind that swirling provides the opportunity to assess the legs, those rivulets of wine that glide down the inside of the glass (we have another blog post that discusses these in more detail). As for what wines to swirl … the answer is most of them. Red, white and rosé all should be swirled. The only time you shouldn’t is with sparkling wines, as swirling can dissipate the bubbles faster than would otherwise occur.

Finally, we come to methodology. For those who may be new to swirling, a great way to start is to leave the glass on the surface of the bar, table or counter. Grasp the stem and move the glass in small circles; the wine in the bowl will follow suit, giving you a nice swirl. Once you get comfortable with the motion, swirling while holding your glass in midair becomes a lot easier. You’ll be swirling like an expert in no time. Cheers!

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