“Retronasal” Wine-Tasting

Surprised guy image for blogWant to get a real blast of a wine’s flavor? Try retronasal breathing! Sounds pretty funny, huh? It can be! If you’re with friends, you’ve had a few glasses of wine already, and you try this for the first time, you probably WILL crack up! Here’s what it’s all about:

“Retro” means backwards or behind. “Nasal” means nose, of course. Retronasal breathing literally means breathing behind the nose. So how and why would you do this?

First the why: Wine-tasting experts employ this technique in order to extract all the aromas and flavors of a wine. The mouth is connected to the nose through the retronasal passage. When you take a sip of wine, you do actually smell it somewhat as you are tasting it. As the wine warms up in your mouth, a broad spectrum of aromas is released. These can go unnoticed in the absence of retronasal breathing.

Now the how: Inhale as you take a sip of wine and hold it in your mouth (swirl it around with your tongue a little) to warm it up and release the aromas. Swallow. Exhale forcefully with your mouth closed, through your nose. BAM! Taste that blast of flavor! Smell those aromas! They will blow you away!

I challenge you to try the retronasal breathing wine-tasting technique without your eyes flying open in pleasant surprise!

Beverly Hurley

Wine Factor


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Why Do We Swirl?

“Why do we swirl wine?”

So you are sitting in a nice restaurant, and you see the couple at the table next to you swirling their wine around, smelling it, then sipping it. Why do they go through all those “preliminary steps” before tasting the wine? Sure, they look cool, but is it really necessary?

The answer is “yes!” And I’ll tell you why.


Remember the last time you had a head cold, and your nose was all stuffed up? Do you remember how food tasted bland, since you couldn’t smell it? Well, that’s because 70 – 75% of what we taste comes from our sense of smell! Our taste buds are not as abundant as our “smell buds” (olfactory receptor cells).

Try this, just for fun: hold your nose and take a sip of wine. Note how it tastes. Now stick your nose into the wine glass, sniff deeply, then take a sip. You should notice a big difference in flavor.

Now let’s take it to the next level. Try this: hold the glass of wine still, sniff deeply, and take a sip. Note how it tastes. Now swirl the wine around in the glass vigorously (more on this coming up), sniff deeply, and take a sip. You should notice a more intense, fuller flavor. This is because swirling the wine around “opens it up.”

When wine is introduced to air, the layers of compounds that define the wine’s flavor are released. The more undesirable compounds evaporate more quickly than the desirable ones, and thus the wine tastes better!

As a rule of thumb, all red wines (especially Pinot Noir) will taste better if swirled before drinking, although very few white wines will. It is very important to serve your red wines in glasses large enough to allow  you to swirl the wine without sloshing it over the edge! (Quite an embarrassing faux pas, especially on a first date!)

The safest way to swirl without making a mess is to set the glass down on the table, grab it by the stem, and rotate it around in small circles. Do not fill the glass more than a third of the way, so there is room for the wine to “spread out” up the sides.

How much swirling is recommended? If the wine is being poured straight out of a just-opened bottle, I would recommend at least 10 seconds of swirling. If the wine has been decanted or poured through an aerator, just a few swirls should suffice.

So go ahead and swirl – you’ll enjoy your wine more, and you’ll look SO COOL!

Beverly Hurley

Wine Factor













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What Does it Take to Create a Quality Pinot Noir Wine? (part one of 3000)

by Patrick Hurley

Well, besides divine intervention, the art of making a quality wine is a lot harder than you would probably imagine. If you were as experimental as I was in college, blissfully adding sugar and Welch’s Grape Juice together in same parts sugar and grape juice along with Champaign yeast, you learned a lesson in how not to make a libation. This particular concoction was something in between hi- octane cough syrup, turpentine, and a bomb; and the mess it made took what little fun it was to create right out of the equation- and OMG what a headache!

Winemakers today are thankfully much more well versed in modern alchemy than I was, with most embedding themselves into many years of higher education at UC Davis (the oenologist’s Mecca ) then the years in the wineries working under the masters.

With all of this education, you will find that there are still quite a few ways to actually “screw-up” the process of making good wine.

First the fruit!

There have been many domestic “wars” that have gone on for centuries; under the table haggling over “grape rights”. If a winery is lucky enough to own its parcels and farm its own grapes, then to the victors go the spoils, for they have complete control over all vineyard aspects. But if you are a new or struggling wine- maker buying grapes from an upcoming vineyard which keeps getting better fruit year after year, chances are the farmer starts holding onto the grapes for his or her own winemaking, all just when you have tweaked everything just right. It happens more than you would think.

We have seen gifted young winemakers create a spectacular wine from contract growers on a yearly basis. We have seen those same growers see the potential profits in making their own wine.  They already have great fruit, so why not go direct and make it themselves? The quality most of time (but not always) can hang on the vine a little too long! The learning curve can be brutal for both parties.

But back to the fruit. The quality of the grapes depends upon: of course the soil and climate (terroir – explained in long explicit detail in my other writings), the clones in which the vines started from, shorter or longer growing periods, and the grafting of the clones- where sometimes the lower half of the vines are grafted for their ability to grow in particular and sometimes challenging soil conditions of that micro plot, with the upper half best grafted for flavor, etc.

The best vines have been caressed, if not babied. There is an exacting method in the removal of leaves and buds by hand-pruning the vines; too many buds = too much dilution in the fruit. Not enough = we’re eating at Taco Bell on Thanksgiving! Hand pruning over mechanical pruning is really the demarcation line here in the (chalk) sand. Labor is more expensive than a weed whacker – so is quality wine.

Then there is aerating and fertilizing of the soil; all the while subtly torturing or harassing the vine just enough so the plant puts its energy into grape production and not too much in leaf production. There is truly an art to that one! A grower will work with the good winemakers and might water the vineyard  at the exact moment to “charge up” the vine without effecting the grapes. Again, an art, not a machine.

Where a winemaker accumulates the most grey hair is at harvest- this can be anything from a fun smooth couple weeks to a outright ongoing nightmare. It’s enough to drive them to drinking beer! The exact moment must coincide with the winemakers vision of what he or she must have in the form of sugar and acid levels along with the correct maturation of the grape itself. A couple enemies of the winemakers are rain for mould and saturation of the fruit, too much heat or cold weather for over or under ripening, lack of labor because on the same day every other winery is picking, flocks of birds mowing down the perfect vines, the black plague etc. Here is where a little of that divine intervention might be helpful.

In the Western US and now even in France, if the fruit stays on the vine too long or if it matures too quickly, the more the sugar/flavor ratio gets to be running towards Robert Parker’s idyllic “fruit bombs”- with massive flavor and bigger alcohol headaches. Personally I and many others prefer a slightly earlier picking, a more balanced wine with lower alcohol, especially in Pinot Noir and Cabernets. Amen. Ok, I’ll get off my pulpit.

There you have a very basic overview in the first part of the series of “What Does it Take to Create Quality Pinot Noir Wine”.

Patrick Hurley is a wine merchant and has a varietal specific Pinot Noir website

http:// www.winefactor.com


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Basics of Wine Tasting

What makes some wines better than others?

It is hard to tell what makes a wine better than another before actually opening the bottle and sampling it for yourself. A quality pinot noir comes from grapes that have been properly cared for in both the growing and the handling stages of wine-making. There may be an assortment of different reasons for a wine to turn out better or worse than others. A winery may have had a rough season, or they may have allowed the wine to oxidize too much when bottling it. Both can have a negative impact on the taste. A good wine should be both complex and balanced in both taste and smell. Smelling the wine first can clue you in on what is in the wine before tasting it.

What makes a good year or a bad year of wine?

The difference between a good year and a bad year can be due to a variety of reasons. A certain winery may experience a dry season or its soil composition may be slightly off. Slight changes during a growing season can result in a different taste than expected. When this happens, it is considered a bad year. A good year for a wine is when everything goes according to plan and the weather is consistent throughout the growing season. Under ideal conditions, the grapevines produce the healthiest grapes.

If you want to learn more about the best years for a specific wine, you should research the wine before you make a purchase. This is easiest to do when you buy wine online because basic information about the wine can easily be found, if not provided, with a simple internet search.

Do some regions produce high quality wines than others?

Grapes, like most plants, have a specific climate which they grow best in. Grapes are best suited for regions that have plenty of sunlight, mild winters, and long growing season. Grapevines intended to produce wine need around eight hours of sun each day for about half the year. Although there are many different types of grapes that can grow in a variety of climates, most wine-producing grapes grow best in regions with the above-mentioned characteristics.

With its temperate climate and consistent year-round weather, California is a very popular place to make high quality California pinot noir. California not only has the best weather for producing wine, but the Californian coast provides a crucial element for maintaining health grapes. A marine layer is produced most mornings allowing the grapes to regain moisture that was lost throughout the previous day. This is one of the most important reasons why California produces some of the best California pinot noir in the world. Not many other regions have access to such natural benefits.

Why some low quality wines are overpriced

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a more expensive the bottle of wine means it is better in quality than others. Studies have shown that most wine drinkers can’t taste the difference between an expensive bottle and a cheaper bottle of wine.

Marketing is usually the cause of overpriced bottles.  Some companies spend a lot of money marketing their product then try to make this money back by increasing prices; however, this can make their wine even more desirable because often times people associate price with quality. This trend is the reason some low quality wines remain overpriced. However, one way to pay less for an equal or better quality bottle is by buying bottles from online wine stores. You not only can save money, but can easily find exactly what you are looking for.

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Single Vineyard Wines; Clarified (Exposed)

California Pinot NoirWhen at a tasting room, you might overhear the good people generously pouring your California Pinot Noir expounding that what you have in your glass is the “Holy Grail” of the varietal; a “Single Vineyard” (or SV) wine. There is a contingency of Pinot enthusiasts that prefer only SV Pinots.

We’ll dig a little deeper into what an SV is and shed a little light from the depths of the cellar, if you will.

With SV, the illusion that comes to mind is of purity and simplicity in the lack of blending; the exact replication of each vine and grape, and that grape being from that single vineyard.  You are probably imagining all the grapes coming from the same row, all the leaves lining up facing the sun together. That angels actually hand pick the grapes, and by prolonged consumption of these SV gems, you only become better looking. (I tried, but it obviously didn’t work for me).

The winemaker might say “estate grown SV” on the label, when in reality the “estate” might be a plane ride’s distance between parcels and might be planted with a completely different  varietal.

The TTB** regulations cite that a 95% minimum sourcing is to be from the vineyard so designated on the SV label. This allows the winemaker  an exorbitant latitude to blend with grapes from a completely different source or even completely different varietals (the type of wine grape), all without saying so on the label. That 5% seems to be a whole lot of potential voodoo that could interfere with a wine that before, was so virtuous. But you say “come on its only 5%”. Try pouring 5% of Petit Verdot in your glass and see if you taste anything different.  Of course this is extreme, but…

The “Golden Holy Grail” lookith to show o’ bit of “pewter” beneath.

… this is not a bad thing. As long as the winery stands behind that they are using 100% Pinot grapes, a little blending has proven to be “Holy” beneficial, while tossing out the Grail. Some of the best winemakers in the world have worked for decades to refine the art of blending different “clones” (in French meaning “graphing twig”) to increase the complexity, caricature, nose and so on.

Let’s keep in mind that even though, in the best of circumstances, the SV grapes that are taken from the same vineyard can come from different levels on the slope, row orientation, different drainages, soil types, exposure to the sun, micro climate conditions, etc. So what you end up with is different tasting grapes, and many times different clones besides, just to adapt to the diversity in the vine locales on the plot.

The words that come to mind are “self induced homogenization”. But if the winemaker limits his or herself to small lots (blocks), then this could be a close representation of American “terrior”, as I have defined before as ‘its sense of place’ -encompasses both the exact location and the soil.”

In closing, there is a movement to have TTB change the ruling on SV to limit the wineries to 100% Single Vineyard wine production if the winemaker/winery states SV on the label, because some of the purists felt a bit jilted when they became aware of this little known fact about the 5%.

For me, as long as I know what is in the bottle I’m drinking, then blend away; just make sure I am able to “become aware – of what is there.”

Patrick Hurley is a wine merchant and has a varietal specific Pinot Noir website

http:// www.winefactor.com


**Alcohol & Tobacco. Tax & Trade Bureau


by Patrick Hurley

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