At a recent dinner with my son, Hank, he asked me, "Does that really make any difference?" He was referring to the fact that I was swirling and sloshing my wine in the wine glass before drinking it. "It actually does," I replied.
The somewhat odd-looking behaviors and habits of seasoned wine drinkers—swirling it, sloshing it around in the mouth and (sometimes) spitting it out—might seem like nervous tics, or maybe just bad manners. But they're not. Though they might appear peculiar, wine geeks go through those motions and more for good reasons. Combined, they help us to better know, and therefore enjoy, the wines we drink.
Why was I heartily swirling the wine around in my glass? Well, unless it's been decanted in advance—which is fairly rare—almost all of the wine we enjoy has been cooped up in a bottle until we drink it. It has been resting peacefully, as it should be.
However, most wines directly poured from a newly opened bottle—at home or in a restaurant setting—are "closed" and "tight." They need room to breathe, literally. So, we swirl it vigorously in a glass to introduce the air. Infusing oxygen tends to accentuate both the flavors and aromas. If you don't believe me, do this simple exercise the next time you open a new bottle: Pour two identical glasses of wine, but only give one of them a swirl. Then, stick your nose into each glass. I guarantee that the one you swirled will be much more fragrant—inviting you to enjoy it, so to speak.
A floral-smelling wine like Viognier becomes even more floral when it's given room to breathe. Ditto the wine's flavors: Aerating can release the flavors you were looking for when you bought it, but also more subtly render its harsher notes. In short, introducing air to your wine—whether it's with a decanter or other tools, or just by swirling it in a glass—helps it come alive.
Probably the most annoying and socially unacceptable behavior to non-connoisseurs is the habit of swishing wine around in the mouth before either swallowing or spitting. It sounds and looks a lot like the way the Japanese eat ramen, which is totally acceptable in their culture.
Without getting too technical, our tongues have various sensors that recognize sweetness, acidity, tartness and so on. Tasting wine in the front of the mouth first, then letting it flow toward the tonsils, helps wine drinkers identify the various taste aspects of the wine. That wouldn't happen if you simply tossed it down your gullet like a Pepsi. Allowing it to settle in the mouth briefly also helps the drinker identify the weight (often referred to as the "body") of the wine. How does it feel? Silky? Heavy? Fizzy? Do the tannins make your mouth pucker? These sensations tell you a lot about the wine you're drinking and whether you'll want to drink it again.
Finally, to spit or not to spit? Most wine drinkers and experts I know prefer to swallow. However, when attending a wine tasting where perhaps a dozen or more wines are being sampled, it's smart to spit. First, you won't get too drunk if you do. But also, you'll avoid the palate fatigue that comes with tasting too many wines in a short period. Personally, I rarely want it to go to waste in a spit bucket. But that's your call.