‘How should I sniff and swirl a wine before sipping?’

Ross Trueman, general manager and sommelier at fine-dining restaurant Furna in Brighton, shares his tips with a novice reader keen to taste wine like a pro

Words by Club Oenologique Editors

sommelier sniffing wine

In our Ask the Sommelier series, we’re putting readers’ wine questions to the world’s top sommeliers. In this instalment, Ross Trueman, general manager and sommelier of tasting menu-led restaurant Furna in Brighton, shares his tips with a reader keen to find out how to sniff, swirl and sip wine like a pro.

‘Is it necessary to swirl a wine before trying it? What does it do and what’s the best way to hold, sniff, swirl and taste wine without looking like a novice?’
Michael from Surrey 

Furna's sommelier and general manager Ross Trueman believes subtlety is the key to tasting like a pro

Sommelier Ross Trueman responds

‘You should absolutely give the wine a swirl, but I think it’s where a lot of people are unsure of themselves when tasting wine. People can get self-conscious or think it’s pretentious. They’ll either not do it or they’ll do it far too much. The reason you swirl the wine is to get it moving and allow some oxygen in there. No matter how long it has been bottled up – three years or 20 years – introducing oxygen allows the wine to breathe and lets it open up. But, the idea is to just agitate the wine slightly to release the flavour compounds, there’s no need to go overboard.

‘And some wines don’t really benefit from swirling – a sparkling wine wouldn’t necessarily need it because you’ll just release the carbon dioxide and lose all your fizz. Older wines, like an old Bordeaux, need to be gently decanted – and then you want to be quite delicate because if you swirl them too much, you can destroy all those wonderful aromas and flavours.’

How to hold, sniff and swirl a glass of wine

‘When it comes to holding the wine glass, it’s a good idea to hold it by the stem. There’s no right or wrong way to hold the stem, whatever is comfortable for you. Try to avoid holding the bowl – it risks warming the wine up to a point where the alcohol is released, which will mask the aromas. Conversely, if you ever get a wine that you think is too cold or is maybe a little closed, clasp it in your hands a little bit, give it a swirl and see if it opens up.

‘I’ll always sniff a wine first – give it a light little swirl and a sniff. A lot of people will swirl the wine for ages and that has the potential to let all the fragrances evaporate out of the wine. The first sniff is the most important. I think about 80 per cent of the flavour of wine comes from the smell, and you get most of that in that first whiff.

‘You just want to give it a light swirl and then get your nose straight in there. I take it up to my nose slowly and detect the point at which I can smell the compounds. If it’s just very subtle flavours, it’s going to be right up in your nose before you can smell anything. If it’s big and bold and gives off a lot of fruit, you’ll be able to smell it if it’s sitting at the table next to you.’

You just want to give it a light swirl and then get your nose straight in there

Tasting the wine

‘After sniffing and swirling, I like to taste it by taking a sip and gently sucking a little bit of air into my mouth. That aerates the wine a little bit more – it’s a continuation of swirling the wine. People can be a bit funny about this tasting technique too. But it can reveal so much more flavour in a wine. A good broody, medium- or full-bodied red can be quite closed, so tasting it like that, really getting the oxygen in to soften it up, makes a big difference.

‘When swirling, sniffing and tasting the wine, all these techniques can be quite subtle. You should barely even realise that someone’s doing half of them. I think the biggest thing that people do is over-exaggerate all of them, whether that’s massive swirls and continuing that throughout the whole meal or taking big slurps as well. It takes practice to do it subtly, but you don’t need to sit there and make a scene.’

Around 80 per cent of the flavour of a wine comes from its smell

‘As a sommelier, when you bring a bottle to the table, often no one wants to be the person to taste the wine because they think if there’s something wrong with it, they’re not going to know and then everyone’s going to drink a crap wine.

‘But we don’t get anywhere near the number of wine faults we used to – I couldn’t tell you the last time I came across a bottle with cork taint. It’s about making sure that you’re drinking a bottle that you like. A lot of people get worried that once it gets served, if there’s nothing wrong with it, then you have to go with it. But most of the time, especially if the sommelier has guided you to a certain type of wine, if you taste it and you don’t like it, you can absolutely say: “I’m sorry but that’s not for me, is there something else we can try?”

‘People don’t use the ability of the sommelier enough. They’re scared to ask questions. They feel like they don’t know enough and they don’t want to make themselves seem stupid. But that’s what the sommelier is there for – they want to talk about wine.’

Interview by Isabelle Aron

Do you have a question to put to the world’s top sommeliers? Send them to editor@cluboenologique.com