It is iconic, a group of people lounging around a table, swirling their wine idly, tossing around big and small ideas and laughing as the conversation wanders around.  For some, the swirling helps them think or it is the adult version of a fidget spinner to retain their attention. 

But why do we swirl our wine and how do the professionals do it?

Let’s step back to a tiny bit of chemistry.  The reason wine has those wonderful and complex smells is primarily because of a chemical class known as methoxypyrazines.  There are certainly other elements, but these are prevalent and detectable by the human nose at very low levels. 

When we swirl, we are opening the wine to air and allowing the smellable elements to volatilize into the air, which lets us smell them.   That’s the real reason to swirl, to introduce air.  It enhances the complexity of the wine by putting all the wine has into the air and into our nose.

So how should we swirl?  There are two main techniques, on the table and the free-hand swirl.

The first is easier and definitely where you should start.  The first rule is to make sure your glass isn’t too full, perhaps 1/3 at maximum.  This is where those lovely larger glasses come in handy, even with a decent pour, the wine won’t come sloshing over the top. 

Place the glass on the table and hold the foot of it to the table and slowly rotate the glass in small circles.  You’ll see that the liquid can’t quite keep up with your swirling and you’ll get that pretty vortex that sucks in air and lets the aromas flow.  This works best when there isn’t a table cloth and the bottom of the glass can move freely.  After a few swirls, let it settle and bring the edge of the glass to your nose.  Really stick your nose in the glass!  Take a nice smell and let it sit, I usually blow that one out to a side and go in for a second one as well. 

Tip: Don’t Over Swirl

I mentioned a few swirls, usually 3-5 because that is what it takes.  The pros don’t swirl their wine like they are trying to make a smoothie.  One set of swirls, smell and enjoy.  Sometimes they’ll do it again after the wine has been in the glass a bit to see how it is developing. 

The second approach, which is better for experienced swirlers and earlier in the night is the free-hand swirl.  You’ll lift the glass, holding the stem and swirl the bowl, creating the vortex effect.  This one is harder because it is way easier to splash over the rim and douse yourself, the table or your dining companion with your elixir.   Trust me, I’ve done it and been the recipient of a wine bath towards the end of a meal.

Remember, your glass isn’t a prop.  Fill 1/3 full, give it three to five good swirls on the table or free-hand, and enjoy the wonderful complexity the wine has to offer.