A Crash Course in the Finer Aspects of Wine

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Have you ever questioned what you’re supposed to look for when the server pours wine into your glass? Or had a light panic attack when a clerk in a wine shop asks you what you’re looking for?
Even though you know next to zero about wine, you still need to be able to order a glass. Check out our guide to forging your way through your next dinner date, from a few wine words to know to connoisseur-worthy deals. And if you’re approaching a wine snob at your next cocktail party, you may even be able to teach ’em a thing or two.

Wine Terms to Know
It’s good to have a few phrases in your vocabulary to talk about what you like or don’t like if you want to sound like you know wine. That California Chardonnay? It’s buttery, creamy, and round.
As for red, an Australian Shiraz is also pretty fruity, even jammy (that big fruit flavor really packs a punch), while a Cabernet Sauvignon from France’s Bordeaux is more tannic, that quality that can make a red wine taste a little rough but gives it the structure it needs over time to smooth out and age. Once you use these words, you may even start to notice trends in the wines you like (fruity, earthy, and did I just get a whiff of chocolate?).

Old World versus New World
Winemaking differences aside (and there are many), the bottom line of distinction for you when picking up a bottle is whether the appellation or variety is listed on the label. It’s good to know that wine labeling falls into two camps: Old World (mostly Europe) and New World (everywhere else). New World wines are fairly straightforward, listing the grapes (or the one that’s in the majority) right on the label: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, you get the point. If you want to know if it was aged in oak or stainless steel, you may have to read the back label closely to get more information about the style.

Old World wines make you think a little harder. Chablis, an unoaked Chardonnay from northern Burgundy; Sancerre, a minerally Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley; and Chianti, an acidic red wine made of the Sangiovese grape from the Italian region that happens to go great with food.

Quick Label Identification
Unless you’re studying to be a Master Sommelier, you probably don’t need to know every California AVA in the book. But it does help to know a little bit about what you’re looking at when you check out the label. Both Old World and New World wines will list the producer name (Robert Mondavi), vintage (2010), and alcohol by volume percentage (13.5%). The region is listed as well, and it’s a pretty good indicator of the quality level of the wine– the more vague (California) will be a more entry-level wine, while a more specific notation (Napa Valley, Single Vineyard) means the grapes are from a concentrated vineyard area with a higher quality control. As for the grape? See Old World versus New World above.

Do Hold by the Stem
There are a lot of opinions on the temperature at which red wine versus white wine should be served. Especially if you’re in a fancy restaurant or at the home of a wine connoisseur, the way you hold your glass of wine tells a lot about your level of knowledge. No matter what the wine, hold the glass by the stem, instead of gripping the bowl– it keeps the temperature of the wine the way it should be longer.

No More Nouveau
If you want to play the savvy French wine snob who knows a deal, there are lesser-known regions producing killer wines for a better price than a Chateau Lafite. These wines are some of the best wines for the best price coming from France, and you’ll look like you have the inside scoop. You want wines from the Crus regions, like Fleurie, Morgon, and Régnié, elegant reds made from the gamay grape, Pinot Noir’s redheaded stepsister.

Ask a Sommelier
Ever been confronted by a book instead of a simple wine list? Have no idea what a Txakolí is? Or simply don’t recognize some of the brands on the menu? Quit pretending and ask an expert if you want to act like you know what you’re doing. Every restaurant’s sommelier or beverage director intimately knows the wines on their list and can refer wines at your price point and to your taste (same goes for your local wine shop). All you need to tell them is what you like (Fuller-bodied whites like a California Chardonnay? Cabernet’s your fave?) and what you want to spend (I ‘d like to keep it in this range– and don’t hesitate to point if you ‘d rather not say in front of your date). By doing this, you’ll show yourself to be an adventurous wine-lover, ready to try something new.

But, no, you cannot just send it back if you don’t like it. When unsure, request for a taste of something off the by-the-glass menu and then order the bottle if you like it.

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