Order Wine with Confidence
BY STEPHANIE DAWKINS
Have you ever been around someone who is obsessed with wine? I mean these people really love wine. Their lives revolve around wine: meals, vacations, etc. There’s a point where enjoyment turns into emotionally unhealthy obsession. I was once beverage shamed at dinner for ordering a Sprite to drink with my pasta. I could not believe it. I love to drink sprite with pasta. I mean, Damn! Is this really a crime? Since, I was not a drinker at the time, I did not know a thing about wine. However, after that experience, I realized, there are people who care about this type of thing. So, I did some research and attended some wine tastings. And I have to admit it, I have being missing out. I now know, the real reason Jesus turned water into wine. 🙂
Wine is delicious.
So, if you are ready to kick start your own exploration of wine, I got you covered. These simple and smart guidelines will help you discover your palate and launch your long and yummy journey to understanding wine.
What is Wine?
Wine is an alcoholic beverage made with the fermented juice of grapes. Technically, wine can be made with any fruit (i.e. apples, cranberries, plums, etc.) but if it just says “wine” on the label then it’s made with grapes. (By the way, wine grapes are different than table grapes).Most wine is made with grapes, but they’re not like the ones you find in the grocery store. Wine grapes (Latin name: Vitis vinifera) are smaller, sweeter, have thick skins, and contain seeds. There are over 1,300 wine grape varieties used in commercial production but only about 100 of these varieties make up 75% of the world’s vineyards. Today, the most planted wine grape in the world is Cabernet Sauvignon (“cab-err-nay saw-vin-yon”)
What’s the Difference between Red and White Wine?
Okay, you probably don’t need any help recognizing a white wine versus a red wine. They look different and they certainly taste different as well. But it’s worth your while to understand why they look and taste so different.
The culprit in both cases: the skins, and a little something they bring to the party called tannins. Remember the word tannin and what it means, because wine people talk about tannins a lot.
Tongue, Meet Tannins
What are tannins? Tannins are a naturally occurring substance in grapes and other fruits and plants (like tea, for example). You experience the effect of tannins any time you drink a wine that creates a drying sensation in your mouth. Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist inside grape skins, seeds and stems.
Getting Started with Wine Tasting
Learning to taste wine is no different than learning to really appreciate music or art in that the pleasure you receive is proportionate to the effort you make. The time and effort invested in palate training is rewarding—and very, very fun. The more you fine-tune your sensory abilities, the better you’re able to understand and enjoy the nuances and details that great wines express. First and foremost, you need to be methodical and focused. Find your own approach and consistently follow it. Not every single glass or bottle of wine must be analyzed in this way, of course. But if you really want to learn about wine, a certain amount of dedication is required.
Whenever you have a glass of wine in your hand, make it a habit to take a minute to stop all conversation, shut out all distraction and focus your attention on the wine’s appearance, scents, flavors and finish.
You can run through this mental checklist in a minute or less, and it will quickly help you to plot out the compass points of your palate. Of course, sipping a chilled rosé from a paper cup at your best friend’s pizza party doesn’t require the same effort as diving into a well-aged Bordeaux served from a Riedel Sommelier Series glass. But those are the extreme ends of the spectrum. Just about everything you are likely to encounter falls somewhere in between.
Here are some steps you can start with until you discover your own technique:
When you’re first served a glass of wine, look at it. Simple enough, right? What color is it? Light, dark, translucent, opaque? Color can help tell you whether you’re drinking a Beaujolais (a light red) or a Bordeaux (a dark red). You can hold your glass over something white like a tablecloth or sheet of paper and tilt it slightly to get a better sense of the color and its variations. Also, pay attention to the all-over clarity — browning at the rim indicates age. Keep an eye out for brilliance, shimmer or sediment at the bottom of the glass. Over time, you’ll start to become aware of what these visual clues “taste” like.
Don’t swirl the glass yet — just take a whiff and try to identify a few key aromas. Once you do swirl and oxidize the wine a bit more, you’ll be surprised how much the aroma can change from what you’re noticing here. So just sniff away.
Give your glass a few good, hard swirls (rest the foot of the glass on the table as you do this if graceful is not a word friends often use to describe you) and then smell the wine again. How does it smell now? Do you notice anything different?
This is the part of the process where you’ll see people slurp or suck air through their teeth while holding some wine in their mouth, making a bit of noise in the process (aspirate, in wine-ese). You can go that route if you want to, but the most important part here is to swish the wine around in your mouth a little before swallowing. You’re not so much drinking the wine at this moment as you are mixing it with air and noticing the wine’s effects on the inside of your mouth after you’ve swallowed it.
Pause before you take another sip to take note of what’s going on. Did the wine feel acidic, like a part of your mouth is tingling? Did it feel thick, like your mouth is now coated? Does your mouth feel dry or puckery now? How sweet was the wine?
So at this point, you’re free to begin drinking your wine at your own pace. But pay attention to the things you noticed when you took your first sip, as well as other characteristics. For example, does your mouth feel “warm” when you drink the wine? That can indicate a higher alcohol content.
As you drink, swirl the wine a little bit more once or twice and watch how it falls down the sides of the glass. Does it fall quickly and look thin and watery, or does it kind of hang on, coating the glass? If it’s the former, you’re drinking a light-bodied wine. The latter? More full-bodied. There are so many interesting things to notice. Please drink responsibly!!
Champagne – Most dry sparkling wines, such as brut Champagne and Spanish cava, actually have a faint touch of sweetness. That makes them extra-refreshing when served with salty foods.
Sauvignon Blanc goes with tart dressings and sauces. Tangy foods won’t overwhelm zippy wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Vinho Verde from Portugal and Verdejo from Spain.
Pinot Grigio pairs well with light fish dishes. Light seafood dishes seem to take on more flavor when matched with equally delicate white wines, such as Pinot Grigio or Arneis from Italy or Chablis from France.
Chardonnay for fatty fish or fish in a rich sauce. Silky whites—for instance, Chardonnays from California, Chile or Australia—are delicious with fish like salmon or any kind of seafood in a lush sauce.
Off-Dry Reisling pairs with sweet and spicy dishes. The slight sweetness of many Rieslings, Gewürztraminers and Vouvrays helps tame the heat of spicy Asian and Indian dishes.
Moscato d’Asti loves fruit desserts. Moderately sweet sparkling wines such as Moscato d’Asti, demi-sec Champagne and Asti Spumante help emphasize the fruit in the dessert, rather than the sugar.
Rose Champagne is great with dinner, not just hors d’oeuvres. Rosé sparkling wines, such as rosé Champagne, cava and sparkling wine from California, have the depth of flavor and richness to go with a wide range of main courses.
Dry Rose for rich, cheesy dishes. Some cheeses go better with white wine, some with red; yet almost all pair well with dry rosé, which has the acidity of white wine and the fruit character of red.
Pinot Noir is great for dishes with earthy flavors. Recipes made with ingredients like mushrooms and truffles taste great with reds like Pinot Noir and Dolcetto, which are light-bodied but full of savory depth.
Malbec won’t be overshadowed by sweet-spicy barbecue sauces. Malbec, Shiraz and Côtes-du-Rhône are big and bold enough to drink with foods brushed with heavily spiced barbecue sauces.
Zinfandel for pates, mousses and terrines. If you can use the same adjectives to describe a wine and a dish, the pairing will often work. For instance, the words rustic and rich describe Zinfandel, Italy’s Nero d’Avola and Spain’s Monastrell as well as chicken-liver mousse.
Cabernet Sauvignon is fabulous with juicy red meat. California Cabernet, Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends are terrific with steaks or chops: Their firm tannins refresh the palate after each bite of meat.
Syrah matches with highly spiced dishes. When a meat is heavily seasoned, look for a red wine with lots of spicy notes. Syrah from Washington, Cabernet Franc from France and Xinomavro from Greece are all good choices.
FOOD PAIRING CHART