Advice from a wine expert on how to be a wine… well… not an expert, per se, but not a fool.
I’ve been talking with the crew over there ever since I found their very nice review of my book and they got me in touch with Dan. I was into it, since it hit on some knowledge I’ve always wished I had.
I’ve never aspired to be a “wine guy” — talking about tannins and oaken aromas and musky essences and the like. But I’ve always wanted to be able to look through a wine list and confidently, non-randomly order something. (My usual approach — ordering the third-cheapest wine. You never want to order the cheapest and I assume restaurants know that, so they always make sure the second-cheapest is also schwag wine. That’s why I figure I’m safe with the third.)
Anyway, Dan came through with this list. So here’s the 11 points guide to being an amateur wine snob — as always with guest posts, my comments have been added throughout.
11 | The basics on how it’s made
I think everyone basically knows that wine is made from grapes — specific grapes that are perfect for fermentation, not the kind you get at the grocery store. With white wines, the peels and seeds are removed, but with red, everything remains.
Once they’re crushed, the grape juice is moved into fermentation tanks… yeast is added, and once the yeast starts digesting the sugars, carbon dioxide and alcohol are produced. Then it’s aged in giant oak barrels for a few months. After this, the wine is bottled and continues to age. Once it has aged sufficiently, the bottles are moved to liquor stores and restaurants.
Sam’s comment: And somehow, with all that work, Trader Joe’s can still sell it to you for $2-a-bottle and turn a profit. That’s even more suspect than McDonald’s being able to give you two pieces of bun, a hamburger patty, diced onions and condiments for 39 cents and still make money.
10 | The key bits of history
The earliest known wine production occurred in Georgia (the country, not the state where peaches and Bubba Sparxxx come from) around 8,000 B.C. The historical evidence of wine-making seems to coincide directly with the domestication of the grape vine during the Bronze Age. Which means that basically, the same day humans started eating grapes, they managed to find a way to get drunk off them.
Wine spread like wildfire but really became prominent during the Greek and Roman Empires where it was actually given its own God (Dionysus) and its own piece of production technology (the wine press).
Sam’s comment: Dionysus was known as Bacchus by the Romans. Same god, different name. It’s like how in some places it’s Hardee’s and other places it’s Carl’s Jr. I have now tied the upscale wine 11 Points to fast food in two consecutive comments.
9 | Old world versus new world wine
One of the major divisions in the world of wine is whether or not a wine comes from the old world (Europe) or the new world (not Europe). This may seem arbitrary but it is actually a big factor in taste.
Old world wines tend to be much more subtle while new world wines are more bold and intense. This mostly has to do with differences in growing conditions, but also differences in culture and relationship to food. So if you’re looking for something more in-your-face or something a little subtle, country of origin is the first thing to look at.
Sam’s comment: Old world wines also tend to be a lot more expensive. Because we all really know that country of origin is the second thing you’ll look at — after how much they’re gonna charge you for it.
8 | White versus red
Ok, this one you probably already know. Red wines are served room temperature and tend to be more on the dry side; white wines are served cold and tend to be lighter and sweeter.
Color is a prominent characteristic in the world of wine, but oddly enough, the color doesn’t come from the color of the grape juice but rather from the peels of the grapes. All grape juice is white in color, and for that reason, there are actually a few white wines that are made from peeled red grapes.
Sam’s comment: White zinfandel and champagne are both made from red grapes. Use that to win a bar bet. (Actually… might not want to make a random bar bet where “white zinfandel” is the punchline. especially not at any bar with the name “Murphy’s” or “O'[anything].”)
7 | Varietals and the Big Eight
When you hear names like “Chardonnay” and “Pinot Noir,” that refers to the variety of the wine/the type of grape used in fermentation. Different grapes lend different flavors, and which grapes are used will play a major role in taste, consistency, body, and ultimately, your preference.
There are too many varieties to name here, so we will only worry about those that qualify for the Big Eight. The Big Eight are the most popular varieties and you’ll almost always find them present on menus and at stores. Here they are with a few common characteristics (these characteristics aren’t always so cut and dry, but in broad perspective, they provide a useful rubric).
– Chardonnay: Medium-bodied. Buttery flavor with smooth finish.
– Sauvignon Blanc: Light-bodied. Crisp and fruity.
– Riesling: Light- to medium-bodied. Starts sweet, finishes dry.
– Pinot Grigio: Light-bodied. Crisp and slightly bitter.
– Pinot Noir: Medium-bodied. Earthy and smooth.
– Merlot: Medium- to heavy-bodied. Bitter and acidic.
– Cabernet Sauvignon: Full-bodied. Deep with hints of chocolate.
– Syrah/Shiraz: Heavy-bodied. Dark and fruity.
Sam’s comment: I really wanted to edit it where he said that Chardonnay had a “buttery” flavor because that just didn’t sound right to me… I’ve drunk Chardonnay and, sadly, also butter (on a bet) — and the tastes were wholly dissimilar.
6 | The mystery of blended wines
One day you will come upon a wine that does not have a variety printed on the bottle, and you will likely be very confused and maybe even soil yourself in terror. Fear not. What you are looking at is most likely a blend.
Rather than make wine from one type of grape, some wineries like to mix a bunch of different varietal wines together into one super wine. Sometimes this works out, sometimes it doesn’t. The good thing about blended wines is mixing can be sort of an art form in which new flavor profiles can be crafted to taste.
The problem is that it is much easier to select wines from a variety of grape that you already know that you like. With blends, the only thing to go on is word of mouth or price, but even then, personal preference will play a factor. Might want to steer clear of them until you transition from an amateur wine snob to an advanced wine snob.
Sam’s comment: I had never heard of this before. Didn’t realize there were mutt wines. Other than, of course, the times when I’ve seen people sheepishly fill up their glass with all of the tiny leftover amounts in a bunch of different bottles at a dinner. It’s that glorious intersection where not being wasteful meets being gross.
5 | Talking vintage and year
When people talk about wine, you often hear them talking about the year. In fact, if you look at just about any bottle of wine, you will see the year printed big and bold. The popular notion is that wine gets better with age, so the older the wine, the better… but that’s actually only half true.
With old world wines, the flavors do get better with age, but with new world wines (which is what you will mostly be drinking), it has more to do with what went down that year. Soil conditions, weather conditions, whether or not there was an earthquake in the region — all these things will affect the way grapes grow, and in turn, the quality of the wine produced. This is why people use the phrase “a good year.”
Sam’s comment: Of course, you’re not expected to be an expert on soil conditions and weather patterns — like, you don’t know what happened in Argentina in 2009 and how that affected the wine there. But some jackass out there does. So when he talks about how it’s “a good year,” smile and nod. Smile and nod.
4 | The keys to ordering wine
You’re at a restaurant with your friends and you want to order a bottle for the table. You’re not just going to point at the menu right? That is for novices, and you my friend are an amateur.
When you order wine, the three things you mention are the vintage, variety and region. All three appear on the label and should appear on the menu as well. So if you want the 2008 Chardonnay from Australia, simply say “I’d like a bottle of the 2008 Australia Chardonnay.” That simple. Anything less and you will appear as if you never read this article and that will make me very sad.
Sam’s comment: Also, since you’re the one who ordered, the server might actually bring the bottle of wine over, open it, and have you taste it. Now that he’s opened it, I always feel like a horrible person if I reject it, so I universally say, “Oh yeah, that’s great.” In fact, I’ve never seen anyone send a bottle away after that tasting. Has anyone?
3 | Glassware
This might sound trivial, but the type of glass and type of wine actually have a direct correlation. Red wines go in a wide glass, and white wines go in a tall, narrow glass.
The reason: Red wines benefit more from oxygen than white wines do. A large surface area will allow the most amount of oxidation possible. If you plan on drinking wine at home, make sure you have at least two of each. You may not notice the difference at first, but with enough time you will be screaming at innocent waiters for their ignorance. Maybe not, but trust me, it matters.
Sam’s comment: Back in 2003, when my friends and I were barely out of college, my roommate Gabe would come home from his stressful Teach For America job in Watts and pour almost a full bottle of red wine into a large blue plastic tumbler cup. Not particularly classy, but, in retrospect, it sure did have a wide surface area for oxidation.
2 | Food pairings
In recent years, beer has become something to pair with food, but wine will always have the market cornered on classy meal-time accompaniment. The old way of thinking was that white went with fish and chicken and red went with beef and pork.
Although this has somewhat fallen out of favor, its heart is in the right place. The most important thing about food pairing is that neither element (wine or food) overpowers the other. White wines, typically light, might not stand up to a hefty piece of steak, and reds, typically powerful, might stomp on the flavors of chicken and fish. Of course, there are chicken and fish dishes that are very rich and very flavorful, which is why the old white-and-chicken/red-and-beef thing is anything but a maxim.
A better way to look at it is lighter wines should go with lighter food, and heavier wines should go with heavier foods. If you’re having some grilled chicken and asparagus, go with a crisp Pinot Grigio; but if it’s something like chicken parmigiana, go with a Pinot Noir or a Merlot (red wines that will stand up better to the heap of marinara sauce and cheese). Personally, my favorite combo is a Cabernet and a steak, both heavy and rich and neither one standing in the other’s way.
Sam’s comment: People generally describe scallops at buttery. I’m thinking I should pair them up with a Chardonnay.
1 | Bottom line: Just enjoy
Realistically, you could pretty much forget everything I said up until this point if you really wanted. I just like to talk. The most important thing is that you find a type of wine you enjoy and enjoy it. Personally, I like Cabernets on the red side and Sauvignon Blancs on the white side — food-pairing aside, those are the wines I’m drinking nine out of 10 times.
Next time you try a wine, take note of the region and the varietal. After a while, you will know what you like and you will know what you don’t like, and you will confidently be able to order a wine that you will enjoy wherever you go.
Sam’s comment: I feel like I’ve got a few trivia facts now to throw around and show off some of my wine knowledge. I’m looking forward to one day putting together a guide for becoming a professional wine snob. Then I can be like such great wine legends as Fred Franzia, Francis Ford Coppola and Mr. Big.
For more of Daniel’s drink lists, check him out on Twitter.