How to Talk Wine Like a Pro
Don't you just hate it when you are at a restaurant and the waiter opens your bottle and puts a little in your glass and waits...the first time this happened to me, I had no idea what he was waiting for! I also couldn't stand it when I'd be at a networking event or choosing a wine for a banquet and someone would be talking over my head about varietals and legs.
Wine should not be so complicated, but it kind of is, so I decided to put together this little cheat sheet for anyone who wants to talk the talk when it comes to popping their next cork.
"...if by the slim chance, a wine is off, you are probably going to know right away."
What to do when the waiter selects you to try the wine.
If you are the lucky person (probably if you ordered the wine) to get that little mouthful in your glass and the hovering waiter by your side, rest assured, he/she is not waiting for a description or an opinion, they simply want to know if the wine has not gone bad. It is rare, only happened to me once, but wines can have faults even before they are opened. Now, I am not going to go through the seven faults of wine, I will just say that if by the slim chance, a wine is off, you are probably going to know right away.
Wine that has gone bad is not going to look right. If it has bubbles (and is not supposed to) or appears to be watery, brownish-orangish or caramelized, it probably ain't good. Also, and more obvious, off wine will not smell right...and believe me when I say, this one is easy to detect. I am talking possible odors of sulfur, rotten eggs, skunk, mold or even farts - you should very quickly know if the odor is off and your wine is not good! So, the next time you have that little sip of wine in your glass, give is a quick look, a little sniff (if you need a scent boost, swirl the wine around in the glass a bit and sniff again), and if all seems okay, have a taste. If that taste didn't make you spit it right back out, a simple nod to your waiter will do.
"Red wines will get lighter as they age. White wines will get darker."
What the heck are legs anyway?
You know how you see wine tasters swirling the wine around in the glass? Well, if you look closely, the wine will sometimes stick to the sides and run down. If it appears to look almost like oil running down, you will very clearly see the streaks...those are the legs! Legs can be thick and move slowly or thin and glide down quickly. And you know what causes those legs? Alcohol! So if you see nice thick slow moving legs, and drink that wine, then feel the little burn, go ahead and say it..."wow, this wine has legs!" Bonus tip: The French call these tears.
How to tell if a wine is old or young.
Quite simple actually, you can usually tell just be looking. Red wines will get lighter as they age. White wines will get darker. Weird, right? Seems like it should be the other way around, but if you get a nice deep purple red, chances are, it is a baby. Those dark, deep yellow whites are probably the old guys. Of course, if you already know the wine to be young and it doesn't look right, it has probably gone bad (see first tip above).
How can I tell if a wine is fruity or dry?
You think it would be obvious, but sometimes it is not. It is very possible for a wine to taste very fruity, but also have a dry finish. My favorite way to tell is to tune into my tongue. If the sides of your tongue feel like they are sweating (you'll know what I mean), the wine is dry!
"There is no right or wrong if you like it!"
What up with all the V-Words?
A whole lot of v-words pop up in wine study, but not all of them have to be used. Here are replacements so you sound more like a normal person talking about wine.
Vinter = Winemaker
Varietal = grape
Vintage = the year the grapes were harvested and the wine produced
Viscosity = if your wine has it, it has legs (see above)!
Do I really have to drink only white with fish and red with meat?
Honestly, wine and taste is completely subjective. If you enjoy only whites, by all means, drink a Chardonnay with your steak. There is no right or wrong if you like it! However, if you are open to trying what is considered pairings that will help elevate your meal and really bring out the flavors of your food, here are some simple guidelines. It's really all about balance.
Try to drink a wine that has the same intensity as your food. So, if you are eating something light and delicate, stay away from those wines with "legs." A good little cheat is to go by fat content. The fattier the meal, the more bold you can go with your wine.
Same goes for acidity and sweetness. Your wine should be as sweet or sweeter than your food and have a similar level of acidity. If you cannot taste the acidity, the percent of acid is usually listed on the back bottle label.
Try to pair with the main component of your dish, so even if that salad smothered in vinaigrette has some steak on it, you might still want a high-acid white wine. Safe bet is to pair with the sauce!
Another way to balance is when you want to counter heat. If you are eating a spicy meal, shoot for a semi-sweet white like a Riesling or a fruity red like a Shiraz.
The difference between a Reserve and an Estate Wine
A reserve wine has had some additional aging. An estate wine was bottled and produced in the same place.
The proper way to hold a wine glass.
I hope it is rare that you are called out on this, but if you know that a wine that you have ordered from a restaurant is a really good bottle, you can bet that wine is being served at a specific temperature for the best tasting experience. In order to not put off the temperature, always hold your wine glass from the stem. That is, of course, if you are not using one of those new stemless glasses, they cannot protect the temp of the wine from your hands, but they are super cute!
Are more expensive wines always better wines?
The short answer is, not necessarily. Price of wine depends on production cost (i.e. oak barrels cost more than steel) and believe it or not, reputation (think fashion, a Gucci bag will just cost more because it's Gucci). I prefer to answer this question the other way around. Are less expensive wines all bad wines? The answer to that is, absolutely not. Remember, wine is subjective. I have had numerous $10-12 wines that are fabulous and the occasional expensive one that I would never drink again!