I recently watched SOMM, the documentary that follows four wine stewards as they try to pass the Master Sommelier exam. It’s one of the world’s most difficult tests with a pass rate of 8% – there are only 147 people in America who hold this prestigious title. The documentary made me realize I was very much taking the wine bottle sitting on my counter for granted. So naturally, I had to learn more.
I’ve always been a wine enthusiast, but I never understood your standard wine snob’s vocabulary, consisting of buzzwords such as “dry”, “oaky”, “full-bodied”, etc. (does anyone, though?). So I decided to get informed on the general concepts and trick my friends into thinking I know what I’m talking about. Read on so you can, too.
My Favorite Benefits
- Your future self will thank you: The American Heart Association announced that a glass or two a day of wine produces several health benefits, ranging from improved longevity to lower risks of cancer. Needless to say, these perks diminish steadily if you finish the whole bottle in a sitting, so don’t do that (too often).
- No beer bellies here: If you’re calorie conscious, a 4 ounce glass of wine will generally be fewer than 100 calories, compared to a serving of beer that has 150 calories and 13 grams of carbs – that’s like eating a hefty slice of bread. A shot of hard liquor has 100 calories and limited carbs, but chasers and mixers are the killers.
- Classier feel: Drinking wine creates an air of sophistication and intimacy, unlike beer or liquor. There’s something unique about talking in a circle of friends with glasses in hand or enjoying a bottle over a candlelit dinner.
The Basics: Red vs. White
Let’s start simple – what makes red wine so different from its counterpart? The answer is a combination of the grape’s skin and its tannins.
The lighter the grape’s skin, the fewer tannins it has, so the lighter the wine. This creates your whites.
By contrast, if you ferment red skins for a longer period of time, more tannins land in it, making it darker. This is red wine.
Tannins cause red wines to have more “body” and “boldness” to their flavor. This usually means that they have a heavier feel to them. On the other hand, acidity causes white wines to taste crisp.
Dumbing Down Some Jargon
Here are a few of the buzzwords that come up pretty frequently in my experience:
- Acidity: Level of sharpness (as mentioned, whites are typically higher in acidity compared to reds).
- Aroma: How the wine smells.
- Blend: When multiple grapes are combined post (separate) fermentation.
- Body: The “weight” of the wine when you drink it. Can be characterized as light, medium or full bodied.
- Breathing: The act of opening the wine to give it air exposure, stimulating the oxidation processes. If you want to step up your game, you can use a decanter depending on the wine.
- Color: An indicator of the wine’s age and quality. Whites get darker and reds turn to a brown hue.
- Crisp: Acidic and refreshing. This is usually applied to white wines with a fresh flavor.
- Dry: Not sweet.
- Fruity: Used to describe wines whose flavors resemble those of fruit. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine is sweet, though. Common ones are pear and apple notes.
- Oaky: My favorite. The best way I can describe this is that it tastes kind of like a smoked/burning log, and it gives you a warm and toasty feeling inside. I find that such characteristics are more common for reds compared to whites.
Taste Test with Pronunciations
Cabernet Sauvignon (ka-behr-NAY so-vihn-YOHN): Contains more tannins compared to other reds and features richer flavors like blackberries and plums. Pick one from Napa, Chile, or Australia. This is my go-to for meat, especially red meat. Highly recommend this and a steak in the colder weather.
Malbec (mahl-behk): Smoky and deep. Be sure to pick one from Mendoza, Argentina. You won’t regret it. This has become my second go-to.
Pinot Noir (PEE-noh NWAHR): Extremely versatile and lighter red wine that goes well with meat, poultry, and salmon. Order a glass from Burgundy, Oregon, Washington, California, or New Zealand.
Chianti (Kee-Ahn-tee): High in tannins and often smells of cherries and strawberries. Very dry, medium-bodied, and versatile. Usually from Tuscany.
Zinfandel (ZIN-fun-dell): Fruity, versatile, and inexpensive. Can have spicy notes and goes well with spicy food. California does it best.
Merlot (mehr-LOH): Plum-y wine. Pick one from California or Chile.
Chardonnay (shar-doh-NAY): Extremely versatile. Very dry and rich for a white wine. Pairs well with lobster and chicken and is best from Burgundy, California, or Australia.
Pinot Grigio (PEE-noh GREE-jio): Richer wine, fresh, crisp, and refreshing, so it’s perfect for a summer night. Pair with seafood, pasta, or fish.
Sauvignon Blanc (so-vihn-YOHN BLAHNK): Fresh and crisp with grapefruit flavors. Get it from New Zealand, Bordeaux, or South Africa. Great with mussels and shellfish.
Riesling (REESE ling): Smells fruity, like nectarines and pears. Dry, and ranges from semi-sweet to sweet. Because of its sweetness and acidity, it goes well with spicy foods (particularly Indian and Asian spices). It can also go well with chicken and pork. Germany does it best.
It sounds like a lot, but take a deep breath. There’s a formula to the madness. A wine menu is typically listed in the order below:
Producer. Variety. Region. Vintage. Price
The producer is probably a fancy-sounding name (ex: Colores del Sol), the variety is the type of wine (ex: Malbec), the region is a place (ex: Mendoza), the vintage is a year (ex: 2012), and the price is a dollar amount (ex: $50).
Also, good vintage years are generally a myth. Don’t base your choice off of what was considered to be a “good year” or a “bad year”. Wine quality varies with an abundance of factors such as region, vintage conditions, climate, type of wine, etc. For example, a bad year for Napa could be a great year for South Africa, so don’t be quick to make a blanket statement. If you’re that worried, ask your sommelier or waiter.
Using all the simplified information above, you have a general guideline of what to pick. Let’s go.
First, decide whether you want to get a bottle or a glass. A bottle has 5-6 glasses in it, so I would recommend getting a bottle if you’re on a date. It’s usually a perfect amount for both parties over a 2-hour dinner. Plus it’s more cost efficient than getting 6 individual glasses.
Second, pick a price range and stick to it. Wine prices widely range, and you don’t want to go broke. That being said, don’t pick a wine based off its price, and avoid the restaurant’s standard house wine.
Third, pick a red or white, depending on what you’re eating. As a general rule, you’ll want to pick a red if you’re eating heavy dishes with meat/poultry, salmon, or tomato sauces. Stick with a white if you’re eating light fish like catfish, shellfish, or pastas with cream sauces.
The rule of thumb is to pick a heavier wine for a heavier dish, and a lighter wine for a lighter dish.
Finally, using the descriptions by wine type above, make your decision confidently. If you're nervous, you can also pick 2 or 3 bottles and then ask your sommelier/waiter what they recommend.
Go Forth and Build Your Own List
I haven’t tried everything here yet, but it’s a good place to start without breaking your bank.
As you continue to try different wines and pair them with your favorite dishes, you’ll start to realize your preferences.
The great thing about wine is that there’s no right and wrong, so find what you like and continue to explore.
And of course, if you have/find any of your own go-to’s, let me know 🙂