We’ve all been there. Scared to open our mouths and say what style of wine we like. Scared of not being able to participate in a wine conversation without a snob seeing right through us.
Many times, a guest will come to me in the store and admit: “I’m not a connoisseur, but I’m going to a friend’s house and they drink a lot of wine. What do I bring? What do I say?” I usually reassure them that we will find something approachable that’s sure to please, and I offer them a tidbit of information about the wine we select so they can speak about it with confidence. So, what are the basics to know when you talk to a wine pro, formally trained or just experienced?
1) Know the difference between sweet and dry (and that one is not better than the other)
There are many different styles of wine in a range of sweetness levels. Some examples of sweet wines include: Moscato, some (but not all) Rieslings, Port, Sauternes, icewine, and some styles of sparkling wine. Wines can also have only a hint of subtle sweetness from winemakers choice or natural residual sugar left after full fermentation. While “lower” quality/ less expensive wines usually do appeal to the sweet-toothed masses, sweetness does not equate to lower quality whatsoever. Ever have a sweet Sauternes with foie gras? Or spicy sushi with sweet German Riesling? It’ll change your life.
2) Tannins are not taboo
When it comes to tannins, there are good tannins and not so good tannins. Tannins are best described as a bitter, astringent quality derived from the skins of grapes and the wood barrels used to age wine. They typically feel like a drying sensation on your cheeks, tongue, and gums. Apple skins also have tannins, so think of how the skin of an apple feels/tastes and multiply that by ten. It’s a matter of personal preference if a tannic style of wine is desired.
3) Know the difference between full, medium, and light-bodied wines
A wine’s body is best compared to the consistency of milk. Full is like the consistency of whole milk, medium is like 2%, and light is like skim. Some occasions and dishes require more/less body than others, and less body does not mean less flavor.
4) Pink does not mean sweet!
Whether rosé is still or sparkling, it’s a common misconception that a pink hue means the wine is sweet. FALSE. Try a Provence rosé once and you’ll see.
5) Champagnes are not all created equal
Champagne is actually a region in France whose name is now protected by law. Unless your wine label was grandfathered in, you can’t call yourself “California Champagne” anymore. “Sparkling wine” is the proper term, even when discussing French sparklers that aren’t from the region of Champagne. The difference? Besides a steeper price point and impenetrable brand image? A specific fermentation method called the Champagne or traditional/classic method in which the second fermentation (that creates those small, silky bubbles) occurs in the same bottle it’s sold in. Other restrictions are implemented, including aging time and grape varietals permitted. The three widely known are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier (previously known as Pinot Meunier). The other “forgotten” grapes permitted are Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. While the quality of true Champagne is considered superior to all others in the wine world, there are many amazing, more affordable sparkling wine values out there to be found. Start with Cremant de Bourgogne and anything fried.
6) Know that wine has acidity
Acidity levels range with different varieties of grapes, and grape growers and wine makers are relentless about harvesting grapes at optimal acidity levels. Acidity is what makes wines food friendly, so don’t be scared off by its harsh appearance. If you want to sound really knowledgable, talk about the malolactic fermentation process. Malic acid is what’s in a tart, green apple; lactic acid is what’s in yogurt and butter. Winemakers choose how much malic acid to convert into lactic acid (hence the name, malolactic) for ideal balance in both red and white wines. It’s not so much a “fermentation” as it is a conversion, translating the tart acidities for creamier ones. It’s from this process that we achieve those buttery chardonnays.
Janessa Schuster, Wine Consultant