I have some great followers on Deep Red Cellar and I appreciate you letting me indulge in spouting off about the pleasures of food and wine.
Scott Pugh, a friend and wine-enthusiast, is one such follower. He wrote asking questions that have come up as he advances in his personal wine enjoyment. I thought the questions were good so wanted to answer them on Deep Red Cellar. I have a hunch many of you have the same questions.
So here we go. Pour a glass, sit back and enjoy this lengthy but hopefully informative read:
1. As an amateur wine enthusiast, what should my palate be able to do?
ANSWER: Simply put, your palate should be able to tell you what you like. You taste a wine and either go “Mmmm” or “Ewww” or somewhere in between. You may not think about it when sipping but you probably know the basics such as which varietals (grapes) you like and if you like wines that are crisp, fruity, oaky or tannic. The next step (which I’ll address in question 2) is being able to discern what those flavor profiles mean. Keep in mind, everyone’s palate is different so I may say “Mmmm” to a wine and you say “Ewww” – that’s perfectly fine. Also, your palate will mature as you advance in your wine knowledge – the more you drink the more you learn. If you want to learn more about the wines of Burgundy, for example, start focusing on drinking wines from that region.
2. How can I develop my knowledge and palate to be able to make a reasonably good choice in accordance with my preferences whether at a restaurant or wine shop?
ANSWER: Staring at a wine list in a restaurant or the shelves of a wine store can be overwhelming but you can go through a few steps to determine what you like. I’ll tell you the process I go through (just no way around it, this details of this answer are long) :
- Determine the country or varietal to hone in on as your starting point. It would be useful to study up on varietals, the following site may be helpful – http://www.nosnob.com/about-grapes.
- Decide the style (see below).
- Pair with the food you will be enjoying (pairings also below).
- I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for good wine labels so in a store I often search out labels and then decide if the wine with the cool label is something that meets my critieria.
- If money is an important factor, an additional tactic would be to point at a price on the wine shelves or on the menu so the wine shop owner/sommelier knows what you’re looking to spend.
Decide the Style (without getting into a dissertation):
- Crisp – Crisp wine means acidic wine. As a general rule, the acidity of a wine has to do with the region where it is grown and the variety of the grape. To keep it simple, a cool climate usually produces a higher acid wine (think Burgundy, Mosel, Oregon) and a warmer climate usually produces a lower acid wine (think Bordeaux, Rioja, California). It’s good to know your geography though because grapes grown on a mountain with little sun to ripen the fruit will be higher in acid than grapes grown closer to the sea that have spent hours soaking up the sun. In addition, barrel aging smooths out wine so wines that have spent little or no time in barrels tend to be crisper. Words that describe crisp – bright, tart, lively, etc. Examples of crisp wines are dry Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio.
- Fruity – this term is technically not a great descriptor but used so often, I felt the need to mention it. Some may think of fruity only as sweet but fruity can also mean ripe-tasting, soft or user-friendly. All wine should taste like the grape it is made with so it may be best to think of the grapes on a scale from lean to lush (ex. lean…sauvignon blanc, to chardonnay, to pinot noir, to cabernet sauvignon…lush). Examples of fruity wines are often young reds, look for pinot noir from Oregon with jammy qualities and young Napa, Sonoma or Bordeaux blends.
- Oaky – this term is used regularly. Wine professionals often refer to oak barrels as the “wine-makers spice rack.” Barrels can enrobe the wine with aromas & flavors making them stronger and richer, body making them fuller (full bodied wine – think whole milk or cream) and color making them darker. Words that describe oaky – butter, vanilla, nutty, tobacco, burnt toast, smokey, etc. Examples of wines that can be oaky are merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, grenache and zinfandel.
- Tannic – tannin is a natural component found in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. During production, the juice of the grapes soaks in these elements to receive color but at the same time the juice is soaking up the tannins. Tannin is more of a texture than a flavor. A low tannin wine usually feels silky (ex. barbera), a medium tannin wine feels noticeably drier but still smooth (ex. merlot), a high tannin wine makes your mouth feel dried out, even furry or leathery (ex. cabernet sauvignon). Since white wine doesn’t come into contact with the skins, seeds and stems, tannin is only found in red wine. Examples of wines that can be tannic are merlot, cabernet sauvignon, barbaresco, petit sirah, tempranilla and shiraz.
A quick (general) tip if you forget everything else – when pairing white, high acid wines think: spicy, lean -fish/poultry, creamy cheeses, fruit. On the other hand, when pairing red, low acid wines think: hearty meats & stews, gamey fowl, strong cheeses, bittersweet chocolate desserts. Keep an eye out here, you’ll see a pattern:
Gewurztraminer: spicy foods (Asian/Caribbean/Indian/Thai), camembert, cinnamon, cilantro, scallops, turkey
Riesling: apples & apple desserts, spicy foods (Asian/Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese), ceviche, cilantro, brie, baked ham
Sauvignon Blanc: veggies, spicy foods (Asian/Mexican/Thai/Indian), sushi, roasted chicken, calamari, brie
Chardonnay: butter sauces, rich seafoods like lobster and crab, salmon, baked chicken, veal
Pinot Noir: charcuterie, lean beef, roasted duck, fennel, foie gras, mushrooms, grilled salmon, smoked meat, ahi tuna
Merlot: prime rib, braised dishes, duck, lamb, chili, blue cheese, gouda
Cabernet Sauvignon: grilled, stewed, or braised beef, smoked meats, osso buco, pork, game birds, gorgonzola, parmessan
Syrah/Shiraz: barbeque, braised dishes, chili, duck – esp. grilled or peking, grilled meats like venison, steak or hamburgers with ketchup, mushrooms, aged or hard cheeses like gouda or pecorino
3. When the sommelier opens the wine bottle and presents me with the cork then a small sip, what exactly should I be accomplishing?
Cork – When the cork is placed in front of you, do with it as you wish. Some people smell it but that really doesn’t divulge much in regards to the quality of the wine. If anything you can touch the part of the cork that is stained with color to see if it is moist signifying it was stored properly on it’s side. I usually look at the cork to see if the red staining goes to the top of the cork – this could signify a wine that is corked or spoiled. Tasting it will verify this for you. Personally, if nothing else, when drinking red wine, I look at the beautiful color on the cork for the enticing tease of what is to come.
Tasting – This should not be a complex, nerve-racking event. Simply smell then sip. You are not doing this to see if you like the wine (unless the sommelier selected it for you) but rather to see if the wine is in good condition. NOTE: If the sommelier did select the wine and you don’t care for it when you sip, then it would be appropriate to be politely honest and say so.
4. Do sommeliers really have that advanced of a palate that they can nail a varietal, a region and even a vintage?
ANSWER: Believe it or not if someone has reached the level of “Master Sommelier” or “Master of Wine” they will more than likely be able to articulate varietal, region and yes, remarkably even the vintage! Besides certified professionals some wine industry experts and even talented wine enthusiasts can pull off some of these traits as well. There is debate out there whether this keen palate is genetics or lots of practice. I hope it’s lots of practice since it’s definitely not in my genes (neither of my parents drink).
I hope that answered some questions without boring you to tears. If like Scott, you have unanswered questions, please feel free to write and let me know. I’d be happy to answer them for you!
Bottom Line – the more you drink the more you learn so get out there and be a conscious wine drinker!
Soucre: “Great Wine Made Simple” Andrea Immer Robinson, Broadway Books, trademark of Random House, Inc., 2005