It’s easy to pass undetected as an impostor oenophile, even when you don’t know anything about wine.
Maybe you’re trying to impress a table full of clients or your new boss.
Or you have a meet-the-parents dinner planned with your significant other at a classy wine bar.
But while the rest of the table carefully reviews the menu — weighing the pros and cons of different regionals — your knowledge doesn’t go much further than white and red.
Luckily for you, it’s easy to pass undetected as an impostor oenophile.
All it takes is knowing a few of the expert tricks for selecting, drinking and pairing your vino.
Know what not to order
You don’t want to order the least expensive wine on the menu and look cheap, so you pick the next one up on the menu. Still affordable, but slightly better, right? Wrong.
“NEVER order the second cheapest wine on the menu,” said Mark Aselstine, founder of Uncorked Ventures. “Restaurants know that people don’t want to appear cheap, so they jack the profit margins up on the second cheapest wines … and never order a Chardonnay.”
Hold the glass right
Grabbing the glass by the globe is the first tipoff that you don’t know shit about wine.
“Always hold a glass of red wine by the stem, the heat from your hand will drastically increase the temperature of the wine,” said Ryan Scott, head winemaker at Witch Creek Winery and Sleeping Tiger Winery.
“Ideally your reds should be served between 60-70°F to express themselves properly. This is even more import for more alcohol driven wines which can lose a lot of their character as they warm up.”
When it comes to white wine, “it is okay to ‘palm’ the globe of your glass, but this is just to find the ideal temperature to enjoy it at,” said Scott. “Whites are often served too cold in restaurants. Once it tastes good to you, back to the stem! Your friends will see you doing this and you can explain all about how you heated the wine to the proper temperature to be enjoyed.” Impressive.
Swirl and smell first
We know, you need a little liquid lubrication to get the conversation with your co-workers flowing.
But once the wine is poured, an oenophile’s first instinct is to swirl and smell. “Swirl and remember: eyes, nose, mouth,” said Evee Anastasopoulou, founder of the The Wine God, a wine subscription box that delivers wine from Greek wineries to your doorstep. ”Eyes: look for the color and ‘wine tears’ on the glass sides. Are they rich? Do they go down quickly? Nose: smell and take in the aroma and then rest your glass.”
As for the smell, hopefully you can pick out some flavors to comment on. “Berry and jam are good for big reds. Stone and citrus are good for most whites,” said Regina von Gootkin, author of the blog Wine Esquire.
And don’t go crazy with the swirl (accidentally sloshing wine over the sides of the glass is never a good look).
“I’ve always had trouble swirling wine without putting the base of the glass on a tabletop,” wrote Tim Ferriss. “Jean Charles, owner of Deloach winery, made a simple suggestion that works like a charm with a few minutes of practice: trace small circles in the air with your elbow instead of moving at the wrist. This will open the bouquet of the wine for smelling.”
Then sip slowly
Another dead giveaway that you have no idea what you’re doing? Taking a big gulp of your wine.
“Mouth means smell it again and take a small sip. Swirl it around your mouth. Why? Our taste receptors for various tastes (salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami) are placed in different areas,” said Anastasopoulou. “Remember to repeat the same process after some time. You will see that your perception has changed. When the wine has ‘aired’ this affects its nose and mouth.”
Throw around some fancy terms
“The wine made from each vineyard is different, even if we are talking about the same variety. This is so because vines are extremely sensitive to environmental factors such as soil, wind, sunlight, orientation, land drainage etc. Terroir is the word connoisseurs use when talking about character,” said Anastasopoulou.
“Legs are caused by a combination of many factors and indicate the body of wine. Some of the factors are alcohol, sugar, sediment, and tannin structure,” said Scott. While noticing the legs is an astute observation, don’t use it to judge the wine before you taste it. “Please don’t twirl your glass and talk about it having nice legs. There are too many factors and wild cards to judge body this way, besides wouldn’t you rather put the wine in your mouth?! Except for extreme cases you really shouldn’t evaluate a wine on its legs.”
“Tannins are what give you that dry sensation in wine — describe these wines as tannic,” said Scott. “A dry wine has no sweetness from sugar. Tannins in wine come from the grape skins, the oak, and in certain wines from the seeds and stems. They are one of the little wonders that give wine its ability to age as well as keep its color.”
Sweet, Dry, Fruity, Floral.
“Sweet can only mean that there is sugar in the wine. Sometimes a wine has ripe, fruity flavors and novice tasters will say that it tastes sweet, but if there is no sugar in there, what they mean is ‘fruity’. Fruity is the opposite of floral. Sweet is the opposite of dry,” said Frank Martell, Senior Director of Fine and Rare Wines at Heritage Auctions. “People mistake austere wines that have a lot of acid or a lot of tannin with being dry wines. There are lots of wines that have acid and tannin that still have a little bit of sugar left over.” His quick trick for detraining whether a wine is sweet or dry? “Stick just the very tip of your tongue in the glass and see how it goes. If you get sugar, then it’s sweet. If you get pucker sensations, it’s dry.”
But don’t be afraid to call it like you taste it
If you don’t know the proper language to describe what you’re tasting, then use words that do come to mind.
“You hear people use words like jammy, oaky, cassis, lead pencil, etc. when they describe the wine they are tasting. There is only one way to recognize those flavors, and that is: exactly the way you experience them,” said Martell.
“If you smell asparagus in a wine, then you smell asparagus. Nobody can tell you different about your experience. There are some universal things that we all recognize similarly, but you have to be confident describing flavors you recognize, and the easy way to do that is to be specific about what you recognize.
If a red wine smells like cherries, think about what kinds of cherries those are. Is it black cherry? Rainier cherry? Is it actually the way a cherry smells, or is it candy cherry? Starburst cherry and Jolly Rancher cherry are completely different, and you know that because you’ve had them both.”
At the end of the day, making the effort to appreciate and discuss the wine is usually enough to engage and impress even the most experienced wine drinker. “Most people that are really into wine would much rather newbies just make an effort rather than trying to use the right descriptors,” said Mike Catania, a self-proclaimed oenophile. “A colleague once described a particularly stony and aggressive Cabernet as ‘walking through an attic full of ghosts’ and it’s stuck with me for ten years as an absolutely perfect way to describe what we were drinking despite not even mentioning anything about the wine itself.”
Pair it with the right meal
Most of us know that red wine and steak go hand in hand.
“While it’s hard to go wrong with pairing a huge tannic Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah with a steak, what do you do when you aren’t eating that?” said Scott. “Think about the spices. If you’re having some nice shwarama chicken maybe that black pepper note the menu mentions on the Aglianico will add to the meal. Play with spice pairing on some cheaper wines at home, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to pair spices. Once you have it down you can order a lesser known wine at a restaurant with friends. Won’t they be impressed?”
You can also note other flavors in each individual wine, and use it to guide your meal selection.
“If you notice the white wine has a distinct lemony edge to it (perceived as pins being poked into the sides of your tongue), then make a comment on how this wine would work with dishes with which you imagine using a squeeze of lemon. For example, when you squeeze a lemon over a fish, what does that do? It cuts through the fishiness, oiliness and cleanses your palate between bites,” said Chuck Furuya, Master Sommelier at DK Restaurant Group in Hawaii. “If you notice a wine has sweetness to it, comment on how one could serve the wine with spicy or salty Asian-inspired foods. The sweetness counters the heat and saltiness commonly found in Asian-inspired foods.”
“Sweet wines are usually offered as a dessert, while bubbly ones for celebrating or other playful occasions,” added Anastasopoulou. So save the champagne for a celebratory dinner, and the sweet Riesling for washing down that tiramisu.
By: Brianna Steinhilber, Everup