Five Things You Need to Know About Wine as a Beginning Connoisseur
They say that to become a good wine drinker, you must have the right mentors. If so, we will take you under our wing. We're here to make sure you know what you're talking about when it comes to wine. But don't worry, we'll keep it simple. Here are five things you need to know about wine if you're a budding connoisseur.
Learn How To Pair Wine With Food
Pairing wine with food can be a fun and interesting experience. However, if you are doing your own tasting or attending a dinner where wine is being served, it is important that you know how to make good pairings. There are many factors to consider, and I would never presume to say that there is only one right way to pair wine with food. That is honestly a very intimate and personal experience that depends on your personal preferences. However, if you need some tips before your next dinner party or are looking for some new wine and food pairings, here are some basic guidelines.
First, look for something that complements the dish and doesn't contrast with it. This isn't even about finding the most expensive bottle. For example, Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon is considered an excellent value compared to it's much more expensive neighbors in Napa Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon goes very well with dishes that contain high levels of fat such as a juicy ribeye or perhaps even a pepper-crusted ahi tuna. This varietal of wine also often goes well with leaner dishes that have a rich sauce. One of the keys here is that Cab tends to be high in tannins from the aging in oak as well as the grapes themselves and this can help cut some of the fattiness in the food revealing a very complementary result.
The key here is to not allow yourself to be restrained to contrivances such as "red wine with meat" or "white wine with fish". For instance, let's take a look at chicken. You could pair a lemon pepper chicken nicely with an unoaked Chardonnay but you could potentially also go with a nice lighter Pinot Noir if you wanted to shake things up and try something new. However, if you were doing a coq au vin then a Pinot Noir would be a perfect pairing because the dish has a heavier more earthy taste and texture due to the sauce but is still fundamentally a light and delicate dish that matches the attributes of the wine itself.
As for matching flavors, that's a matter of personal preference. The best way to explore is to try different combinations and discover what you like personally.
One great way to explore this at a restaurant is by ordering a wine flight with your meal and including recommendations from your sommelier. While flights are usually designed to compare and contrast against each other, if you are creative you might even just try ordering a flight designed to try different things including some that might be "right" and others "wrong" just to experience the differences.
Temperature Is Important
No one likes warm wine. However many wines (especially reds) are designed to enjoy at roughly room temperature though generally slightly cooler is preferable. An easy way to do this is place the bottle in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes before serving. This will provide a slight chill that will warm up to room temperature quickly. The result is a pleasant initial experience but one that does not impact your enjoyment of the wine's flavor or aroma by overly chilling it.
Whites however are generally served chilled but don't chill wines close to freezing as that makes it more difficult for the full flavors to be revealed. Once again though, it depends on your personal preference. The notion that red wine is served room temperature and whites are served chilled is far from an absolute.
For example, I very much enjoy lighter reds that are nicely chilled when dining outdoors in the summer. Sangria is often served with ice to bring that temperature even lower. However, I don't know that I would take a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and serve it at 40 degrees since that would mute the flavors that I seek to experience from the wine.
Terroir (pronounced: tehr waar)
Do you know what terroir is? If not, it means "the place where something grows." It's an important concept in the world of wine. It is the combination of factors that make a particular place unique and influence the way a vine grows and consequently how its grapes develop. The result is a terroir-driven wine that is often unique to that area.
Terroir also influences wine pricing. This is especially a factor when you consider the combination of terroir and the village or vinicultural designation. While these areas have different terminology depending on if you are in France, South Africa, or United States, the concept here is that you could take generally the same grape clones and plant them in each area but the resulting juice - and thereby the wine itself - would be unique due to the geology, topography, climate, sunlight, hydrology. These aspects of the environment can make significant impacts on the lifecycle of the grape from one area to the next and this makes exploring wine very exciting.
While this concept is often lost with many mass produced wines - for instance, "Two-Buck Chuck" isn't going to be easily evaluated for terroir because it is ultimate a blend of different wines from various vineyards designed to make a consistent flavor across different years of production. However, if you look at a smaller regions - for instance Paso Robles - you'll discover that wines produced in the eastern part of the region are radically different than in the hills to the west of the area. While the east is very hot the eastern hills are much cooler and also feature different soils too. In fact, in the Paso Robles AVA there are more than 30 different types of soil that grow different types of grapes. As a result, a Chardonnay from one vineyard here will be significantly different from another just because of the terroir ... even though they are from the same AVA region.
That's probably more complicated than a beginning wine connoisseur will need to know. The important thing here is to let the joy of trying new things carry you along on your journey of exploration and tastings. Don't allow yourself to be confined into thinking that you "like" or "don't like" something, always be willing to try something new and challenge your preconceived notions.
The Three Phases Of Wine Tasting
There is absolutely nothing wrong with simply popping open a bottle and taking a sip. However, if you are looking to fully experience the wine and ultimately be able to describe it to others or even make a recommendation then you need to consider how the wine will be evaluated. While there is nothing wrong with simply telling someone that you enjoyed it and you think they will too - this is what separates a wine connoisseur from simply a person who enjoys drinking wine.
Observe the Appearance - look at the wine, what color is it, does it have a cloudy or clear look to it, is the wine opaque or translucent? Does it remind you of rubies or more of a garnet look for reds? Some of the things that you'll be looking for here will ultimately prepare your brain to evaluate the nose and tastes as well. For instance, by looking at an opaque red you can probably expect that it is going to be very tannic. Likewise, if you observe sediments in the wine, this is often an indicator that the wine has been aged for a long period of time, without ever looking at the bottle. These are some of the factors that you'll be looking for.
Smell The Wine - the aroma is generally referred to as "The Nose" and isn't always aligned with the look or taste of the wine but it is essential to your brain being prepared for the ultimate experience of tasting. For many wine connoisseurs the experience of smelling the wine is almost as enjoyable as tasting it. The nose can bring memories to you of previous experiences and it can also giving you the first hints at what this wine will taste like. However, smell can be deceiving, sometimes I have tried wines with beautiful floral aromas that I'm expecting to be nice and acidic and they end up being flat and boring with very little excitement.
Tastes The Wine - this is the phase that is the culmination of your experience with wine. While you can simply drink the wine, to fully evaluate the product it is important to look for certain attributes. For example, you are looking for things that you can describe such as sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness - just as you would with any food. However, you are also looking for other attributes such as alcohol flavors, hints of how the wine was aged, and ultimately how the wine feels as it passes over your tongue and down your throat.
This is a very personal experience but your ability to describe the wine is what makes you a valuable as a connoisseur since you can recommend the wine to other people.
Ask Questions And Never Stop Learning
This is probably the most important thing you can do to become a better connoisseur. Don't be afraid to ask questions about wine, even if you don't do it often. You'll soon learn what you like and what doesn't work for you. And if you don't like something, don't be afraid to say so and let everyone know. This will help you to learn more about wine and improve your own taste.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you've learned some essential first steps on how to become a wine connoisseur yourself. Taking the time to learn about wine is important because there are thousands of different wines, all with their own unique flavors.
Wine is always changing and it's fun to try new things! Of course, you should continue to learn as much as you can about wine and other types of drinks so that you can always remain a connoisseur in the future.
- Written by James Hills
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