Hi there! Valerye here, Raven Cafe’s wine manager and self proclaimed wine geek. With so much to learn about wine, I’ve found the most fun way to do it (other than the drinking part, of course) is to write about it! Learn along with me by reading below!
How to Taste Wine Like a Pro
We’ve all seen it– The looking, the swirling, the sniffing, the swishing, and even spitting. It seems that having a glass of wine is not as simple as having your morning cup of coffee. What’s all the fuss? Why do people spend so much time savoring the flavor when the goal, it seems, is just to drink the stuff? Wine is a complicated concoction and its beauty lies in its complexity. Each element of the wine making process, from the soil type used to grow the grapes, to the climate of the region the grapes were grown in, to the fermentation choices that were made in the winery has a distinct impact on the finished product. When you pay close attention, you can pick up all of these subtle details that make a wine truly special.
To avoid missing out on all that a wine has to offer, here are a few tips and tricks when it comes to tasting.
Yes, the first step in tasting is to look at what’s in your glass! Red, white, purple, orange, green… The color of grape juice is a fascinating sight!
People have many different ways of swirling. Some might leave the glass on the table as they swirl, others might hold the glass above their heads as they would a lasso (I hear that this is not recommended). No matter how you swirl, do not skip this very important step. Swirling allows more oxygen to agitate the wine, releasing its aromas, while also making you look very fancy and knowledgeable.
Once you’ve spun the wine to your liking, put your nose in the glass. (It is not impolite or improper to really get your nose in there. On the contrary, professional sommeliers can pick up certain flavor notes by placing their nose in the glass at different angles and depths.) Now what do you smell? You might be surprised at all of the different scents you are picking up, or, if this is your first time putting your nose to the glass, you might just be smelling wine. Don’t be afraid to keep sniffing! Discovering the “nose” of a wine can be a very fun process and is crucial for the next step.
We can taste three things in a wine: bitter (tannins and alcohol), sour (acid), and sweet (residual sugar). Our palates can also pick up the “texture” in a wine, or the “mouth feel”. After you take a sip, give it a good swish around your mouth so you are able to taste all aspects. Does it feel full or lean? Does it dry your mouth out or make it water? Are you tasting any specific flavors that you picked up while smelling? Are you getting any new notes? These things on top of what you’ve smelled and seen make up your final conclusion.
The analysis. This step might just be asking yourself “Do I like it?”. It is really that simple, since the best wine for you is the wine that you like best.
Ultimately, wine is an experience. Whether you are a seasoned wine drinker or a beginner, in the busy world we live in sitting down with a nice bottle and taking the time to appreciate it can be just the thing we all need.
Wine Terminology: What the heck are we talking about??
Many words are thrown around when it comes to wine. You might overhear someone say, “notes of leather and wood” or “loud” or “angular,” and think to yourself, “What in the world is that person drinking?” Wine terms are, in my opinion, a lot like Shakespearean words: specific, lovely and often made up. This is due to the diversity of wine and our inability to describe all of its subtleties with a limited vocabulary. When training a staff member who is new to wine, I most often hear that they are afraid to talk about wine because they don’t know the right words. I assure them that there are no “right words,” just like there aren’t “right words” when you are describing a piece of art. There are, however, words that you can learn and understand to create a foundation for your future wine discussions. Here are a few staples that will impress all your friends at your next dinner party.
When we talk about tannins, we are talking about the bitter or dry feeling in your mouth after drinking a red wine. This is caused by contact with the grape skins during the winemaking process. High tannins will leave your mouth feeling so dry that your lips stick to your teeth, we might also call these “chewy tannins,” since you have to “chew” to clean the tannins out of your mouth. (See Barolo.)
Wines might be more acidic if they come from a cooler climate or if the grapes were harvested at a young age. I know I’ve tasted a high acid wine when my mouth begins to water. Others have noted a puckering sensation as if they’ve eaten a lemon. This is very common in whites but surprisingly common in red wines as well.
A wine is complex if it has a lot going on at once. You might taste tannins, and acid, and good fruit, and lots of earthy notes, and it will make you think about it for longer than you thought you would. If I want to join a wine conversation with sophisticated wine drinkers and I’m not quite sure what to say, I use this word.
I think crisp when I think green apple. Crisp is usually used to describe white or rose wines, and are great wines to drink on sunny days.
You might have heard earthy terms such as mushroom or grass (very common term used to describe Sauvignon Blanc) or terms such as limestone and oak. These components can be found in many wines, and while at first they may sound undesirable, on the palate they can be very pleasing. After all, good wine starts with the soil.
Some wines just need a friend. If you are having a hard time drinking a wine on its own, you could call it a food-friendly wine.
This is a very common descriptor desired by many. It means exactly what you think it means, the fruit in the wine tastes like jam. Warmer climates might produce jammy grapes, and is a very popular quality in a Zinfandel.
During the wine making process, a winemaker may choose to age their wine in oak barrels. Different oak barrels impart different flavors at different intensities. Some flavors you might pick up from oak include vanilla, baking spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg, or sometimes even dill. Chardonnay is probably the most famous user of oak, with its drinkers divided between “oaked” or “unoaked” (which means that the wine was fermented in stainless steel barrels). A fun exercise is to taste the two side by side and see which you like better.
Talking about wine can be the most fun part of opening a bottle with friends. Feeling comfortable is half the battle, so don’t be afraid to be honest. Whether you feel that a wine is oaky or jammy or “tastes like forest floor,” know that you are not wrong!
Confident Wine Buying
I saw it there, shining up at me from my menu. It looked so intriguing, mysterious and according to the written suggestion, would pair well with the dish I wanted to order. The only problem? I couldn’t pronounce it. I wanted to be the kind of wine drinker who ordered unusual wines with confidence and grace, but I was too afraid to make the attempt at ordering it and embarrassing myself, so I stuck with the wine I knew best.
The mystery wine was a Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTS-trah-mee-ner) and this was long before I started studying wine. I remember wanting so badly to branch out of my norm and try a wine I had never tried before, but felt too intimidated. Wine can be intimidating for a lot of reasons; pronouncing names in an unfamiliar language, personal taste and style, and even the price. It’s hard to be adventurous, and easy to stick to what’s comfortable. So how does one become an explorer of grapes unknown?
Like mama always said, practice makes perfect, and I wish I would’ve allowed myself to start “practicing” earlier. Wine is not an elite club that you only gain access to if you’ve read the right books or are well studied in French or German, wine is for everyone and has been throughout history. It is ours for the drinking! Here are some handy tips to help you become a confident connoisseur.
If you walk into a wine shop or sit down at a restaurant and want the wine you can’t pronounce, don’t feel afraid to point to what you want, or ask for help pronouncing the name. With so many grape varieties in the world it is nearly impossible to be familiar with them all, so don’t let anyone make you feel bad for not knowing.
The price of a wine can be the most intimidating thing about it. Even if you had planned to indulge, you may not want to take the risk of spending that money on a wine you’ve never tried before. If you are dining out and feel like trying something new in a higher price range, go with a food pairing. If the waiter or sommelier suggests a Falanghina (FA-lan-GHEE-nah) with your Chicken Caesar, this is the perfect opportunity to try this Italian white wine if you haven’t before. A good food pairing will bring out the best in both the food and the wine, making this wine splurge a wise investment. If you are at a wine shop, ask for a recommendation. Chances are the employees are excited about a new wine just in and are waiting for a brave explorer like yourself to come along and try it! More often than not, lesser known varietals will actually save you money without having to sacrifice quality, since the demand for these wines tends to be lower.
We all have different palates, and like I always say, the best wine is the wine that you like best. Maybe you’ve done this before, tried your luck at something new and didn’t like what you got. You will probably feel hesitant to do this again, but if there is a part of you that still longs for something new, try a wine dinner. The wine is chosen for you and is perfectly paired with each course. You may like some more than others, and maybe you find that a Cabernet Sauvignon is still your favorite, but a Carmenère (car-men-YEHR) might join the party and surprise you. Wine tastings are also a great opportunity to try new things because you don’t have to commit to a whole glass or bottle, and there’s always a variety to choose from.
This is the advice I wish I would’ve received a long time ago. There are too many great wines to taste for us to limit ourselves to what we are used to, and the wine world is our oyster!
Sparkling wines are the most misunderstood, generally lumped into one category: Champagne. So I’m here to set the record straight about our favorite celebratory imbibements.
Let’s start with Champagne, the most well known and coveted of all sparkling wines. Champagne is actually a region in France, located about 90 miles northeast of Paris, about as far north that wine grapes will grow. In France, wines are labeled not by the grape, but by the region. For instance, if you are looking for a French Pinot Noir, you would order a Burgundy, a French Sauvignon Blanc you would order a Sancerre, a Chardonnay you would order a Chablis, and so on. Champagne is no exception. Champagne wines are made from three grape varietals, Pinot Noir, Meunier (muh-nyay), and Chardonnay. These grapes are commonly used in sparkling wines around the world, so what makes Champagne so special?
First of all, because of it’s northern location, grapes are harder to grow and the growing season is shorter, which means making a good Champagne is a lot of hard work. The colder climate also produces more acidic grapes, which gives wines from this region their distinct taste. Second, Champagne is made using a method called “methode champenoise” (may-tohd shahm-peh-nwahz), which is a long and delicate process of fermentation that happens inside the bottle. The cool climate and signature method of making bubbles put Champagne on the map back in the 1600’s, and have continued to gain popularity and respect ever since.
By law, only wines from Champagne, France can be called Champagne, so what have we been drinking all these years!?
California Sparkling Wines
It is easier to market Champagne than other sparkling wines because of its popularity and the general ring the name has to it, so other producers have adopted things like label style and bottle shapes to make us think that’s what we were getting. California being one of the biggest culprits, making the same style of wine using the same grapes and same methods, and some actually putting “champagne” on the bottle. But sparkling wine from California is just that, sparkling wine. While some are high quality and perfectly fine to drink on their own, I find that my favorite time to enjoy a California bubbly is on a Sunday morning with a splash of orange juice.
Other regions have stepped out of the box and made a name for themselves with their own personal style of sparkling, such as Prosecco. Also a region, Prosecco is located in northeast Italy. Their sparkling wines are made from a grape called Glera, using a method called the charmat (shar-maht) method, or tank method. Whereas Champagne’s fermentation happens in the bottle, Prosecco’s fermentation process happens in large steel tanks. This difference in wine making makes Prosecco lighter and brighter than Champagne, since Champagne has more time and closer contact with the yeasts used for fermentation. For me, Prosecco is best devoured poolside on a sunny, summer day.
Cava is a style of sparkling wine from Spain which uses grapes called Macabeo (Mah-kah-beh-oh), Parellada (par-eh-lyah-duh), and Xarel-lo (shar-eh-lo), produced in a region called Penedes, just west of Barcelona. Producers of this Spanish sparkling wine use the same method as Champagne producers, but outside of France “methode champenoise” is called the traditional method. This gives Cava a similar flavor profile as it’s popular northeastern neighbors’, but because of the use of different grapes and the warmer climate, it has its own unique style. Cava is a great casual dinner drink, and a definite crowd pleaser.