WineInk: Don’t be too intimidated to talk about wine
It’s happened to all of us. You’re sitting at the table and someone orders a bottle of wine. You may be with a group of friends or perhaps business associates. They start to talk about the wine.
And you’re intimidated.
Not because you don’t know wine. You enjoy and drink it all the time. But rather because you feel that you don’t know enough about wine to talk about it. That it is too hard to put what you know into wine words.
One of the things that makes the world of wine so enjoyable is the same thing that makes it so daunting. Too much information. There is so much to know about wine that trying to learn it all can seem a burden rather than fun.
Au contraire. If you can see, smell or taste wine, you have the basic tools to discuss wine. All you need to do is trust your own senses and have a few words in your wine vocabulary to describe what they tell you. Don’t be discouraged. If you want to learn about wine, learn from wines you love.
Let’s say, for example, that the wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape speak to your soul. With just a little studying, you can be an expert and impress the table. Learn just a little bit about just that one wine. The one you love.
“Mmm,” they’ll say at the table when they take a sip, “That’s mighty good!” And then the barrage of questions will come: “What grape is it?” (Well actually there are as many as 18 different grapes allowed, but Grenache dominates.) “Where is it from?” (France, but beyond that, the southern Rhône region, and more specifically, a sub-district where large stones reflect the sun onto the maturing grapes creating heat and high alcohol.) “Who makes the best CDP?” (Try Château Beaucastel or Château Rayas, but there are so many other small, wonderful producers.) “What vintage should I buy?” (While the ’16 is highly regarded, it’s perhaps a touch young. Now if you happen to find a ’12 snatch it.)
So how do you get your head around the vast quantities of info and try to make some sense of the world of wine? The easiest way to begin talking about wine is take note of what your senses tell you about what is in the glass.
Always start by looking at the glass. Red or white? Light or dark? Thin or dense? You know what each of those words means. As you look, make those determinations moving from the simplest, the color of the wine, to its opacity and then its texture. That was pretty easy, wasn’t it? Now you’re in the game.
Look a little a bit more intently at the wine. If it is a red wine, is it a dark purple or a ruby red? The purple may lead you to think it is a wine made from grapes that are a little bit more concentrated and bold, like a Cabernet Sauvignon. A lighter, thinner shade of red may indicate that it is a Pinot Noir, or perhaps a Sangiovese.
If it is a white wine, and you can tell that just by looking at it, the next thing is to determine whether it is clear and clean like a glass of water, or perhaps a deeper straw color. Maybe it even has a pink hue. If it is pink, then it has spent some time on the skins of the grapes from which it was made and is likely a rosé. Clear and clean? It may be a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or perhaps any one of a hundred different young, white wines made around the world. Golden yellow? Opt for a barrel-aged chardonnay.
Give it a swirl. Does the liquid cling a bit to the sides of the glass and then drain down slowly? If it does, wait for one of the young business associates to exclaim in a semi-lurid way, “Wow look at the legs on that thing.” He is referring, of course, to the oldest cliché in wine. A slow groove down the sides of the glass indicates that the wine may be “hot” or high in alcohol. But don’t be the one to comment on the “legs.”
By simply spending a few seconds of your time looking at the glass, you already are more comfortable with defining and expressing what your senses say to you. You have passed the stage of concern.
So now it is time for the moments that make wine such a glorious gift. That first tilt of the head and whiff of the wine. Swirl it one more time, then drop your nose into the glass. Breathe deep and don’t think too much. Just enjoy. What do you smell? If it’s a white wine, you may smell white or citrus fruits. Peaches? Pineapples? Oranges? Lemons? How about clean slate or stone? If it’s a dark red you may get a hit of leather or maybe chocolate or dirt. Just blurt it out. Once you say the first aroma that comes to your mind the others around the table will dip their noses into their glasses to see if they can smell what you smell.
By this time, you own the table, and the conversation has turned toward what you are experiencing. Lean back and enjoy. Take a sip of the wine and quickly swallow. What are you feeling? Is it a dry wine, or is there a touch of sweetness? Does it make you pucker? Is it soft or does it feel powerful? Take a deeper, longer, more satisfying drink. Let it linger in your mouth a bit.
Look for balance. Is the wine too hot? Does the alcohol overpower? How about the tannins? Do they dry out your mouth? Is the wine flabby or cloying? Or is it smooth, rich, elegant?
At this point, the intimidation has diminished, and the most important thing is not to talk about the wine. But to simply enjoy it.
The one thing, the only thing, that really matters is what kind of wine you like. Once you decide that Sancerre is for you, or that Oregon Pinot Noir makes your leg quiver, or that you’d pay good money (lots of good money) for that Châteauneuf-du-Pape, then you are on the road to discovery. Once you know what you like, consider that to be the trunk of your tree. Find out as much as you can about that wine and then add branches of knowledge from there.
Once you get the basics, your tree of knowledge can grow in different directions. You may progress to trying Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. Create a methodology of trying the wines, reading about the region, writing notes on cards that you can keep and study. Next up: Burgundy.
And wine snobs are not cool. Frequently, those who act like they know, don’t. Ignore someone attempting to use their knowledge of wine as a weapon. Finally, like skiing, there is always someone a little better than you and someone who doesn’t have your chops, but all deserve to share the hill. As you learn, take lessons from those who know more and share with those who know less.
Wine is a very egalitarian thing.
2019 Chappellet “Refuge” Zinfandel
I like Zinfandel. And I really like this one sourced from old vines in the Napa Valley. It’s juicy and jammy with a touch of spice and a basket full of dark fruit. At 15% ABV it is as big as it is bold. And the painted label with a poem on the back of the bottle, produced by Lygia Chappellet (founder of the bigsurfiddlecamp.org) was as evocative as the wine:
Water climbs into the clouds to slake the thirsty earth,
giving life to the forests, the fields, the flora and the fauna,
who add their invaluable tilth and texture
to every corner of the world.