How to Approach Wine

Jun 22, 2009

How do you know what to get when you go to the wine store? Say for instance you are going to a dinner party or you want to pick up something nice for…well… someone nice. You walk into the store and all these anonymous bottles stare you down. Where, oh where to begin.

Wine is not easy to buy. I mean it’s not like buying an everyday agricultural product. Thankfully, we know what tomatoes and strawberries taste like so there is no guess work there (sometimes GMO carrots taste weird…nevermind).

Wine… it’s not like clothes, we can’t try on the wine. And unlike a book, we can’t crack it open, read the first page and paragraph to see if we like it (unless the wine store happens to be doing a tasting).

This is about approaching wine and learning to learn about what you might like and learning how to buy for others when you know what they like. It’s great to come to a dinner party well-prepared or find the perfect wine for your romantic evening. (Although I do confess two reds got me in trouble two summers ago so watch the alcohol content).

Working in the industry off and on for the past few years, I’ve had a chance to learn about the selling of wine. I found the majority of questions I answered in the retail environment followed a basic script of determining who the customer was buying for, the occasion, and what that person personally preferred. Often when I talked to people, they knew what they liked and what they wanted to get for a special evening but just couldn’t decide. With every approaching weekend, I know there are so many questions people have. Here are some tips – some from myself, the rest from those who taught me:

1. Climate Determines Product and (sometimes) alcohol percentage.
When you look at a map of the world, the bulk of wine is produced between N 50 and N 30 degrees latitude. France, Italy and Spain in the Old World followed by the U.S. in the New World make up this large percentage. Wines from a warmer area will traditionally and typically be higher in alcohol with a fuller body (body refers to “mouthfeel”, how heavy it feels on your palette – just think skim, 1% and homogenized milk for something comparable to ‘light-’, ‘medium-’ and ‘full-’ bodied wine). Whereas a white from Germany or New Zealand’s south island (found between S 30 and S 50 degrees latitude) will be higher in acidity (the mouth-watering sensation at the front of your mouth) and lower in alcohol and lighter in body. Red grapes tend to need a longer growing season to ripen, whereas white grapes can survive in a cooler climate. Depending on the variety, knowing where it is from will help you determine what kind of wine you might want.

2. New World wines are often “Fruitier” than Old World.
California Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Australian Shiraz and Riesling all are much more fruitier versions of Old World Varieties. If you like what is called “fruit forward” or “fruit bomb” wines – i.e. wines that are bursting with red and black fruit (for reds) and tropical and stone fruit (for whites) notes and aromas, then you might like New World wines. Since the rise of wine critic Robert Parker in the early 1980’s, the industry of wine making has made wines richer in flavour (although some traditionalist argue these wines are not age-worthy…). The New World was quick to respond, as Elin McCoy, a journalist from the New York Times and Food & Wine magazines notes in her book on Parker, The Emperor of Wine. Top-producers in the USA over the past three decades have manipulated their crop yield to produce fruit explosive wines that appealed to Parker’s palette. A wine he rates 90+ in his journal, The Wine Advocate usually becomes a bestseller over night and wine makers are able to cash in on demand for their wines. This is the reason why you might find American wines priced at $100.00 and up. Unlike the Old World, a winemaking tradition that goes back hundreds of years, these wines were “in” because of an American critics opinions. On the whole, New World wines in all price ranges are much more “fruitier” because of Parker.

3. Depending on the year, the producer and their winemaker, the seven noble varieties usually deliver on expectation.
In my first level classes at the Art Institute, instructors focus solely on tasting the three noble whites (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) and four noble reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz/Syrah and Pinot Noir). By “noble”, my instructors meant they were grown throughout the world (with the exception of Pinot Noir which requires the right climate) and their distinct character and flavour profile is fairly consistent. With Riesling, think apples and citrus fruit; with Sauvignon Blanc, think citrus as well but with grassy gooseberries. Chardonnay is a bit trickier: see Tip 4 below. In regards to reds, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have red and black fruit character (strawberries, black currant for the former, plums and dark cherries for the latter). Shiraz/Syrah is a spicier grape with darker fruit whereas Pinot Noir is a lighter wine, with light red fruits and closer to the high acidity levels of most whites (ideal with salmon).

4. Sometimes regions lend a different character.
Chardonnay is trickier to pin down because it is the chameleon grape. It grows well everywhere (unlike Pinot Noir and other reds which needs a certain growing season to ripen and deliver) In California it is often matured in oak (often called “wooded” or “oaked” Chardonnay – although lately, I have begun to call them “butter bombs”). This gives it a buttery feel on the palette. The white taste less like fruit and more like the vanilla and margarine from the oak. In Australia, Chardonnay takes on a tropical character with pineapple and mango notes (although there are wooded versions here as well). In France, you find apple, pear and citrus (depending on the region…yet again). Chablis produces mineral and yeasty-like Chardonnay with apple flavours whereas Burgundy is more subtle with peach fruit and other delicate flavours. With other varieties, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile there is a zing of green pepper. If you like the refreshing zest of a vegetal component in your wine you might like it or… you might not.

5. With food pairing, just remember what not to do.
Tannins (the mouth drying sensation at the sides of your mouth) and fish don’t get on well together (the oil in the fish just doesn’t sit well with the astringent quality of the wine). And if you want a wine with dessert, always get a wine higher in sugar like an Ice Wine, a French Sauternes, Hungarian Tokay or a Late Harvest Wine. If the wine you are drinking has a lower sugar concentration than your dessert, it will taste sour. (A Wedding Tip: Asti is the better sparkling wine with wedding cake. It is sweet and cheap. Champagne is rarely ever sweet and rarely ever inexpensive. Also try Cava, sparkling wine from Spain for toasts – same quality, same wine-making methods as Champagne but again fairly inexpensive.)

6. With food pairing, remember these few simple tips.
Cheese is a protein. Red wine has tannins. Tannins go well with protein. So cheese and red wine is safe. Also if the wine has a fuller body, it’s better to have a richer food to match. This is why whites, traditionally being lighter in body than reds, go well with fish and chicken and reds are suited up with red meats (A full-bodied, oaky Chardonnay, however is great with steak and great with cheese). Salads and white wine are also safe provided the wines are high in acidity (Sauvignon Blanc is pretty safe here but also think about what you put in the salad).

7. When it comes to Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, most experts are divided.
White wine or red wine, whatever you decide. Turkey is complicated to pair wines with. It depends on what you are serving the turkey with. It never really matters. With the wine and the turkey, most people fall asleep before they begin to suspect the wrong wine was brought to the table.

8. Find the right wine store and talk to their staff.
The best thing, in my personal opinion and in that of Kevin Zraly, author of the perennial classic, Windows on the World Guide to Wine is get to “know your local wine merchant.” In a world where the super market reigns and the local grocer is a faded dust memory in the minds of our parent’s generation, the local wine retailer is the best place to start for advice. Wine staff nine times out of ten know their stuff. Some of them have been in the industry for a long time. They have attended trade tastings; some have either completed ISG (International Sommelier Guild) or WSET (Wine Studies Education Trust) classes. If the above tips are overwhelming, just talk to someone else who knows something about what they’re selling to you.

9. If all else fails, just pick a bottle.
If you like lager beer, pick a white. If you like coffee, pick a red. Start with what you like already and try to find similarities. I love a crisp beer and when I first started loving wine, I went from beer to the crisp white wines. Someone else I spoke with at the time loved coffee and moved right into red, right away.

So, go figure.

And good luck.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The same could be said with wine. Start with one and explore.

McCoy, Elin, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste. New York, ECCO 2005.
Zraly, Kevin, Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. New York, Sterling Press 2002.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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