I recently watched the documentary film Somm. The film follows four young hopefuls valiantly pushing towards acquiring the prestigious title of Master Sommelier. These men train tirelessly for the exam. They stumble. They celebrate triumph. I couldn’t help but see some similarities between their process and that of an elite athlete training up to an event.
I found personal common ground with them in that regard. However, I recognized some supreme inadequacies in my wine game. Sure, I know I like a “Cab” with a steak and that I don’t dig the sweet stuff, but that’s where my knowledge ends. I considered going to school to become a sommelier, but quickly realized I have an obligation to not die of a heart attack from the stress and thought better of it.
Boom, it hit me, Steph, Kaplifestyle’s resident expert on everything I know little about, has a wine cellar and a propensity to drop knowledge. I reached out to her.
Stephanie, what are the five (or three?) things I must know about wine selection? If White Zinfandel sneaks into your response, I’ll have to pretend I don’t know you. Go.
I’ll start drinking white Zinfandel once you replace your Scotch with Butterscotch schnapps. It’s not a real wine (seriously, it was “invented” by a fermentation error). Real (red) Zinfandel, on the other hand, is my go-to by the glass varietal.
Now that we’re clear on that, don’t stress about your wine. The key to wine selection is learning what you like.
Part of the reason I dig Stephanie, she follows the biggest themes of our blogs. No rules. Flexibility of thought. Openness. No judgment.
Let’s start with the basics – white or red. There are other types of wine (rose, sparkling, dessert, fortified), but we’ll save those for another day. The distinction is not in the type of grape, but whether the skins are left on during the fermentation process. To make a white wine, you remove the skins, when making red wine, you leave them in. Your white wines are generally going to have lighter flavors – think tropical or citrus fruits, vegetal or floral notes, possibly vanilla or mineral qualities. Red wines will feature darker notes like berries, leather, coffee and spices.
See, when she rattled off that last line, I felt my masculinity surface. I know what to say the next time one of my teammates busts my balls for drinking wine instead of beer. “Brother, this shit has notes of leather. Keep drinking your Coors Light.”
Red wines will often have tannins. Tannic acid comes from the grape skins (which is why white wines don’t have tannic qualities) and is responsible for that puckering sensation you get when drinking a bold red. Some people like them, some don’t. If you’re drinking Cabs with your steaks, I’m guessing you do. Tannins also act as preservatives, so if you find a wine that you like that is a bit heavy on them, stick it someplace dry and cool for a few years. Conversely, I don’t suggest letting a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc age for very long.
Note to self, remember where the cool dry place is. Nothing worse than storing a bottle of Bryant Cabernet from your Napa trip then never being able to drink it.
The other term to be aware of is “residual sugars.” Fermenting wine requires the addition of sugar, so that the yeast have something to eat. Generally, the yeast consume all of the sugar, but some wines are bottled before the process has completed. They’ll note the percentage of residual sugar on those wines; if you don’t like sweet wines, I suggest avoiding anything with even 0.5% RS.
Most people will generally develop a preference for reds or whites, but I advise not being too rigid about it. I generically prefer reds, but if it’s 90 degrees outside and I’m having a light meal of cured meats and cheese, a white wine is preferable.
Remember that flexibility thing?
Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, the next step is tasting the wines. This is where people get nervous. Everyone has seen the person swirling a wine, noisily inhaling, then declaring that there’s an aroma of boysenberry with a subtle hint of cherry cigar smoke. Wines are complicated beverages and do have a lot of flavors, but learning to perceive them is a skill. Just like any skill, you become more adept with practice. In other words, the best way to learn to taste wine is to taste wine.
The entire spectacle is unnecessary. Inhale to smell the wine, then take a sip, let it coat your tongue and swallow slowly. That’s it. Don’t worry about it if you’re not picking up on all the notes the “experts” are. The aromas are organic chemicals, so different people will perceive different things. In fact, if you try the same wine on different days, you’ll likely smell and taste different notes. Weather and humidity play a factor. Women, in particular, will taste wine differently based on hormone fluctuations. There’s no objective metric here; you’re just looking to identify tastes that appeal to you.
This is where I marvel at what a good communicator Stephanie is. Her material is technical yet accessible; I’m digesting it and simultaneously entertained. Remind me to give her the floor more often.
As you try more wines, you’ll begin to notice commonalities in what you like and can use that in your wine selection. For instance, if you really like the vanilla notes in a Chardonnay, you’ll want to look for wines aged in French oak. If fruit forward Cabernet Sauvignons are your thing, choose California Cabs over European. If you want a wine that you’ll still be tasting 5 minutes after you swallow (the “finish”), you’ll lean to a big red (perhaps a Barolo). For something less intense, you might go for a Grenache. Building a broad base of information means that you’ll never be stuck simply because you don’t recognize the names on the bottle.
Wine tasting taught me an important lesson. I’d rather try something I strongly dislike than something that I’ll never remember. Identifying what I dislike is at least as helpful as knowing what I do like. If I try a wine with green pepper notes that I find unpleasant, I learn that early harvested Merlots are not really going to be my thing.
The easiest way to put this advice in practice is to go to wine tastings. There are wineries in nearly every state now, and regions you wouldn’t expect are putting out really good wine. Most wineries will pour 6-8 different wines for a small fee, so you can try all sorts of things you wouldn’t want to commit to buying a bottle of. Many nicer retail stores also do wine tastings, so you can try varietals that don’t grow well in your particular area.
Good news, folks. We have wineries and tours here in Malibu, in case you needed an additional excuse to take a trip to heaven.
Unless you’re willing to commit to that sommelier exam, you’re likely not going to be able to fully parse a wine list the next time you head to a steakhouse, but you don’t need to. If you learn what your tastes are, you can build up a few default “go-to” choices. When you’re at a retail store or restaurant with a knowledgeable staff, you can describe what you generally like and don’t like, and ask for their recommendation. Those sommeliers worked hard for their title, so let them put it to use.
And with that, we are once again reminded why Stephanie is invaluable to our blog. I have a feeling I’m going to be asking for her counsel again soon.