Sommelier 101: Real wine lessons for real wine drinkers

Let’s face it. Wine can be intimidating. While decent wine has become more accessible of late – particularly for those of us in the New World (my European friends, consider yourselves fortunate), the world of wine is vast. That fact became even more obvious as I began studying for my Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers (check out the posts chronicling my experiences here and here).

I’ve compiled a few basic takeaways from my own experiences and wine education to help you get the most enjoyment out of your wines and to avoid a few common mistakes. Even if you might be more experienced with wine, you may find some pointers you can use.

   
   
Picking wines:

  • Perhaps the most important question: Are you drinking a glass alone, or with food? Choose fruitier, riper “New World” wines [i.e. NOT Europe] if drinking for happy hour or apéritif; Old World wines were meant for food.
  • You get what you pay for; However, pay for wine only as much as you value the wine. In general, I’ve found reliably good white wines between $5-15, but cheaper reds are likely to leave me with a headache and bad experience that isn’t worth it. Unless you’re buying from your favorite winery, look for reds in the $12-30 range. A $30 bottle of wine (of a varietal or style I like) is often 3 times as good to me than a $10 bottle of the same varietal; however, I wouldn’t spend more than $30 on a wine about which I knew nothing.
  • When faced with a lot of choice, choose wines from a region known for that particular style, but don’t pick the cheapest ones.

  
Examples:
WHITES
-Riesling: Germany, Alsace (France), Willamette Valley, Oregon (USA). Pay attention to level of dryness/sweetness
-Sauvignon blanc: Marlborough (New Zealand); Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley (France)
-Chardonnay: Chablis (Burgundy, France if you like un-oaked); Australia or Napa, California (Oaked)
-Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: Alsace (France); Trentino-Alto Adige (Italy)
-Chenin Blanc: Vouvray (Loire Valley, France)

ROSÉ
Provénce (France)

  

  
REDS
-Pinot Noir: Burgundy (France) not for the faint of heart or beginners; Burgundy Pinot can be very animalistic and funky; New Zealand; Willamette Valley, Oregon and Sonoma County, California (USA)
– Garnacha/Garnache or GSM [Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre blends] Rhône Valley (France); Australia; Priorat, Spain
-Tempranillo: Rioja (Spain)
-Syrah/Shiraz: South Australia
-Cabernet Franc: Loire Valley, France
-Merlot (or blends): Bordeaux -right bank (France)
-Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends): Bordeaux – left bank (France); Napa, California (USA)
-Malbèc: Mendoza (Argentina)

Pairing wines: 

 

An oily, spicy dish like this lemongrass chicken pairs well with a dry white – especially a dry or off-dry riesling or sauvignon blanc. A big red would overwhelm its delicate flavors, while the cool, dry white helps moderate the heat.

 

  • Don’t worry about rules. Just match intensity with intensity.

What does that mean? A light, subtle wine like Riesling or Pinot noir needs more subtle flavors (or, for Riesling, a bit of spice). An aromatic or full-bodied wine needs something equally intense.
Serving wine:

  • When in doubt, DON’T aerate or decant. Most decent wines don’t need to be decanted. White wines never.
  • Aerate (i.e. Use a Vinturi) only younger, cheaper red wines.
  • Decant older red wines – not for them to aerate or “breathe”, but to separate the sediment from the liquid.
  • Stemless glassware is pretty but not a good idea for drinking wine; it alters the temperature too much, which, in turn alters the aromas and other characteristics of the wine.
  • A Burgundy style glass (wide bottom, angled outward and then narrowed at the top) is one of the best for wine tasting. Its shape directs the aromas in the wine toward your nose.

I hope these tips are a help for those of you looking to unlock your inner sommelier!

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