By Lauren Volper
I started learning about wine before I was legally able to drink it. When I moved to San Francisco at 19-years-old from upstate New York, I was asked in an interview for a restaurant position about the five major grapes that grow in Bordeaux. I missed the answer to the question, and became vigilant in making sure I never failed another basic wine question again.
Wine tends to be an elusive topic that we feel pressure to know more about than we actually do. For me, these topics include the War of 1812 and String Theory. In regards to wine, there is simply too much information for anyone to fully understand or try to memorize. Since we aren’t taught about it in high school, unless you have had several years of working in upscale restaurants (like myself), wine knowledge is something you have to seek out and try to make sense of.
That’s where I come in. I know what servers are looking to hear when they ask, “What kind of wine do you like?” I know which wine to avoid pairing with oysters and artichokes, and why you should hold a glass by the stem. I also know how to properly taste wine and describe its flavor profile. I love teaching other people this skill at my company WineUp because I enjoy helping people be more confident. By uncomplicating wine, they can describe their taste preferences like a pro!
Here are my favorite wine facts from a practical approach – just the basics that will have you sounding cool and understanding wine better.
You don’t taste by sipping.
You can tell more about wine by how it looks in the glass and how it smells before ever taking a sip. How? The amount of tearing on the glass tells us one crucial thing: viscosity. If the wine is sticking a lot to the glass upon swirling, and big syrupy tears form and trickle slowly down the bulb, that tells me that the wine is fuller-bodied and probably higher in alcohol or from a warmer climate like Napa Valley. Wine that comes from a warmer climate tends to be fuller and higher in alcohol because grapes develop more sweetness in warmer temperatures, more sweetness equals more sugar to convert to alcohol in the fermentation process. This makes the wine heavier-bodied and more viscous.
Why do people swirl their wine?
One reason why people swirl their wine, aside from it looking cool, is to see the staining or “legs” on the glass, especially if they are tasting it blind. Another reason to swirl the wine is to aerate it. This is achieved when oxygen is incorporated into the wine which allows the aromas to open and make the wine taste better.
When it comes to smelling wine, your nose is always right and you are never wrong if you call out what you actually smell. If you sniffed it, shout it out. “Apple sauce!” “Smoked meats!” “Pineapple-flavored yogurt!” “Plastic shower curtain!” All of these notes tell me something about the wine. Plastic shower curtain happens to be a common aroma people get from smelling Riesling! You can only smell things that are familiar, so you cannot BS this step of wine tasting, which makes tasting wine a mind-body connective process. Calling out what you smell in wine is one of the most honest and difficult sensory exercises you can engage in.
Why hold a glass by the stem?
You shouldn’t hold a wine glass by the bulb because your hands are the greatest carriers of bacteria and scent. You actually can mask the taste of your wine by having your hand anywhere near your nose. You may hear that you shouldn’t hold the bulb of the glass because you don’t want to warm up the wine, but glass is more of an insulator than it is a conductor of heat, so this rationale doesn’t make much sense. I was told by the founder of the Court of Master Sommeliers himself, Fred Dame, that the reason you should only hold a wine glass by the stem is to keep your hand away from your nose. Sometimes you will hear people say it’s to avoid getting your fingerprints on the glass, but I have never understood what the big deal is about fingerprints in the first place, and I am just reminded of my parents yelling at me to hold the photographs by the edges to not smudge the prints. You can hold your glass by the bulb if you want, it won’t smudge the wine – but the stem is there for a reason, so use it.
What about wine pairing?
Pairing wine with food isn’t all about white wine with seafood and red wine with red meat. Rules are made to be broken, and this “rule” is one of them. There is however some validity to the white wine with shellfish pairing; particularly oysters. The concept behind why some wines are better with certain foods is the same behind why your orange juice WILL taste sour after you brush your teeth. Bordeaux will taste like pennies if you drink it with oysters; they’re not flavors that complement each other. Certain foods will make the wine taste overly bitter or sour, and these pairings should be avoided. Avoid tannic wine with bitter foods – no bold Cabernets with dark chocolate or broccoli rabe. To bring out the best flavors of both things you are consuming, look for opposing flavor profiles in wine Try a high-acid wine like Sauvignon Blanc with bitter greens, or a sweet red wine like taw ny port with a dark chocolate lava cake.
Pop the Champagne!
When in doubt, Champagne or rosé can cheat any unknown wine pairing. The highly popular are widely available, so even if all the wines on the list are foreign to you, you can hack it by ordering bubbles or rosé. If you don’t like either of those options, then point to a wine on a list that you are unfamiliar with and ask if that wine is close to “x” wine you like. The server will explain yes or no and you just learned a little bit more about why or why not. Do not be afraid to ask questions if you feel your server is knowledgeable.
Is it bad to order the cheapest wine on the list?
No. These can be great value wines, and are a lot of times skipped over because people are afraid to look cheap. If you are out at all, you are not cheap, if you were, you would have bought some Two-Buck-Chuck and stayed home. If you are ordering a $40 entree and want to save on wine, good value wines tend to be Italian and Spanish varietals like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Albariño.
What grapes are in a Bordeaux?
The region of Bordeaux is commonly referred to by left or right bank, and that is because Bordeauxs are blends of two or more grape varietals – which bank they come from will determine if it’s more Cabernet (Left Bank) or Merlot (Right Bank) driven. Within Bordeaux, there are 38 sub regions and 57 appellations. It’s understandable why a common concern with wine is figuring out the label and why so many people purchase wine solely on labelling. Here is a little breakdown of dissecting popular french subregions so you don’t have to shy away from the Bordeauxs – they can be amazing wines!
Left Bank (Cabernet Sauvignon is the majority grape) tend to be higher in tannin, alcohol and acidity. They are known to age better and include wines that make the region famous.
Right Bank (Merlot driven) tend to be lower in alcohol, softer tannins and have lower acidity. They are often less expensive, and are more easily drank now, as opposed to requiring aging.
So if you are in a wine shop and see a bottle of Saint Émilion, it’s is nice to know that this is a red blend dominant in Merlot, since it will not say on the label.
What about Old World wine labels:
In the Old World, wine isn’t referred to by grape varietals like Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, and you may not be accustomed to your Chardonnay being called a Burgundy, so I made this handy wine chart that can act as a guide to dissect a wine list.
Wine region and their grape varietals hack chart:
what you will see on the label
A note about buying wine for entertaining:
Account for about one glass of wine per guest, per hour. If your dinner party is four hours long, that is a bottle a person, so a general rule is to purchase a bottle of wine per person. As far as which wines to buy, I like to pick wines that I know are crowd pleasing, like Argentinian Malbec, Brut rosé, Cote du Rhone. I stay away from Chardonnay, as it tends to be pretty polarizing as opposed to universally pleasing. You can also go to any wine shop and ask which wines are popular with people and get some great suggestions from staff. I buy a lot of wine, so I try to keep each bottle I buy under $20, the people at the wine shop know I like to stay under that budget and I am always amazed by how many different wines they can come up with in my price range. Which brings me to another point about budget: be honest with the people helping you. They are not judging you based on your budget and I’ve found that people working in wine shops want to talk about wine, so don’t be shy to ask their advice!
Want more wine hacks, advice, or to experience a WineUp tasting with your friends or corporate team? I host events on and off-site depending on what your needs are! You can reach out on Instagram: @getwineup or email: firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about booking.
During her tenure in the service industry, Lauren Volper (a trained sommelier) saw that there was an enormous need for clear-cut wine information delivered to millennial wine drinkers – the largest market segment of wine consumers to date! She noticed that drinkers in their 20’s and 30’s were afraid to mispronounce wines, or ask questions, because there was stigma around not knowing pertinent wine information. From this came the spark to start WineUp – a wine education and tasting service targeted to millennial wine drinkers who want a functional approach to leveraging their wine knowledge.