…But I do not think it means what you think it means.
Navigating a wine list is hard, I totally get it. Day in and day out, guests come into our wine bar and find it's easier to just ask for a recommendation. It’s my favorite part of the job! They give me an idea of what they usually like and I find a wine that will fit them like their favorite pair of jeans. It’s half wine expertise and half psychology. But here’s the thing; in order to do my job, I need some help from you. What styles of wine do you normally drink? Which wines have you liked in the past? Which wines haven’t you liked? Then, 80% of the time, I’ll get the same answer:
"I like dry wines."
Here’s the thing: you aren’t saying anything wrong, but you’re also not saying much at all. All you did was walk into Carmax and tell me you want an automatic transmission. You’ve given me some information, but I’m still not sure if you want a VW Bug or a Hummer. Both come automatic, but if you’re thinking of one and I give you the other you’re going to be quite disappointed.
It’s not your fault: it’s a product of the pretentious smoke and mirrors that surrounds the wine world. People are afraid to describe wine with normal words so when they find a term that does sound like one of the magic words that wine wizards use—and “dry” is almost inevitably the first one they trip across—they latch onto it. Once upon a time, you tried a wine you liked and someone that seemed to know more than you did told you it was dry. They were probably right, but they also did you a disservice. There were a million other attributes to that wine that they ignored that would have helped you understand more about your palate.
What I’m going to do now is help you fill in those blanks so that next time you go to a wine bar, you’ll be fully equipped to articulate exactly what you like and get what you want every single time. All I need you to do is picture your favorite wine at the moment. If you have a bottle of it laying around, this is also a great excuse to crack it open and enjoy a glass or two. Let's get started!
WHITES (AND ROSÉS)
First, what color is the wine? Is it nearly clear, or is it the color of a dandelion? Lighter wines are usually youthful, meaning they were made in the last few years. More yellow ones could be older, or they could have seen oak which gives it certain flavors—we’ll get to that in a moment.
Next, smell it. You’re looking for one of 3 categories of distinguishing features.
1. Floral: If you can smell roses jumping out of the glass from 3 inches away, the wine is probably floral. It could remind you of a bouquet, or a perfume.
2. Green/vegetal: It’s a color, but it’s also a smell. Does it smell like fresh cut grass? Any trace of crunchy green bell pepper?
3. Oak/Malo*: Does it smell like movie theater popcorn butter? Cinnamon? Vanilla? Bourbon? The wine probably hung out in oak barrels for a while.
*Malo is another fun wine word! It’s short for “malolactic fermentation”, which means the natural malic acid in the grapes (think green apple) was converted into lactic acid (think milk). The result is a wine that feels and tastes creamy.
Next, take a sip. Now there’s only 2 more categories you need to narrow down:
1. Tartness: Does the wine make you feel like you just ate a sour patch kid? Is your mouth watering? Do you suddenly feel woken up and want to shake your head and pucker a bit? That’s a high-acid wine you have there, my friend. On the other hand, it could taste like a yellow gummy bear. Regardless of whether the wine itself is sweet, it makes you think more about a ripe mango than a lime wedge.
2. Body: Compare the feel of wine in your mouth to the feel of milk in your mouth. Is it more like skim, or more like cream?
Start with color again. If you tilt the glass 45º away from you, can you read through the wine like cranberry juice? Or is it an inky purple? This can narrow down the varietals pretty quickly.
Onto smell. We’ll use 3 categories:
1. Fruit: Does the wine remind you of a cherry pie, or a ripe blackberry? That makes it fruit-forward.
2. Earth: If the wine reminds you more of the smell of a forest after rain or working in a garden than eating a mixed berry salad, then it’s considered “earthy”.
3. Oak: Red wines are often oaked, but some show it more than others. Look again for aromas of cinnamon and vanilla to indicate a wine that was exposed to “new oak”.
Reds have a little more going on for the palate so let’s use 3 categories for this as well:
1. Age: Are you eating a strawberry that you just picked, or one that’s been made into fruit leather? Does it smell like a fresh rose, or potpourri? This indicates how old the wine is.
2. Tannin: Tannin is another overused word, but when you understand how to identify it, you’ll see how easy it is to compare wines. Think of oversteeped tea, or chewing on a grape skin, and how your mouth feels dried out afterwards. You might love wines that grip onto your teeth for dear life, or prefer ones that go down a little easier.
3. Body: Once again, compare the feel of it to milk. This will likely relate to the color of the wine we noticed earlier. A lot of darker wines, like Shiraz from Australia or Carmenere from Chile, are inky purple and high in tannin. Paler red wines like pinot noir have a lighter body.
Now when you're ready to order, choose the most dominant trait from the nose and pair it with a couple of attributes on the palate. For example:
1. A vegetal, tart white wine with medium body. We’ve narrowed it down to a few options, like Sauvignon Blanc or Grüner Veltliner.
2. An earthy, older, light-bodied red wine with not much tannin. You’ve probably got a taste for aged Burgundy.
By listing even one or two more attributes of the wine, you’ve gone from asking for an automatic car to a hybrid sedan! You don’t even have to use these specific terms and you absolutely don’t have to use ones that sound like “wine words”. Saying you want a white that tastes like green jolly ranchers or a red that reminds you of your favorite leather jacket may seem silly to you, but any sommelier would much rather you say that than just “dry”.
My best friend has a great way of doing this: she describes her favorite wines as "reds that make you feel like you're drinking them inside of a cabin." Even though she didn't say anything
about wine, I can still figure out what she wants pretty easily. What she said means that she wants something with a little wood, a little earth, maybe some fireplace smoke, and a more rustic winemaking style.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: wine is about opinions, and yours is just as valid as anyone else's. Don't let the fear of sounding silly get in the way of finding the wine you want! Trust yourself and more importantly, trust your somm--any decent one will get as much happiness out of finding your wine soulmate as you do. It's our job to know our list, but you can help us help you by knowing your palate.
Now head to your nearest wine bar and go practice! As always, feel free to message me via Facebook or Instagram if you have further questions. And for a little more detail on what to do after you pick out the wine, check out my video on ordering at restaurants! Made exactly a year ago today...crazy how time flies.