How To Be A Wine Snob in 2,853 Words or Less
MARGARET RIVER, WESTERN AUSTRALIA- After spending 2 months working in the wine industry in the premier vine-growing region of Margaret River, Western Australia, I picked up quite a few tidbits of knowledge about wine and everything that goes along with it. By far the most important lesson learned was that there really is no such thing as a “fine wine”: if you like it, buy it and drink it. Everyone’s palate is different, and while James Halliday wine reviews might give this vintage 96 points and your favorite 89, it makes no difference at all whether you are drinking a bottle that costs $40 or $4. It’s all about your own personal preference. Of course, this opinion of mine has been heavily influenced by the easy-come easy-go attitude of Australians in general, and you won’t find this lackadaisical attitude towards wine across the world, so read on for some inside tips on how to be a wine snob in 2,853 words or less.
There Are Two Kinds of Wine (to start with)
Let’s start at the beginning. There are two major kinds of wines, red and white. While there are endless varieties of these two, the vast majority of wine on the market today is comprised of a handful of well-known wines. Red wine is generally made from grapes with darker skins, while white wine is made from grapes with lighter skins. The major difference between red and white wine is that during the fermentation process (where the grape juice ferments and alcohol is born) red wine is fermented with the skins, while white wine is fermented without the skins. Fermentation with the skin gives red wine the dark color that we know so well, with the additional benefit of adding a number of layers of flavor to it’s taste…you’ll often notice that a glass of red wine is far more pungent than a glass of white. As with virtually everything in the wine world (and subsequently this post) these are rule of thumbs and there is always, always, always some exception, somewhere to these rules.
These Two Kinds of Wines Age Differently
Another major difference between red and white wine is that red wine takes much longer to age than white wine. Why, you may ask? Well, that’s just the way it is, and if you care to truly understand the agronomics behind this fact, you’ll be much more of a wine snob than your correspondent. The upshot of this is that red wine is almost always more expensive than white wine, and comprises a much higher percentage of the premium wine market. It makes logical sense, after all. If you are a winemaker, and you need to age a vintage for five years instead of one, wouldn’t it make economic sense for you to charge a higher price for the product that took you longer to make? Red wine is also much more likely to be aged in oak barrels, in order to produce that oaky, earthy sensation you always read about on the back of bottles. White is more likely to be aged in a large, stainless steel vat (with the notable exception of Chardonnay). You may need 10-15 oak barrels to age the same amount of wine that can be stored in a single stainless steel vat. Oak is more expensive than stainless steel since it needs to be replaced more often, and an oak barrel is significantly smaller than a single vat, resulting in a higher cost of production for red wine. It will be relatively easy to taste the effect oak has an a wine if you are performing your taste test. Have a go and see what you think. But here’s an insider tip: most vintages are actually aged in the bottles rather than in oak vats or stainless steel cauldrons. Wine made in 2014 is largely bottled in 2014, and stored in the bottles for release in a few years. This is a much cheaper method than using either oak barrels or stainless steel vats, so it’s rare you’ll find a wine aged in oak barrels that isn’t up there in price.
A Wine Snob Needs a Favorite White Wine
The four most popular white wines are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio. To be a real wine snob, you need to know which of these is your favorite. Personally, I’d recommend buying a bottle of each and having a taste-off each night for a week or two. This doesn’t have to be expensive, remember we’re only trying to decipher what variety of grape we want, and buying the second cheapest bottle is fine by any standards. By pouring a half-glass of Riesling and a half-glass of Chardonnay, and alternating between drinking the two, you’ll quickly find that it’s easy to tell the difference between, if only for the fact that you like one of them better than the other. Square off the winner of the first contest with a new bottle the next night, and after a week or two of this you will have a definitive preference for what kind of wine you like. Remember, there is a fine line between drinking wine to get a buzz and drinking wine to be a wine snob. Tread it carefully, you lush.
A Wine Snob Requires a Favorite Red Wine
The four most popular red wines are Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz. Shiraz is the same grape variety as Syrah; what it’s called depends on where the vintage originates. “New World” wines, such as those from Australia and South Africa refer to the variety as Shiraz, while “Old World” wines refer to the variety as Syrah. Same thing, but now you can sound cool when you drop this knowledge at a dinner party. I’d now recommend doing the exact same taste test with red wines…selecting two to go off head to head, and pairing the winner with a new bottle the next night. You’ll be surprised with what you might find. As someone who always thought Cabernet Sauvignon (or Cabernet, for short) was my absolute favorite wine, after a number of taste tests my clear personal favorite is Shiraz. So now, I have a new favorite wine, and know what I want to try whenever I have a choice.
How to Taste Wine Like a D***
All wines should ideally be stored in a wine fridge, set to a particular temperature that’s meant to bring out all the tannins on your palate the moment you open the bottle. However, most normal folk don’t have wine fridges, so a simple rule to follow for storing and serving is that white wine is kept in the fridge and removed twenty minutes before opening, while red wine is kept in a cabinet (avoid exposure to sunshine for both) and placed into the fridge twenty minutes before opening. When pouring a glass, there’s no need to be a crazy about technique- just avoid that awful sloshing noise and subsequent waterfall when you upend the bottle and let it all splash into a glass at once. Let the wine sit for a minute or two, before twirling the glass. The swirling of the wine amplifies the smell, so smell the wine before you taste it. You don’t need to know what you’re smelling for, only whether you like it or not. Leave the first sip in your mouth, and really taste it- again, you’re not looking for acidity content or anything like that, simply as to whether or not it suits your palate. Do you like it? Good. If not? Try something else.
Wine Labeling is Subjective Business
Like most things, wine is made with a tough brand of precise love. Yet it’s also become commoditized like anything else in this world and packaged in a way that will market well and sell…so be a discerning consumer. Most of the mumbo-jumbo listed on wine labels is propagated by marketing departments specifically to make the wine sound good. Take this from someone who has worked a bottling station and filled 5,000 bottles from the same variety with labels that describe the taste as “aromatic citrusy fruit”, and a subsequent 5,000 bottles from the exact same vat with a different label that describes the flavor as “oaky, earthy, lemon”. Of course labeling wine with a set of three adjectives is not mutually exclusive to then naming it with a set of three different adjectives, but the point is that what a wine bottle wants you to think it tastes like is subjective business. Again, you need to go with your personal taste. If you like it, drink it. However, there is one reliable indicator you can look for on a bottle of wine, and that’s the alcohol content…
The Most Important Tip You’ll Get
Alcohol comes from fermented sugar, and sugar is created by exposure to the sun.
Sunshine -> Sugar -> Alcohol
When a wine is prepared for fermentation, it has a stable level of sugar in it. The level of sugar varies with how much sun exposure the grape has gotten during a particular season, and is why certain climates are optimum for certain grape varieties. A maker can also cheat (and many do) by adding processed sugar to the vintage at this stage.
The sugar is then converted into alcohol. Thus, the higher percentage of alcohol, the lower the sugar content.
<13% alcohol: the wine will have a sweet taste
13-13.5% alcohol: the wine is considered “medium-bodied”
>13.5% alcohol: the wine will have a dry taste
Pretty straightforward, right? Don’t worry about acidity and all that; you can get away with being a snob just fine if you can tell the difference between a dry wine and a sweet wine. And now you don’t even need to have a taste to know how to do it!
A Short Aside on Mixed Varieties
Wine can also get confusing when you start messing about with combining grape varieties such as a Cabernet Merlot (a red wine cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) or Sauvignon Blanc Semillon (a white wine cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon). Personally, I’m not much of a fan of these mixes, but for those keen on trying an endless succession of varieties, here’s a little tip: the grape variety that comprises most of the wine will come first in the name. So a Sauvignon Blanc Semillon would be comprised of, say, 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon, while a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc would be comprised of 60% Semillon and 40% Sauvignon Blanc.. So if you’re more of a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, try the SBS before the SSB.
Corks vs. Screwcaps vs. Boxed Wine?
It’s a romantic notion of buying a nice bottle of wine, popping the bottle opener in, and hearing that comforting “pop” as the cork comes undone. You’re then free to add the cork to a collection in a large glass bowl, making a nice decoration for your house, and use those fancy new wine stoppers you got for Christmas. While this is all fun stuff, cork is going by the wayside. While the majority of wines on the premium market will still have corks, it has three major drawbacks that make it unsuitable for actually storing wine:
Corks break down with time and small bits can fall off into the wine, contaminating the vintage
Corks are not particularly airtight and can let oxygen in the bottle, which is a big no-no if you want to keep a wine long-term
Corks are very difficult to back in the bottle if you want to reseal for enjoyment the subsequent night (again, they let oxygen in the bottle)
The majority of wines nowadays are sealed using either a synthetic plastic cork, which eliminates problems 1 & 2, or using a screw top, which eliminates all problems 1, 2, and 3. While less pleasing to the eye, these tops are far more efficient and will allow one to keep a vintage much longer than with cork, though it will make you look less like a snob until you explain your reasons behind using bottles with these kinds of tops. Now if you really want to show off, break out your boxed wine (anything but Franzia, please). Boxed wine is stored in an airtight bag that keeps out all of the oxygen as you pour a glass. As you now know, this is what will spoil the wine. Thus, using boxed wine, while considered tacky, is by far the best preserver of a vintage. Once opened, corks will last a day or so, screw tops for about a week, and boxed wine will last almost a month before spoiling.
How to Find Good Wine on the Cheap
After concocting the year’s vintage, the wine is stored for the appropriate period in large vats until the day of reckoning when it’s bottled. Once the mobile bottling station arrives (virtually no wineries have their own bottling facilities), the vats are hooked up to an intake hose on the back of the trailer. Usually there is a particular caseload that the maker is looking for when they bottle, in my experience this has general been 6140 bottles (or 8 pallets of 48 cases). Fortunately for you, it’s rare that the liquid equivalent of exactly 6140 bottles of wine have been made for that vintage, generally leading to an excess of product. This is usually simply bottled into unlabeled bottles, and stored for either tastings…or cheap sales. So note to you savvy shoppers out there: oftentimes, unlabeled wine is a real bargain, especially if you find some you like. It’s generally the overflow from a batch that was carefully calibrated but simply went over the desired order level, and can be quite palatable. You probably won’t find this sort of thing in an upscale wine store in NYC, but if you see an unlabeled bottle of wine and it’s a vintage you like, give it a go. Chances are it’s a bargain.
What’s the Deal With Wine and My Health?
There are a zillion different varieties of wines you can delve into. Of course there are your basic reds and whites, but then you have rose, which is a pinkish color and can be made by any number of processes, including mixing reds and whites or removing the grape skin earlier in the fermentation process than you would for making a red wine. There’s sparkling wine, where the vintage is carbonated to add a fizzy touch, though you’ll only find this in white and rose varieties. Lastly is fortified or dessert wine. Fortified wine has a sweet, viscous quality about it, and will rarely be enjoyable after a single glass. It’s very heavy to taste, though does make for an amazing after-dinner cocktail, if you fancy. One thing to note about dessert wines, as well as a number of other whites, is that there is a ton of sugar added to it. Unless you are getting a premium bottle (whose makers will shy away from using any adulterants), there is a good chance that your white wine has a number of grams of added sugar per liter. A single glass of red wine may or may not have antioxidants that are good for your cardio health, but on the whole it definitely lacks the sugar content of white and is the overall healthier choice. An added benefit to red wine is that you can brush your teeth soon after drinking it, unlike white wine where it’s recommended you wait at least an hour for the acid on your teeth to dissipate…when mixed with toothpaste, it can damage the enamel on those pearly whites!
And Finally, Pairings
It’s worth mentioning here the age-old adage with regards to what you should pair your wine with. Lighter wines should be paired with lighter food, and heavier wines should be paired with heavier food. Whites are at the lighter end of the spectrum, reds at the heavier, so starting the evening off with a white wine (with appetizers, for example) and progressing to a red with a meal is a good way to go. For a meal, white wine is paired with white meats and fish, and red wines are paired with red meat. This is by no means a steadfast rule, but a general guideline that you’ll soon find there is a reason for if you start taste testing with food. Within these boundaries, feel free to try as many pairings as you please.
Hopefully you learned a little bit about wine after reading this article and can now show off your fancy new knowledge the next time your called upon to know anything other than that slapping the bag can lead to a state of extreme intoxication. Like I said, these are general guidelines influenced by my time in the Australian wine industry, and there are always exceptions to the rules. Yet if I can impress one thing upon anyone from my experience in the wine business, it’s to drink what you like. Since after all, no one likes a wine snob.