How to Drink Wine
Wine is pleasure and conviviality, it is culture and it makes food taste better. But wine can also be intimidating. This guide takes the anxiety out of shopping, buying and drinking wine. You will learn the basics, from how to open a bottle to pairing it with food, along with the best language to use when talking about wine in stores, at restaurants and with friends.
The Fundamental Types of Wine
Wine is grape juice and yeast, which transforms the sugar in the juice into alcohol. It can be categorized in countless incremental ways, but essentially there are five different types: red, white, rosé, sparkling and fortified, all made from two basic kinds of grapes, red and white.
These wines are made, not surprisingly, from red grapes, though the grapes are not exactly red. Typically the skins of red grapes, which contain the pigments that color the wines, are purple or black. When the grapes are crushed and begin the process of fermentation, the skins are left to macerate with the juice. Over time, the pigments, along with tannins, leach from the skins to give the wine color and texture.
Red wines are not uniformly red. The colors may run from pale garnet to ruby red to purple and almost black, depending on the grapes used, how the wine was made and how long it has been aged.
Red wines may be named after familiar grapes, like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, malbec or zinfandel, but, especially with European wines, they may be named for the place the grapes are grown, like Gevrey-Chambertin, Priorat, St.-Julien or Barolo.
White wines are made from white grapes, which naturally are not white. They are generally greenish and sometimes even speckled with red. For almost all white wines produced today, the skins are whisked away from the grape juice at the beginning of the winemaking process or, at most, a few hours in, eliminating most of the effects of pigments and tannins.
Occasionally, you will see wines labeled “orange” or “amber,” or even “skin-contact.” The producers of these wines used white grapes but employed a method for making red wines. The skins and other grape matter are allowed to macerate with the juice, which gives the wine an amber tint and a tannic texture.
Conversely, it is also possible to make white wines with red grapes, by taking away the skins immediately. A classic example is blanc de noirs Champagne, a white sparkling wine made from the red grapes pinot noir or pinot meunier or both.
White wines, like red wines, will generally carry the names of either grapes or places. So, along with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling and chenin blanc, you will see whites with names like Mâcon-Villages, Soave, Vouvray and Sancerre.
Rosé covers wines in a multitude of hues, including the palest onionskin to a deep, translucent cherry. Winemakers have several methods for producing rosé. Most commonly, they begin as if they were making red wine, but allow the skins to steep in the juice only long enough to achieve the desired color.
They might also begin to make red wine and, after a proper hue is achieved, bleed off a portion of the juice, which becomes the rosé. This method is called saignée, French for “bled.” It has the additional effect of concentrating the remaining juice as it continues along its path to red wine.
A third method, often used for rosé Champagne, is to blend a little bit of red wine into white wine.
Most rosé wines are ephemeral, and should be consumed young. But this is not always true. A small number of serious rosés age and evolve beautifully, like some of the great Provençal rosés of Bandol, the idiosyncratic rosé of Château Simone from the appellation of Palette, also in Provence, and the equally distinctive rosé of Valentini, from Abruzzo, Italy.
Whether they carry the name of the grape or the place, these wines will generally be labeled as rosé, rosado (Spain) or rosato (Italy). But you’ll know from the color.
Quite a few methods exist for making sparkling wine, but three are worth noting. Champagne, cava and many other sparkling wines use what used to be called the méthode Champenoise but is now known as méthode traditionelle. This requires making a finished still wine and then fermenting it a second time in bottles to produce the bubbles.
For this traditional method, the still wine is placed in bottles, along with some yeast and a sweet substance, often grape juice. The bottle is then sealed. A second fermentation begins as the yeast consumes the sugar, which produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. With no way to escape, the gas carbonates the wine. When the wine is considered ready, the yeast sediment is ejected, or disgorged, and the bottle is corked. This method is labor intensive and time consuming.
Rather than a second fermentation in the bottle, inexpensive sparkling wines like mass-market prosecco or Lambrusco use the Charmat method, named for the French inventor Eugène Charmat. These wines are carbonated in bulk by putting the finished still wine, along with yeast and sweetness, in a pressurized tank.
The third technique is often called the ancestral method, or méthode ancestrale. These wines are bottled before their first fermentation is complete, and as the fermentation finishes in the sealed container, the sparkle is added. The carbonation is generally tamer, and sometimes the wines are a little sweet. The ancestral method has received new attention with the rising popularity of pétillants naturels, which are made this way.
Beyond Champagne, sparkling wine categories that you may encounter include cava, sekt, crémant, pétillant and spumante.
Fortified wines are made by adding neutral spirits to the still wine to strengthen the alcohol level. This is done for several reasons: First, fortification helps to protect a wine from contamination, as most microbes that could affect a still wine cannot survive in a more alcoholic environment. Second, fortification was a method of protecting fragile still wines from the rigors of long voyages. Finally, if a wine is fortified before fermentation is complete, the yeast will die, leaving behind a residual amount of sugar. This is how port and sweeter Madeiras are made. Dry sherries are fortified after the fermentation is complete.
Aside from the familiar terms port, sherry and Madeira, other fortified wines you may find include marsala, vermouth and vin doux naturels.
Shopping for Wine
With so many different wines available and with bottle labels sometimes in different languages and filled with jargon, selecting a wine can seem intimidating. That’s why the single best way to improve your wine-drinking life is to find a good wine shop.
How to Tell if a Shop knows its Wine
• The temperature inside a shop should be cool, and bottles should be clean and stored out of direct sunlight.
• If bottle descriptions are posted, they should be written by the staff, not printed from consumer magazines.
• Is the staff engaged? Passionate about wine? Eager to help you find something you will like? Hospitality is good, as is the ability to listen and respond in plain language.
• Good shops will recommend wines in a variety of price ranges rather than trying to upsell you on an expensive bottle.
• Good shops may not necessarily have the brands you are looking for, but should generally be able to recommend alternatives.
• The best shops want your business, and are eager to make you happy so that you will return.
How to Talk to the Wine Seller
If you feel adrift, but you’re in a good store, let the merchant help you pick a bottle. Don’t worry about jargon. In order to help the merchant find the right sort of bottle, you need to know only two things. First, you need to know your budget, and you should never be shy about telling the merchant, who will be grateful that you helped narrow down the possibilities. Second, mention the occasion.
• “I’m looking for a wine that will go well with my dinner of roast chicken and sweet potatoes.”
• “I’m going to a dinner party and want to bring a gift to the hosts.”
• “My boss is coming over for dinner, and we are serving baked wild salmon.”
Questions to ask about the Bottle You're Buying
No matter what the occasion, it’s nice to know a little about where the bottle comes from, the people who made it and maybe the grapes that went into it. Don’t be hesitant to ask for information.
Some questions to ask:
• Where does the wine come from?
• Who made it?
• Does it come from a big company or a small estate?
• Does it farm the grapes organically, for example, or is it a négociant, someone who purchases grapes to make the wine, or even buys and packages wine that has already been produced?
Terroir is a French term used to describe where the grapes are grown (the soils, the microclimate, the elevation and even the exposure to the sun) and the people who farm the vines, variables that shape the character of the wine.
Ask about the characteristics of the vintage, the year the grapes were harvested, which can greatly influence the characteristics of the wine. While the vintage can shape the character of the wine, it’s important not to put too much stock in critics who rate vintages. The quality of the producer is always more important than the character of the vintage.
When a Good Wine Seller is hard to find
If you do not have access to a good wine shop, finding a great bottle will be more of a challenge. While you may get lucky uncovering a gem at a supermarket or big box store, it will be harder to find a person who can consistently direct you to what you are looking for, and that is what every wine novice needs. Shopping online at a good store is convenient, but sometimes it’s difficult to navigate the selections without advice. So start by reading about wine. Make a note about styles you may like to try, and do so when you travel. Seek out other wine lovers in your community. Visit wineries and talk to producers. Make use of online tools like wine-searcher.com and online retailers like garagiste.com. Be aware that archaic laws governing shipping wines across state lines may hinder your ability to ship a bottle home. Your confidence will increase as your knowledge grows.
Ordering at a Restuarant
Wine should be enjoyed without the burden of anxiety, but thick wine lists and unfamiliar rituals can be intimidating in a restaurant setting. Make use of the expertise of the wine staff to find the best glass or bottle for your meal.
The Wine List
Restaurant wine lists are generally organized by geography — where the wines come from — or by the name of the predominant grape in the wine. It could also be a combination of the two: “Pinot Noir” might be the main heading, for example, and underneath you might find subheadings that include pinot noirs from, say, the Sonoma Coast, the Russian River Valley, the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Burgundy and so on.
Roughly speaking, whether a wine is categorized by place or by grape depends on its origin. Old World wines are generally organized by place, because each appellation, or official wine zone, has rules about which grapes can be used. If a French wine is called Gevrey-Chambertin or Volnay, two appellations within Burgundy, you know that these wines are made of pinot noir. If the Italian wine is called Barolo, it is made of the nebbiolo grape. The New World, where few historical ties to particular grapes exist, tends to rely on the name of the grape to identify the wine.
Talk to the Restaurant's Wine Expert
Most restaurants that are at all serious about wine have somebody who can help you with a wine selection. It may be somebody with a formal title – wine director, beverage director or sommelier – or it could simply be a server who has an affinity for wine.
Make use of their skills. Just as in retail shopping, your task is to know your budget, and then to convey that information clearly. Unless you have strong likes or dislikes, the best way to order when faced with an indecipherable wine list is to give marching orders to the wine director. First, decide what to eat. Then, tell the wine director what the table will be ordering and your budget, and politely ask the sommelier to select a bottle that will go with the meal. He or she may ask you whether you have any strong preferences, or even, “Red or white?” Answer, or leave it up to the sommelier.
What Happens After You Order
In most restaurants, the sommelier will bring the unopened bottle to your table and show it to you for inspection. If you ordered it yourself, this is your opportunity to make sure it is in fact the bottle you selected. You would be surprised how often you may be given a different vintage than the one listed. If it was chosen for you, this is a chance to ask questions.
Why is the Sommelier Pouring You a Sip of Wine?
This is your chance to taste the wine for flaws, not for whether you like it (although if you strongly disliked the wine, most good restaurants would replace it; they want you to be happy). Among flaws, the most common is a corked wine, in which a small percentage of bottles are contaminated by cork taint, a chemical compound that leaves the wine smelling like soggy cardboard. If you are not sure whether the wine is flawed, feel free to ask the sommelier to taste it, too. Doing so would demonstrate strength, not weakness.
Many restaurants recognize nowadays that consumers are not always equipped to detect flaws. In better restaurants, rather than open the bottle in front of you, the wine staff may open the bottle in private and take a small sip themselves to gauge for flaws. This is a good practice, and not an attempt to swipe wine. Most likely you will still be poured a taste afterward if all is good. Feel free to ask questions about the wine.
With so many different glasses available, and so many clashing notions of what’s considered “proper,” it’s easy to fear making mistakes with wine glasses. Well, relax. Choosing wine glasses is easy.
Select an All-Purpose Glass
In recent years, many experts have come to realize that the custom of having special glasses for each sort of wine is unnecessary. Most wines taste just fine in standard wine glasses. What most people need is one set of all-purpose glasses, which will be fine for whites, reds, sparklers and any other type of wine. If you have the desire and means to add a set of exquisite wine glasses for special occasions, or for superb bottles, by all means feel free to do so.
The Rule of Thirds
A good wine glass will be vertically shaped and narrower at the rim than at the base of the bowl. This shape helps to channel aromas upward as you swirl and sniff.
Many wine lovers are in the habit of swirling their glasses. I have never seen a scientific study, but I believe it helps to activate aromas. For this reason, wine glasses should be tall enough so that they contain a decent amount of wine when filled about a third of the way, yet not so big that filling the glass a third of the way amounts to a ridiculous amount of wine. The third-of-the-way-up formula permits one to swirl without fear of sloshing over.
Stems or Stemless?
Good wine glasses have stems, which permit you to hold the glasses without transferring the heat from your hands to the wine. Sometimes wine bars will use tumblers, which are fine in informal settings with easy-drinking wines. But stemless glasses in good restaurants connote reverse snobbery, and are not in the interest of the wine.
A Zalto Universal Wine Glass
Good glasses are clear so that you can see the wine unrefracted by designs or colors. Cheaper glasses will usually be thicker, and you may feel ridges at the lip or where the stem is joined to the bowl. More expensive glasses are thinner, with no interruptions in the flow of the glass.
You can find decent glasses that will cost around $25 for a set of four. Zalto Universals, the current gold standard in all-purpose glasses, may set you back around $250 for a set of four.
Opening a Bottle
Screw caps on wine bottles? They’re simple to open. Corks? They’re slightly more complicated, but uncorking these bottles is not a problem with the right tools.
How to Open a Bottle of Still Wine
For almost all cork-enclosed bottles of still wine, you need two tools: a knife and a corkscrew. Often, they are combined in a single handy device.
If you have a Swiss Army knife, you can open a bottle of wine. But it becomes easier when you have a tool dedicated to the task. Corkscrews come in many shapes and sizes and can be a freebie at the local wine shop or be a solid, handmade tool that costs hundreds of dollars. If you plan to open a lot of bottles, you will find it enormously helpful to have the right device, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
The key element of a corkscrew is the worm, the metal spiral that grabs hold of the cork as you insert it and retains it as you extract. The worm should be nothing more than a spiral with a sharp point at the business end. It should not have a central shaft down the middle of the spiral, as you often find in cheap double-winged corkscrews in which you squeeze the arms together to pull out the cork.
A Waiter's Friend
I much prefer the inexpensive device known as the waiter’s friend or, sometimes, the wine key. It’s essentially a knifelike handle with a worm that folds into the handle and a hinged fulcrum for resistance. Ideally, for most people, the fulcrum will have a double hinge so that you can pull the cork part way out, then reset to complete the extraction. It’s simple to use with a bit of practice, it’s economical and it takes up little room.
The second important element is the knife, which you use to cut the foil that almost always encapsulates the mouth of the bottle. If you are at home or in an informal setting, simply insert the knife under the lowest part of the foil on the neck of the bottle. Take off the foil entirely and throw it away. It’s easy and you won’t risk the nasty cut you can sometimes get from a jagged edge of foil.
In a more formal situation, or if you cannot get the point of the knife under the edge of the foil, as sometimes happens, simply begin cutting the foil directly under the protruding band of glass that circles the neck of the bottle just below the opening. Cut all the way around and toss away what you’ve removed. Voilà.
How to Open a Bottle of Sparkling Wine
Champagne and most sparkling wines are bottled under pressure and must be treated differently than ordinary still wines. The pressure within the bottle can jettison a cork with enough speed to pose a physical danger, which is why Champagne corks are always held in place by wire mesh. Sparkling wines generally have thicker, heavier bottles than still wines to better withstand the pressure.
Nonetheless, opening a bottle of sparkling wine is simple with a few common-sense precautions. First, remove the foil and carefully remove the wire mesh, making certain not to point the cork toward your face, anybody else’s face or at anything breakable. Once the mesh is gone, keep your hand over the cork, pointing away. If you want to be extra careful, loosen the mesh, but leave it in place. Then proceed with the uncorking as follows.
Grip the protruding end of the cork with one hand, and the bottle with the other. You might consider a dish towel to help with the cork if you require extra friction. It helps to do this over a sink or an ice bucket in case the wine spews.
Holding the cork firmly, slowly turn the bottle back and forth to loosen the cork. Gently ease the cork out. You do not want it to pop. Rather, the opening should sound more like a sigh.
Do not, under any circumstances, try to open a bottle of sparkling wine with a corkscrew. It may cause the bottle to explode. The sole exceptions are certain sparkling wines, like petillants naturels, that are bottled at a lower pressure. These bottles will have a conventional cork, so you will know to use a corkscrew.
Talking about Wine
Few things are more intimidating to wine novices than the jargon that too often passes for knowledgeable discourse about wine. The hyperspecific words for aromas and flavors found in many tasting notes are not helpful to beginners learning about a wine.
Overly specific descriptions should be used to remind oneself of a particular wine rather than to communicate its character to others. When discussing wine, it’s often better to describe general characteristics. Here are a few words that might be useful:
DRY This is a basic but often misunderstood term. It refers to wines that have little or no residual sugar and are not sweet. This would encompass most table wines, but not all.
FRUITY Wines that taste predominantly of fruit are, naturally, fruity. Wines that are very young, or made from extremely ripe grapes tend to be dominated by fruit. As good wines age, fruitiness often evolves into a more complex flavor profile that can be reminiscent of many qualities other than fruit.
SAVORY Many wines don’t taste so much like fruit as they do other things, like herbs or spices. They may even seem salty or smoky. Collectively these wines can be said to be savory.
CRISP How can a liquid be crisp? This refers rather to an invigorating snappiness, often the product of lively acidity. Just as an apple can seem bracing or mealy when you bite into it, so can a wine seem energetic or lifeless.
TEXTURE This often underappreciated term refers to how a wine feels in the mouth. It might seem light and ethereal or heavy and viscous. A wine’s texture is often integral to its general quality.
FINISH This piece of jargon denotes the lasting impression of a wine after you swallow a sip. This aftertaste can linger in the mouth for some time, allowing you to savor it, or it can disappear. In general, a longer finish is much appreciated.
NOSE Another example of jargon, referring to how a wine smells.
Follow Your Instincts
If you are talking about wine, here are some points to keep in mind:
• Use the language that feels right for you. Do not feel you must adopt language that you have read in magazines or heard from so-called experts.
• Wine is often more an emotional experience than an academic one. So rather than recount a list of descriptive terms, think more about how a wine made you feel, especially in the context in which you were drinking it.
• Assessing your own reaction to a wine is different than evaluating its quality, and people’s tastes differ widely. Rather than argue over the merits of a particular bottle, keep in mind that people can have entirely different reactions to a bottle that might, by objective standards, be very good.
• Of course, if you enjoy arguing about wine, fire away. I prefer drinking it.
Pairing with Food
Wine’s best moments come with food. Yet the process of choosing a wine to go with a meal can be fraught with anxiety. Have no fear.
Start with Conventional Wisdom
What is the worst that can happen? You have a wine and a meal that maybe don’t go together precisely. So what? You still have food and wine. And now you have experience. You will choose a different bottle next time. This is not a mistake. This is learning. The only time to be cautious is when you have singular wines — perhaps old and fragile, or fine and expensive. In those cases you want to be extra careful to choose food that will permit the wines to be at their best.
Conventional wisdom has much to say about wine with food, and much ink has been devoted to its debunking. But if you are not experienced with pairing wine and food, the conventional wisdom is a good place to start.
You do not have to slavishly follow these guidelines. Personal preference trumps rules. Feel free to experiment as you like.
Guidelines for Beginners
• Dry white wines go beautifully with fish and shellfish. This is good but skeletal advice. Within this framework, match the richness and body of the food with the weight of the wine. That is, the crisp, straightforward white that would be great with shrimp, sardines or flounder will not be as satisfying with lobster or scallops as the richer chardonnay, and vice versa. And once you become familiar with these pairings, you’ll see that certain reds go with fish too, like pinot noir and salmon.
• Reds are great with red meat. Steaks and other rich, fatty meats can take bigger, more tannic reds, while burgers might be better with juicier reds. But it’s hard to go wrong, unless the wine is simply not very good. Would a white go with a red meat? Believe it or not, a big, dry riesling, or sometimes even a sweet auslese, can be just the thing. But I would try this only if you are feeling comfortably experimental.
• Poultry and pork can go either way, depending on the preparation and your mood.
• Pizzas and pastas with tomato sauces need a good, acidic red, which is why traditional Italian reds are a natural choice. But things can easily get complicated. With fresh tomato sauces, crisp whites might work better. And Champagne is great with pizza – where’s that in the rule book?
• Sweet wines are great with cheese. Not always great with dessert, however.
• When in doubt, think regionally. That is, choose wines from the same region as the recipe.