Written by Samara Tapp
Wine: Love it, hate it—you will most likely encounter it at some stage. Whether on a date, at your new partner’s parents’ house or accompanied by a van and a floppy hat for your friend’s birthday. Drinking wine is riddled with customs and conventions that are a bit tricky to navigate; however, a few small tips and you can talk with authority to a sommelier at a degustation dinner.
- Sample like a pro.
Before the wine even hits your lips, there are a few steps to go through.
● Swirl: Aerate the wine first, helping release aromas and enhancing flavour (try not to send it over the edge though).
● Sniff: Insert nose into glass and inhale, then try each nostril—they will pick up different things; it’s amazing how this enhances the wine flavour.
● Tilt: Put the glass on its side, examine the colour and straighten the glass. This lets you view the alcohol content of the wine. There will be a clear film left over. If it slides down the glass quickly, it is low alcohol and if it’s slow, it’s high alcohol content.
● Sip: But leave the wine in your mouth, pucker your lips into a duck face and inhale. This will aerate the wine in your mouth and give you even more access to flavour.
- Learn the lingo.
Usually after sampling wine, people expect you to comment on it. Here are some common phrases to help you appear knowledgeable:
● Oaked: If the wine has a creamy, buttery, or vanilla taste to it, chances are it has spent some time in an oak barrel. Those characteristics come out the more time the wine spends on oak and depends on the barrel. Commonly oaked wines are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
● Tannins: Often hear people comment on the tannins in wine but don’t know what it means? Tannins naturally occur in plants and are used to prevent animals from eating the fruit before it is ripe as they create a bitter taste in your mouth. Someone saying wine has a lot of tannin means it has an astringent taste. It could also mean the wine is young: tannins tend to soften over time. Your heavy Reds—e.g. Shiraz—are most likely to have tannins.
● Raspberry, Cherries, and Passionfruit: Often, people will use fruit flavours describing wines. Other descriptors include smoky, earthy, and peppery. Those flavours have not been added to the wine; the wine maker has used a technique, like an oak barrel, grape stems, or skins to extract those flavours from the grape. Too often, wine newbies mistakenly think a Shiraz is blended with strawberries! (Fruit wines, anyone?)
- Do not sample screw cap bottles.
You’re at a restaurant, on a date and order a bottle of wine; the server brings it over and presents it to you. The server then unscrews the cap, pours a splash for you to try, you sip it and smile at them. ‘That’s a nice drop’, you say and signal for them to pour a glass for you and your date. You have just identified yourself as a wine novice and your server (and your date, depending on their wine knowledge) think you’re a bit of an idiot.
At a restaurant, the wine is brought to you to sample in case it is off. This only happens if the wine is corked and has oxidised. If you are having a $200 bottle of wine uncorked for you, generally, the restaurant doesn’t care if you like the wine. They will however care if the bottle is off (because then they can send it back to the supplier). Today, screw caps are more common. Tasting is merely a ritual. Sniff the wine if you must—enough to tell if it’s off anyway—but the best thing to do is stop the server and say ‘that’s fine, thanks’ when a screw top is involved. Impressive to everyone.
- Drink AOC wines.
Sadly, I’m not talking wines made by queen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (although I’m positive she would make brilliant wines). AOC refers to appellation d’origine contrôlée (French) or Denominazione di origine controllata (Italian).
You’re headed to meet your new boyfriend’s friends at a BYO restaurant and want to make a good impression. He tells you they only drink red wine but gives no more specifics (men). You stare at the shelves with fewer clues than ScoMo during the bushfires and a tight budget. Enter AOC wines. AOC means the wine has undergone quality assurance before being sold. Europeans countries do this to ensure the wine accurately represents the area it’s from and maintains the reputation created over 500+ years. To gain a DOC/AOC sticker, a strict and ancient set of instructions has been followed to create a wine. Chianti with a DOC sticker is legally required to be good quality. When in doubt, head to the international section, check for the sticker or the letters DOC/AOC and pick a colour. Google the pronunciation of Tempranillo on the way.
- Do not call it Champagne unless it is.
One of the most common faux pas wine drinkers make is calling Sparkling Wine ‘Champagne’. In France, wines are named after regions, e.g. Champagne, Chablis, and Burgundy. In Australia, wines are named after the grape they are made from, e.g. Chardonnay is made from Chardonnay grapes. Exception to this rule: Sparkling. Sparkling Wine is traditionally made from the grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. To be ‘Champagne’, the grape must be grown in the region of Champagne and adhere to certain rules. These include when the grape is picked, the ageing process, the use of certain barrels and the yeast that is added. It is illegal to label a bottle ‘Champagne’ if it has not met these conditions. If you ignore everything else, heed this tip. Too many times in my restaurant days, I had to explain to patrons why their European waiter brought them a bottle of $150 Champagne when they thought they were ordering the $55 of Sparkling. Nothing like having to pay an extra $200 dollars due to ignorance.
If you want to do more self-learning, Wine Folly, or Everything Happens for a Riesling by Grace de Morgan are great resources to familiarise yourself with. In no time at all, you will be rolling your eyes at your relatives who call their bottle of Jacob’s Creek Sparkling ‘Champers’.
Samara has a Bachelor’s Degree in Literary Studies that she mainly uses to berate people about the Western Canon. She fits this in between getting her Masters in Writing and Literature, selling wine, and hanging out with her Border Collie Archie.