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Wine Snob: How to Fake it Like a Pro

| Sunday March 8, 20094 comments
Wine SnobYou're sophisticated enough to know that a proper bottle of vino is the calling card du jour, but a bit of a novice when it comes to picking out something worthy. And should you actually choose something notable, will you be up to the challenge of carrying on an intelligent conversation about it?

We asked Michael Fagan, wine 'Matchmaker' with one of the world's largest wine purchasers, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), for a few tips to help us fake it like a pro.

How to choose a good wine

“We’re easily influenced as consumers by media, fashion, and friends, so when it comes to wine many of us are insecure and don’t know if we can trust our own taste. We don’t know that we know enough about wine to be right. So many consumers will buy a label, what their friends buy, or what they read in an advertisement.

The best way to learn about wine is to taste it. When you’re tasting the wines, don’t worry too much about where it comes from, think about its characteristics and whether you like it or not. The more you familiarize yourself with different wines, the easier it is to understand where your preferences lie.”

Wines are made of fermented grape juice, and each variety of grapes has unique characteristics determined by geographical region, grower, growing conditions and time of picking. Icewine, for example, is extremely sweet because it is picked very late in the season when the grapes are frozen on the vines. The water in the grapes has frozen solid, which allows the grower to squeeze the sweetest, most concentrated liquid from the frozen grapes. Common red wine varieties are Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. White wines include Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Price versus Quality

The price of a wine is determined by the origin of the grapes. Generally speaking, wines labelled as Table wines can be made from grapes grown from anywhere within a large region such as France, whereas the grapes for a more expensive wine, come from a smaller sub region or village, or even one single vineyard. Luxury wines can be upwards of hundreds to thousands of dollars. One of the most expensive wines in the world is the 1787 Chateau Lafitte, valued at $160,000 and comes from the cellar of former US President Thomas Jefferson.

The country of origin can also influence price, Fagan explains.

“When you go to different parts of the world, their wines are diverse. You can find Cabernet Sauvignon growing almost anywhere, but when you try a Cabernet Sauvignon from California, Australia, Ontario or France – you know it’s all the same grape variety but they taste different. The reason they taste different is because of the growing conditions: the soil, the climate, and the influence of the wine maker – all of those qualities go into making the wine. And yes, some grape varieties do better in certain regions than others.”

The good news is that quality, delicious wines don't have to break the bank. Ask the knowledgeable staff at your local wine store for their recommendations.

Perfect Pairing

If you’re planning to host your own dinner party and have no idea what to serve, Michael has some suggestions to impress.

“Rule number one is always drink what you like!

When you start matching wine with food, consider the flavours of the meal first. Think about what the strongest flavours are on the plate. Usually it’s not the meat, but  rather it is the sauce or other things that are on the plate that taste stronger than the meat. Also think about the texture of the food, the spices or other elements of the dish. And what you try to do with the wine pairing, is to either match those similar characteristics or contrast them to bring out different elements. For example, a glass of champagne can contrast delightfully with a potato chip. The champagne is sharp, dry, and high in acid, whereas the potato chips are salty, oily, and crispy. The saltiness of the potato chip brings the underlying sweetness of champagne to life, while the acidic character of the champagne cuts through the oiliness to cleanse your palate and awaken your taste buds.

Many people who entertain at home will often serve a 3 or 4 course menu, but only offer one wine. What’s fun is offering a different wine with each course. It’s not like you are drinking so much more, but is about having the wine that goes with each particular course.

For white wines, one of my safe bets is Riesling because it’s very versatile. It will go with most foods and it has wide appeal. Chardonnay is kind of the Gucci grape of the 90s and it’s still very popular - the most widely planted white grape variety, made in a range of styles. For red wines, staples for me would be a Gamay or Pinot Noir because they’re lighter, fruit driven, and not overly astringent. They pair well with red or white meats and you can also serve them with many fish dishes too.

For something a little fuller to go with lamb or beef, I lean to a Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Shiraz is not bone dry; it has a perception of sweetness to it. Some of them can be made with really jammy fruit character- you almost want to butter your toast with it!

To make the meal even more interesting, why not serve a dessert wine with dessert? Icewine is a popular and deliciously sweet dessert wine. Try contrasting it with a raspberry sorbet for some sour zing, or pair it with a decadent dark chocolate torte.”

The Proper Etiquette for Wine-tasting

"The affair between wine and etiquette can influence your perception of taste. When we look at etiquette with wine, there are steps that we do when we taste it.

Start by using a glass with a stem; it allows you to swirl the wine around and keep the bowl clean from finger prints. When you’re pouring, fill the glass about 2/3 full to leave plenty of room to swirl. Follow the four S’s during every wine tasting:

Sight – Pour the wine into a crystal glass and look at it. It should be clear and brilliant.

Smell – Pick up your glass and smell the wine. Does it smell fruity or earthy? Trying to figure out what you’re smelling is a fun guessing game, and it helps develop your vocabulary for describing wine.

Sip and Swish – Take a sip of the wine and swish it around your mouth. The reason for swishing is to distinguish all flavours of the wine. You can only taste sweet, sour, salty, or bitter on certain areas of your tongue, so swish it around and taste the essence of the wine.

Spit or Swallow – You can either spit out the wine or swallow it. When you are trying several types of wine, it’s recommended to spit it out. Keep in mind, the appreciation for wine is not about the buzz from the alcohol but about the senses you experience.

Keeping up with the Wine Snobs

“There’s a whole lexicon of wine language and that is part of what scares people. They think, oh I have to know all of this and if I’m not using the right words then I’m wrong. You’re never wrong. Use the words that you’re comfortable with. It is only through sharing the experience that you’ll build up your vocabulary.”

If you still feel insecure with your lingo, start with these terms to help you sound like a wine aficionado:

Oaked: Wines that are fermented in oak barrels pick up the characteristics of the wood. The toasty and charred flavours in the wine are often described as “oaked”.

Mousseux: The French word for sparkling.

Vanillins: A tasting term used to describe the vanilla aroma and flavour nuances that wines gain from aging in oak

Breathing: When the wine is poured into a glass and left out to age. This can change the taste and aroma of the wine.

Vintage: Can refer to either the year in which a wine was made, or the growing season as a whole (e.g. it was a good vintage)

Finally, Michael suggests, “There’s a lot of history, romance, sophistication, and intimidation with wine. It’s only through experimentation with the various ranges and styles that you become more familiar and aware of what you like.”

Michael was kind enough to provide us with a Beginner's Wine Tasting Guide with suggested wines from all over the world.  Take a peek!

Are you a Wine Snob? Share your tips with us!

by Jacqueline To
More on Entertaining

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1 Comment

on March 09, 2009  Ali de Bold  STAFF said:

Great article, Jacqueline! And thank you so much to Michael Fagan. I really enjoyed reading this!

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