Hello, readers of The Gourmand & The Peasant! Emily and I have been coworkers and buddies for years, and I’ve been a silent lurker on her blog from almost as long, so I couldn’t have been more thrilled when she asked me to start writing regular wine posts on G&P! There are a million and a half things I want to talk about here (and we’ll get to all of that eventually), but, more than anything, I want to get you drinking right away. As such, let’s talk about how to get you the exact bottle that you’re looking for the next time you walk into a wine shop, or consult a restaurant wine list.
Finding the Wine You Want to Drink
Whether you’re well-versed in wine or not, you’ve probably been exposed to the overly-complicated, flowery (ahem…ridiculous) language folks tend to use when attempting to describe what’s in their glass. Asking a salesperson for a white that’s ‘reminiscent of wet rocks in a river’, or ‘redolent of freshly-picked green apples and sage’ (these are actual wine descriptors pulled from the website of one of America’s most popular wines), isn’t going to do much to get you the bottle you’re looking for in real life. The problem is we all have memories and individual life experiences that lead us to taste what we taste and like what we like. Depending on where we grew up, the types of foods we generally eat, and how tuned in to our sense of smell and taste we are, we can each have completely different experiences with the very same wine. For example, I, having grown up in New Jersey farm country, always seem to pick up a wine’s ‘grassy’ notes, or those that smell like fresh things from the garden such as green bell pepper or herbs. I also zero right in on those particularly interesting notes that we wine nerds colorfully refer to as ‘barnyard’ (sexy, right? but if we’re going to be spending lots of time together, these are things you should know about me). On the flip side, my friend the pastry chef always seems to pick up on a wine’s chocolaty notes, or those that remind him of overripe, baked, jammy fruit. Where we spent our formative tasting years says a lot about how we’ll experience every wine we approach for the rest of our lives. This isn’t a huge problem, per se, until we start to try to communicate to one another to get the wine we want. My grassy and lean, might be his ripe and rich….the language simply isn’t universal.
The good news is, there are a few wine descriptors that actually do mean the same thing to everyone – and those are what you should be using to order your wine.
Like Pinot Grigio, or Sauvignon Blanc but want to try something new? You should be asking for a light to medium bodied white wine with a strong backbone of acidity and no oak. Like a ripe, fruity Chardonnay with tons of buttery vanilla notes? Ask for a wine with soft acidity and plenty of oak. Both oak and acidity are notes that we all seem to sense in pretty much the same way. We’ve all had wines that are searingly acidity – so much so that they’re perfect refresher on a warm day, or the ideal accompaniment to a simple seafood dish (they work just like a squeeze of lemon on your fish), but are decidedly pucker-inducing. If those wines call to you in the night, ask your Sommelier for high-acid whites and you won’t be disappointed. If those wines are just a bit too tart for you, ask for a wine with medium acidity. Like something a bit easier on the palate? Ask for low-acid whites. By the way, Red wines have the very same acidity scale (think old school Burgundy vs. new world Zinfandel) so think about what you like, and ask accordingly.
Onward to the subject of oak. Whether you know it or not, you recognize the taste and aroma of oak in wine. It’s just about the only influence on flavor that can make a wine seem creamy and buttery, with notes of toasted nuts and of all the delicious spices you would use to bake a gingerbread cookie. And if you really, truly believe you don’t recognize this flavor, don’t worry – it’s the easiest to component to pick up. To conduct an at-home comparative tasting experiment (one of my very favorite things to do…by now you’ve accepted the fact that I’m a stone cold nerd) just get yourself a bottle of Chablis and a bottle of traditionally made California Chardonnay (I recommend St. Francis or Ferrari Carano) but you could certainly just ask the folks at your local wine shop for something distinctively oaky. Uncork each bottle, grab two wine glasses that are big enough to give you plenty of room to swirl and pour yourself a bit of each wine. Start by smelling the Chablis. It could smell like many things to you, but generally the Chardonnay grape will remind you of fresh apples and pears, so see if you can pick those notes out. You might get a little bit of a smoky note, perhaps something that reminds you of oyster shells (winos refer to that as minerality, it comes from the soil), but it won’t be terribly aromatic. Now smell the oaky Cali Chardonnay. See the difference? Same exact grape, people! While the apples and pears should still be there, now that oak has been brought to the party, the wine *also* smells like buttered popcorn, toast and vanilla – none of which were present in the Chablis. Now you know what oak smells like! So if you hate that smell and flavor in your wine, ask for an unoaked wine (winemakers age all sorts of grapes in oak, not just Chardonnay). If you’re in the mood for just a hint of vanilla and spice, ask for a lightly oaked wine. If oak is your thing, go ahead and ask for lots of it!
Wines are made in a variety of styles specifically to accommodate every palate and preference. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface here, but I hope I’ve gotten you a few steps closer to finding your perfect bottle (without having to bring up wet stones or barnyard). See you on March 22nd!
Hey all! I hope you liked reading Kimberly’s post. She’s an amazing encyclopedia of wine knowledge and is funky, funny and geeky in perfect proportions! I think she fits right in here at the G & the P. Show her some love with a comment or ask a question you’d love for her to take on. Wondering what to drink with that Corned Beef that’s percolating away in your fridge? Have you heard folks use a descriptor for a wine you were drinking and had no idea what they were talking about? (Corked? Oxidized? Orange?) She’s your lady! Lots more posts will follow and we’d love to hear your ideas. Peas! ~Emily