So, you want to feel fancy and enjoy a glass of wine AND know how to talk about it. No problem! How to be a Wine Snob will walk you through all the various aspects and fundamentals of tasting and evaluating wine. The main goal is to demystify wine and make it enjoyable and fun for everyone while helping you figure out how to talk about and understand what YOU like.
Editor's Note: Other reader-submitted names considered for our How to be a Wine Snob series, i.e. Wine 101, included How to Not Drink Wine Like a Noob and How to Not be the Guy Drinking from a Box of Franzia. We loved them all. Enjoy!
Before we get started, there are several absolutely basic terms to know before getting to the good stuff: Varietal, Vintage, Nose, Palate, and Mouth Feel.
- Varietal is the type or variety of grape; Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, etch are names of specific grape types, i.e. varietals.
- Vintage is the year the grapes were grown, not the year the wine was released. Young vintages are more recent years; old vintages less recent.
- Nose refers to the way the wine smells when you put your nose to the glass, a key component of the overall drinking experience.
- Palate refers to the tastes you experience as you drink the wine (think about this as we discuss the tasting terms below).
- Mouth Feel literally refers to the way the wine feels in your mouth, i.e. is it more or less tannic, does it feel big in your mouth?
There are five major terms that you will hear any wine snob discussing when considering a glass of wine.
A wine is considered sweet based on its actual residual sugar content after fermentation. To be real, sweetness is often also dependent on the eye of the beholder, or in this case the palate of the wine snob. Some wine drinkers love sweetness in a wine, while others would prefer the opposite: a dry wine. Wine can be made on a vast spectrum of sweet to dry, with some varietals, such as Riesling (expect a future post all about that), are able to encompass various places on that spectrum. The sweetest wines are typically dessert style wines such as ice wine that are also high in alcohol. The driest wines are often barrel aged, but not always. If you do not like oaky (wood) flavors in your wine, look for styles made in stainless steel.
Some places to get started:
- Classic sweet-er varietals: Moscato, Gewurtzraminer, Riesling, White Zinfandel
- Classic dry-er varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Understanding acidity requires you to grab a glass of wine and experiment. Acidity is an important factor in the overall balance in a wine. Wines get their acidity from the grapes themselves, as well as the winemaking. Wines made from grapes grown in cooler climates typically have more acidity than those made from grapes grown in hotter regions.
A test for acidity in wine: take a sip of your favorite wine. After swallowing- tilt your head forward slightly. Do you feel any saliva filling your mouth and rushing to your lips? (yes, i know that is gross….. roll with me here.) That saliva is created by the acidity in your wine. The more acidity, the more saliva.
But Liz, why do I care about acidity?!?!
Higher acid wines, pair better with food! More on this later, but just keep that one in your backpocket for now.
So- what happens if you find a wine that has too much acidity?? It probably lacks body. Keep reading to hear more about that.
Many people I do wine tastings with will tell me certain types of wine give them headaches, and they usually blame it on sulfites or tannins. Well, I cannot speak for most of you out there, but what is giving you the headache is most likely neither. It is usually caused by dehydration from drinking. Some wines, especially some types of reds, are high in alcohol as much as 17 or 18 percent. Remember to drink responsibly and have plenty of water to ward off headaches.
So what is tannin?
Tannins are a component found in the skin of the grape itself. Red wine is made by crushing the grapes, therefore some of the skin is left behind in the juice as the wine ferments. The skins are what provide the red color as well as certain pucker or drying sensation in the wine, also known as mouthfeel.
Many of us have over-steeped a cup of tea, and then found the result to be less than palatable because it gave the sensation that your mouth was dried out. The same sensation is caused by the tannin in wine. IF you feel like a wine tastes bitter or astringent, that is caused by tannins in the wine.
Tannins (to some degree) are almost always found in red wines... the more tannin, the drier the wine. Some reds are more tannin heavy than others. Whites that have been barrel aged for extensive periods may also have some tannic qualities.
Have you ever read a tasting note or a description of wine that mentions different fruits such as grapefruit, watermelon, cherry, granny smith apple or raspberry? Well with the exception of fruit wines (wine actually made from or with the fruit in question), those fruits are not actually in the wine itself (i.e. the wine we are talking about is always wine made from grapes). A true wine snob knows that different grapes evoke different types of flavors. For example, Chardonnay often has notes of apple or pear while wines like Gamay and Sangiovese have flavors of cherry or raspberry.
Finally the big kahuna: BODY! The body of the wine is the way in which everything works together! Ever have a wine that just felt big in your mouth? That wine could be described as having more body than other wines. More complex wines that have a balance of alcohol to acidity while maintaining a nice amount of fruit and tannin on the palate will have a full body. Wines have less body if they do not have as extreme sensations: more simply they are what I call “drinking wines”. These wines go down easy and do not linger in your mouth.
Phew, that was enough for one day. Later we will learn how to use some of these terms and evaluate a wine through a proper tasting. Until then, go out and start drinking some wine. The only way to learn more about wine is to drink more wine! Get some friends together and have everyone bring over some bottles and try to describe them!