Wine lovers' survival guide
Illustration: Matt Golding.
AS THE STORY GOES, Hollywood actor Cameron Diaz was visiting a prominent inner-city restaurant in 2006, where the sommelier was trying to indoctrinate her in the attributes of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It's one of France's wine hot spots with one of the more interesting backstories, but Diaz was having none of it, Fairfax Media reported: ''Just give me the juice, baby,'' she brazenly told the (no doubt enthralled) sommelier.
You have to respect her chutzpah. Just like that – pop! – the vapour surrounding the often awkward business of choosing and ordering wine banished. It's true that an individual unaccompanied by a cloud of Hollywood stardust might be a little more backward in coming forward about their wine ignorance. Like religion, anyone not brought up in the vinous fold might find its rituals arcane going on terrifying, turning what should be a simple process of ordering wine in a restaurant into a nail-biting public performance.
And that's why we've prepared this guide to being a better drinker for you. Sure, if you want them to just bring you the juice, baby, don't bother reading on. But if you want to be more confident, this one's for you.
Illustration: Matt Golding.
1. How to taste wine better
Swirl, sniff, slurp: is it really necessary to put on the theatrics when tasting wine? You certainly don't have to treat it in the noisy sluicing mouthwash fashion of some professional tasters; however, the smell (''bouquet'', in wine-speak) is an integral part of the experience. The swirl, performed holding the glass by the stem (try not to hold by the bowl – body warmth will heat the wine), is designed to aerate the wine and release the vapours. If you're feeling really confident, once you've taken a sip you might try gently pursing your lips while slurping air, a tactic designed to heighten flavour in the mouth. Think of Anthony Hopkins in the famous ''fava beans and a nice chianti'' scene in The Silence of the Lambs – yes,like that. Be prepared for the derision of your companions.
THE FLAVOURS OF THE GRAPE
For a great way to open your senses to the flavours and aromas defining the main wine types, try this at home: pour a glass of, say, riesling, knowing that the most often-found flavours and aromas in this wine are apples, lemon, lime and tropical fruit. Put cut-up apple, citrus and tropical fruits in little bowls. Smell and taste the fruit, smell and taste the wine. You'll get the picture.
Illustration: Matt Golding.
■ Riesling = apple, lemon, lime, tropical fruit.
■ Sauvignon blanc = asparagus, grass, capsicum, tomato bush, tropical fruit.
■ Chardonnay = grapefruit, apple, citrus, pear, melon, fig.
Illustration: Matt Golding.
■ Pinot noir = violets, raspberry, red and black cherry, strawberry, plum, rhubarb.
■ Shiraz = herbs, plum, pepper, blackberry, cinnamon, liquorice.
■ Cabernet sauvignon = herbs, capsicum, earth, black olive, blackcurrant.
Illustration: Matt Golding.
(NB: These are common descriptors but by no means the only descriptors. Bottle ageing and oak maturation descriptors are not included.)
OTHER QUALITIES TO LOOK FOR IN WINE
■ Body: The weight and fullness of a wine in the mouth: thin, light, lean, medium weight, bold, heavy, rich, robust.
■ Acidity: Preserves a wine's freshness. The backbone of manywhite wines: fresh, crisp, racy, sharp, sour.
■ Tannin: Sourced from the grape and the barrel; preserves wine and provides structure. The backbone of many red wines: fine, light, soft, smooth, dusty, puckering, stalky.
■ Structure: The wine's frame on which everything sits: round, angular, austere, big, solid, heavy, elegant, finessed.
■ Complexity: The ability to hold your interest: plain, simple, uncomplicated, undeveloped, intricate, refined, sophisticated.
2. Branch out
It's time to step away from the Oyster Bay sauv blanc. Right now. Yes, we know local sales of New Zealand sauv blanc have gone through the roof, accounting for 17 of the varietal's top-20-selling labels, according to Wine Australia. However, the tide appears to be turning. The rate of growth of sauv blanc sales in Australia is slowing from a high of 42 per cent in 2008 to 10 per cent in 2012.
Be prepared to follow the lead of chardonnay lovers who kept the faith when the wine became the butt of jokes thanks to the over-oaked abominations fashionable in the 1990s. That is, don't be led by fashion – be led by what you truly like.
A greater diversity of wines than ever is available in Australia. So what to choose? Pinot gris and pinot grigio are taking off in popularity; vermentino and gruner veltliner are cool in more ways than one; and tempranillo is a big new name in reds. Start with the major grapes, learn what you like and branch out from there.
You enjoy a riesling, so try a gruner veltliner; pinot noir floats your boat, so try a nice middleweight grenache.
EXPLORING THE POSSIBILITIES
■ If you like riesling ... try classic Hunter Valley semillon (it's all about acid).
■ If you like chardonnay ... try McLaren Vale chenin blanc, pinot gris, viognier, gruner veltliner (it's all about generosity).
■ If you like sauvignon blanc ... try pinot grigio, Italian verdicchio or Soave (it's all about being crisp and brisk).
■ If you like pinot noir ... try gamay, merlot (it's all about softness).
■ If you like shiraz ... try durif, sangiovese, grenache (it's all about fullness of the flavour).
■ If you like cabernet sauvignon ... try nebbiolo, tempranillo (it's all about structure).
3. How to read a label
Some fundamentals you need to know before venturing to your local bottle shop. A varietal is a wine made entirely from one grape variety. Here in Australia and the rest of wine's new world (the US, Latin America, South Africa), the grape will be displayed prominently on the label. Wine labels from the old world (Europe), however, traditionally display the region in which they are made rather than the grape – hence, Burgundy is synonymous with pinot noir.
A blend is a wine made from more than one varietal, such as a semillon-sauvignon blanc or shiraz-viognier.
The vintage is the year in which the grapes were harvested, an important piece of information as wines can vary greatly from year to year based on weather and other growing conditions. Champagne or sparkling, conversely, is typically non-vintage.
Alcohol content is always noted as well – reds will usually have a higher alcohol content than whites. Why? It relates to the sugar content of the grape – reds are typically picked at a riper stage than whites.
And, before we move on, it might also be useful to know that what we refer to as shiraz is elsewhere commonly called syrah.
SPEAK THE LANGUAGE ... KNOW YOUR FRENCH WINE REGIONS
■ Alsace: Riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, pinot blanc grapes.
■ Bordeaux: Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, semillion, sauvignon blanc grapes.
■ Burgundy: Chardonnay (including chablis), pinot noir grapes.
■ Champagne: Chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier grapes.
■ Northern Rhone: Shiraz, marsanne, roussanne, viognier grapes.
■ Southern Rhone: Grenache, carignan, cinsaut, shiraz, mourvedre grapes.
4. How to order wine
The sommelier will be that person with the grape badge stuck to their lapel, or at the newer, looser style of restaurant, the waiter wearing an apron that says ''the Wine Guy'' (it certainly takes the guesswork out of the process). A good sommelier has ''humanity, humility and humour'', says the wine director for Guillaume Brahimi's group of restaurants, Chris Morrison: ''The great sommeliers don't release a torrent of information to bamboozle the customer, just a cup.''
If you are not sure which wine to choose to go with your meal, be bold – ask for the sommelier. He or she should follow up a conversation about the food you have ordered by asking about your budget. Put them to the test: ask for recommendations from a few different regions. Remember what you've enjoyed before and ask for something similar.
Common to popular belief, the tasting ritual – whoever ordered the wine will be given a small pour to approve – isn't done to check if you like the wine. The diner is simply checking for taint. If there's nothing wrong with it, you're obliged to pay for it. Don't worry about performance pressure: it doesn't matter if you don't detect it until part-way into the bottle, although a simple sniff can often reveal problems such as oxidisation (think of it as stale wine; it will smell something like sherry), sulfur (really offensively stinky) or cork taint (it smells musty and dank: ''wet newspaper'' is a common descriptor). A cork is a rare thing these days now that 85 per cent of wine sold in Australia is under screw cap. It reminds us of the sommeliers' joke: ''It's not corked, but it's definitely screwed.''
SPOT THE FAULT
■ Cork taint: Mouldy smell.
■ Hydrogen sulphide: Rotten egg smell.
■ Oxidation: Dull, advanced colour, dull palate, sherry-like.
■ Mercaptan: Rubber, onion smell.
■ Sulphur dioxide: Burnt match, prickle/sting on nose.
■ Volatile acidity: Nail-polish remover, vinegar.
5. How to match with food
Otherwise known as ''the gospel''. White wine and seafood; red meat and a hearty shiraz. Sure, sure, but what about the old red wine and cheese rule, now debunked in favour of the acidity of white wine. Bugger the dogma. It's far more acceptable these days to try previously heretical matches. Don't worry so much about the colour of the wine: the key principle of pairing is to match the body – the sense of weight or viscosity the wine leaves in your mouth – with the ''weight'' of the dish. Pairings become classic because they work so well: duck and pinot, or shellfish and riesling. But if you want to bust out a move such as seared tuna with sangiovese, go for it. If you think it tastes good, it's a good match.
Champagne (or sparkling wine) can be a great go-to move for a tricky one such as sushi. It's OK to break a few rules. If your sommelier dares to sneer, find a new sommelier.
10 FOOD AND WINE MATCHES
■ Asparagus and cheese risotto — chardonnay or Frascati (traditional); dolcetto, cabernet franc (non-traditional).
■ Mussels — chardonnay or rose (trad); marsanne or riesling (non-trad).
■ Tempura — sake (trad); fino sherry (non-trad).
■ Creamy chicken pie — chardonnay (trad); viognier (non-trad).
■ Braised quail — cabernet franc or pinot noir (trad); aged riesling or sparkling pinot (non-trad).
■ Roast venison with wild mushrooms — Barolo nebbiolo (trad); vintage port (non-trad).
■ Barbecue duck breast — pinot noir (trad); gewurztraminer (non-trad).
■ Barbecue leg of lamb — shiraz (trad); sparkling red (non-trad).
■ Chocolate mousse — German spatlese riesling (trad); Rutherglen muscat (non-trad).
■ Souffle — botrytis riesling or Sauternes (trad); sparkling wine or champagne (non-trad).
6. How to read a wine list
Bigger isn't necessarily better. A wine list can be a haiku, a short story, novella or novel, and one doesn't necessarily have the jump on the other (yes, it's what's inside that counts). The wine list is the profit engine of a restaurant and is commonly divided into three nominal sections: cheap (a relative term – these often carry the biggest profit margin), middle tier and out there. A normal rule of thumb is to expect a 150 per cent to 200 per cent mark-up in a restaurant – less at the higher end of the list, often making the middle to more expensive wines better in terms of value. A wine list is built like a menu, with lightest and freshest through to heaviest and richest, so at the simplest level look at where you are on the menu and go to the corresponding part of the wine list.
Modernity is on your side: more and more lists are ditching the old varietal headings and opting for divisions based on palate weight, such as ''light, floral and fragrant'', ''medium-bodied and textural''. Wine storage technology means wines can be kept longer after being opened; wines by the glass give a snapshot of a restaurant's wine philosophy and are dead handy for the novice to take an overview. Undecided? Ask to have a small taste of any wine offered by the glass.
The ascendancy of more obscure European varietals – the lesser-known Italians are pretty big right now – can help cloak ambitious mark-ups. The profit margin police might want to jump on websites such as winerobot.com.au, which compares retail prices.
HOW TO JUDGE A WINE LIST
■ Content: A good list offers plenty of wines by the glass, mixes older and younger vintages, and offers wines from regions suited to the styles as well as some innovative suggestions.
■ Balance: A good list offers expensive and inexpensive wines, different grape varieties and styles, local and imported, old and new wine names.
■ Suitability: A good list suits the cuisine being served. Light- and medium-bodied wines should dominate for Asian-style and seafood restaurants, heavier reds for meat eateries, Italian trattorias should offer Italian grapes or wines, French bistros should offer French grapes or wines, etc.
■ Presentation: Are vintages included? Are regions noted? Is the list clear in design and layout? Is it too big? All of these things help a drinker navigate a wine list. The biggest list isn't always the best. Keep an eye out for wines by the glass that have been opened for more than one day. They will taste flat and dull, and should be rejected.
■ Pricing: Value for money is always appreciated. Restaurants in the city and popular spots such as those with a waterfront view tend to have higher mark-ups, so beware. Note the size of the wine served by the glass. The average size is 150 millitres, which gives about five glasses to the bottle. Is the price by the glass more expensive than its bottle price? Wines by the glass can sometimes be more expensive than they should be.
And finally ... Wine is a weird fusion of art and science, with highfalutin rhetoric thrown in for good measure. When quality is judged by taste, experience counts for everything. Make friends with a specialised retailer offering informed, personalised service. Sticking to the sub-$20 bracket at the bottleshop is a good idea while you work out what you like.
And remember: drinking better isn't about impressing anyone or becoming the next uber-critic such as Robert Parker and insuring your nose for a million dollars. It's simply about your enjoyment. Bottoms up.