How to navigate a wine list & choose a wine that you'll love.
I wrote an article in House & Garden (Feb 2018) about Extreme Wine, a 5-day intensive wine course at La Verriére in France. Before I did the course I’d stare gaping at a wine list, searching for a single recognizable word. Now that I’ve managed to claw my way to a real certificate (the WSET Level 2 Award, woohoo!) I’m no connoisseur, but I do have the tools to talk to a sommelier…and look them in the eye.
Nicole Rolet runs Extreme Wine and owns La Verriére and its vineyard Chêne Bleu. I asked her to try to decode wine for Storytellhers, and give us a method of choosing wines off a wine list so that what we choose, we actually like.
Top wine people - sommeliers or masters of wine - are so passionate about what they do that they sometimes forget what it’s like to be an inexperienced consumer. Perhaps you appreciate the difference between "Bad" and "Good" wine, but don’t understand why some experts call certain wines “Great”?
Fine wine can be a bit like contemporary art. Because so much modern art is about intent, it’s hard to grasp the full meaning of what you’re looking at until somebody tells you more about it.
It’s similar in the wine world. By the time you get to fine wine, it usually tastes good and has no faults, but much of what you’re enjoying comes from what someone needs to tell you.
You can try amazing wines until the cows come home, but you may feel like a dog outside a steakhouse unless you’ve learned more about what to look for in a wine. Like how rare that bottle is (very few produced or very few left) or why the winemaker was inspired by that particular vintage to make that particular style.
Should you try to remember names of wines you like? Good luck!
There are at least 350,000 wineries in the world (72,000 wineries in France alone) and approximately 4 million wines to choose from (let alone different vintages of the same wine.) As a customer, if you use 20 category filters of your choice – price, grape type, region, how many points they have – there might still be 2000 wines or more that would fit your bill.
I’d suggest making a file in your phone to jot down wines you like, also noting the region and grape type.
As a rule of thumb, it's great to get into the habit of sniffing a wine before you taste it, and then again every so often. 60 or 70% of the "information" about the style of a wine comes from the aroma rather than the taste, so in theory you should spend two-thirds of your time smelling it in order to get the full experience.
So, you’re presented with a wine list. How do you choose?
Know yourself. This is something that’s hard to improvise when you’re already in the restaurant with the list in your hand, hungry and eager to talk to your friends. Go into a restaurant with a bit of self-awareness about where your biases lie. Here are some things to think about:
What are you most driven by?
- Taste. Is flavour your top consideration? For example, do you like it a bit sweet or bone dry?
- Pairing. Do you care about whether it suits what you’re about to eat? Or does it just need to taste good on its own?
- Grape Type. Have you noticed that you tend to like a certain grape (say, Cabernet, or Grenache)? If so, it’s useful to know a few different places it’s produced in (ie Cabernet tends to be the main grape used in Bordeaux, Napa Valley and Australia’s Margaret River. Grenache is associated typically with the Southern Rhone (like Chateauneuf), Spain's Priorat, Australia's Basra and McLaren Vale.)
Consider your ideology.
- Organic. Perhaps you worry about ingesting chemicals because you don’t want a headache the next day? Or maybe you’re allergic to sulfites – they’re a common allergen like nuts, and organic and boutique wineries tend to use much lower doses.
- Biodynamic. Are you concerned about the planet and whether it's been damaged in some way by the production of that wine? Then sustainable and biodynamic viticulture is probably important to you. More and more producers are recognising their responsibilities in this area, and hopefully consumers will support them.
- ‘Fair trade’. There is no such thing as fair trade labelling in the wine world, but small wineries often find it hard to make ends meet as they don't have economies of scale, and often don't have as much leverage with their importers or distributors. Are you swayed by sob stories or do you like to support struggling independent artisans with dirt under their nails?
- Exclusivity. Are you drawn to things that are posh, prestigious, scarce, and collectible - something that’s likely to impress?
- Originality. Are you curious about wines made in some unusual or experimental way? Fermented in hand-blown glass containers instead of steel tanks? Produced at the highest altitude where oxygen is scarce?
- Celebrity. Are you influenced by the celebrity factor? What if a famous person you're a fan of has produced the wine?
- Season – Are you sensitive to the environment of where you're drinking the wine? Like the ambience of the restaurant, or the weather? If it’s hot and sunny you might want something light and refreshing – rosés or crisp whites. Or if its winter, you’re probably reaching for the richer reds.
If you’re choosing white wine, what flavour profiles appeal to you?
- Citrus, tangy & sour (many people find a sour taste refreshing)
- Ripe white fruits (think peaches and melons)
- Herbaceous & fresh cut grass
- Mellow and buttery
- Saline & mineral undertones that give it "bite"
If you’re choosing red wine, what flavour profiles appeal to you?
- Very fruity (typically red fruits and/or dark fruits) versus more subtle, slightly vegetal notes (i.e. olives, red peppers)
- Oakey (which refers to rich flavours and smells from ageing the wine the oak barrels, such as vanilla, buttered toast, warm spice) versus leaner, cleaner smells
- Sour/tart/refreshing versus softer/smoother?
- Tannins (how do you like your tea? Do you like it if it’s been steeped a lot? Then you’ll probably like tannic wines)
- Spicy/ peppery
- Rich/full body versus a lighter texture
Of course, many experts would argue that the best wines are the ones that have a great balance between flavours and smells: none overwhelms another.
Decode the wine list. Navigating a wine list is like walking into somebody else’s filing cabinet to find a piece of paper and trying to work out what method they’ve used. There’s crazy complexity inside the wine world and the sommelier has had to find his/her own subjective method to manage the madness. Just the fact that most new world wines are organized by grape type and most old world wines are sorted by region means that many wine lists change methods half way through the list.
Now: it's time to ask a sommelier. All the questions you’ve just asked yourself about your preferences are the key to pointing a sommelier in the right direction and helping them find a wine that you like. They don't care how much you know, they care how much you care (and of course need to know how much you're willing to spend). So, once you give them a few pointers about your preferences, they're excited to zero in on some options at different price points that you might love. A toast to your wine tasting adventures!