If you’re headed to a party this season, chances are you’ll either be tasked with bringing a bottle of wine to contribute or asked whether you’d like some wine when you’re there. Perhaps you’ll ask for a beer or a glass of sparkling water instead, or maybe you’ve got some great hostess gift that isn’t alcoholic up your sleeve, but the point remains, wine is usually a part of our festive experience. Which makes it even more intimidating when you don’t know much about it.
If your wine knowledge hinges on knowing whether or not you like it and that you can definitely distinguish between red, white and rosé, you may feel ill-equipped to make any vino decisions—not when it comes to drinking and certainly not when it comes to buying. But, as with most things, wine comes down to preference, so once you figure out what you like, it’s easier to learn the lingo and make some educated guesses about what to grab on your next LCBO run or what to gift at your next party.
We asked Heather McDougall, sommelier of Montecito Restaurant (which also just opened a new wine bar, By The Glass) for some tips on navigating the world of wine.
“Wine is complex, but it’s important not to feel intimidated,” says McDougall, “the biggest challenge is learning the language you need to describe what you like.”While terms like oaky, dry and sparkling might not mean much to you, using them to describe what you like makes all the difference when you’re talking to an LCBO employee or a sommelier when ordering.
Weight and Body (Full, Light)
When people talk about weight or body of a wine, these are often descriptors of intensity. Terms like light or full are usually dropped. If you’re still stuck, “think of the difference between skim milk and whipping cream,” says McDougall. When deciding whether to go for a light or full wine, McDougall recommends letting your food be the guide. Lighters foods (think seafood) call for lighter wines, whereas heavier foods (like roast beef) need something fuller.
Structure (Structured, Luscious)
When winos talk about structure, they’re actually referring to some pretty technical aspects of the wine. “A more structured wine will have more acid, more tannin and usually less alcohol,” says McDougall, whereas, “a more luscious wine will have lower acidity, softer tannins and higher alcohol.” Tannin is an attribute that usually comes across as bitterness when drinking wine. What does that mean for you, the wine newbie? Structured wines are usually paired with food and luscious wines stand on their own, so pick according to your plans.
Fruit (Fruity, Savoury, Dry, Earthy)
All wine has some element of fruit (you learn in wine 101 that it’s made from grapes). But not everyone prefers a fruity wine, and that’s where terms like savoury and dry come in. Dry tends to refer to a wine with less sweetness. McDougall notes that fruitier wines tend to come from warmer climates while savoury wines are from cooler climates, so you can start by narrowing down the origin country if you’re looking for something specific. If you know you like something sweeter, look for descriptors that reference sweeter fruits like cherry or berries. For earthier options look for notes like clove and spice.
Take The Time to Decide What You Like
As soon as I started drinking wine, I knew I preferred red to white and dry to sweet. But that’s all I knew. Turns out, that’s sort of enough at the beginning. Even if you only know one grape or region you like. For me, I almost always turn to a Malbec (usually a dry, full-bodied red) when I’m tasked with picking a wine because in a sea of question marks, I’m fairly confident I’ll enjoy it. McDougall’s tip? Start simple and pay attention. “Pick two grapes, one red, one white, and drink them for a month or two,” says McDougall. This will help refine what you really like, and learn more about that specific grape. Learning what you like and dislike in the wine world—even if you only know one of two grapes you enjoy for sure—makes all the difference when picking up a bottle.
Ask For Help—Seriously
Although the wine world can come off as a pretentious, old world and intimidating place, you should always ask for help if you need to make a decision and don’t know where to start. MacDougall stresses that we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from a sommelier. Chances are if someone chose to make their life’s passion wine, they will have no problem directing you to their own favourites and asking questions about what you like. This is why it’s especially helpful to know a thing or two about your own preferences and how to talk about them.
“When in doubt, bring interesting bubbles,” says McDougall. She recommends Crémant if you’re on a budget or a Grower Champagne if you’re not. Bubbles are the perfect accompaniment to the festive season, and chances are you’ll be the only one who thought to bring them.
(Story by Contributing Editor, Alexandra Donaldson)