Wine 1-2-3: Tips for the novice drinker


I love wine, but I'm not all that picky about it. Sure, I enjoy a fine vintage, but I also enjoy dive bars, gallery openings, and queer-cause fundraisers -- so I'll happily drink box wine from a plastic tumbler, too. Hey, it does the trick, and I'm much more interested in socializing than in Wine Advocate ratings.

If that sounds familiar, you may also agree with me that pretentious wine snobbery can be somewhat ridiculous. At the same time, however, wine's long and noble history makes it a beverage worthy of respectful treatment (and responsible treatment -- the only thing worse than a wine snob is the party guest who drinks too much).

Wine5You don't have to be an expert (plus, we just don't have that sort of time right now). But knowing a few commonsense wine-handling basics will help you enjoy your next romantic dinner or high-toned soiree without fear of committing a faux pas. You wouldn't want anyone you're dating to mistake you for some sort of bumpkin, would you? Plus, this knowledge is the foundation you need if you're ever going to start exploring the differences between Bordeaux and Burgundies.

1. Don't pretend that you know a lot more than you do. In fact, a true mark of sophistication is being unafraid to ask questions of people more knowledgeable than oneself. If you're hosting a dinner in a restaurant, for instance, you may ask for the server's or wine steward's suggestions. This can certainly save you from basing decisions solely on pronounceability and price range.

2. The restaurant "tasting ritual" is your chance to make sure that the wine hasn't gone bad (the food server doesn't expect an assessment of the wine's quality). Place your fingers at the base of your glass and swirl the wine a little bit (this "opens up" its flavors), lift the glass to your nose and mouth, enjoy its bouquet and then sip, holding the wine in your mouth for a moment before swallowing. If it tastes all right, simply say "Thank you" to the food server. At your dinner parties, anyone in an "honor" position should have his or her wine poured first; you should always serve yourself last.

3. You chill white wine; you serve red wine at about room temperature. And you've certainly heard people talk about letting wine "breathe": The flavor of red wine is often improved by exposure to oxygen, or "aeration," and although you should usually drink white wines as soon as they're opened, a few white wines can also be improved by "decanting" -- that is, pouring wine from its original bottle into a container with a wider opening, or into a glass.
In general, young red wines (seven years old or younger) will benefit from 20-30 minutes of "air time" -- wines with higher tannin levels, such as Cabernets and Merlots, will benefit from an hour.

4. Generally speaking, tulip-shaped glasses are meant for white wines, and goblet-shaped glasses (with a rounder bowl) are meant for reds. Oversize goblets are not necessarily meant for big drinkers -- these glasses are meant to show off "wow" wines. Such wineglasses shouldn't be filled more than halfway, and no wineglass should be filled more than three quarters of the way to the top.

5. The proper way to hold a wineglass is by its stem (no extended pinkies, please!) -- this keeps your fingerprints off the bowl and prevents your body heat from warming up the wine.

6. You may have heard that white wine is to be drunk with white meats and fish, that red wine goes only with red meat and that to reverse this sacred order is to commit a sin against Holy Grape. In fact, these days, the rules aren't nearly so strict. It's true that red wine can stand up better to rich or very flavorful foods that can overwhelm a white wine (whites often have more-delicate flavors), but your goal should be to find complementary flavors, or flavors that contrast well. If you like it, it's a good pairing -- for me, a nice young Australian Shiraz goes great with a grilled-cheese sandwich, and if I'm having sushi, I don't want anything but orange soda.

7. Keep in mind that a many things that people think they know about wines are fast becoming untrue: Some very good wineries now use screw-top bottles (many people feel that cork is not an ecologically sound crop), and some blush wines are finding new favor among gourmands.

8. Finally, if a toast is being drunk to you or your health, don't hold up your own glass -- doing so is like applauding yourself or laughing at your own jokes. The correct response is an expression of gratitude and, if you like, a reverse raising of your glass to the assembled well wishers.


Photos c/o Charles Purdy

Written and originally posted by Charles Purdy