12 Things You Don’t Really Need to Know About Wine
It's OK for us to admit: wine can be intimidating. It’s made around the globe by individuals working within unique cultural traditions we may not understand. It is very difficult to discern what you will get from a bottle of wine based on the label, especially when most of it is written in a foreign language. The great irony in all of this complexity is, at the heart of it, drinking wine should be a simple pleasure.
Wine pros don’t exactly help things, either. Especially as beginners, it seems we’re expected to know much more about wine than our limited experience could possibly warrant.
Unfortunately, in the process of promoting wine, the industry gives rise to gatekeepers who urgently want the average drinker to care as much about wine as they do. These wine "experts" put up barriers of entry where none should exist. Sure, deepen your knowledge if you’re so inclined (I’m certainly game), but it’s not necessary for the task at hand – selecting a satisfying bottle of wine.
So here are twelve things those gatekeepers think you should know, but that you don’t really need to know, to select and enjoy wine.
1. The Score
Don’t concern yourself with how some critic rated a wine. Taste is subjective. Even if the professionals think they’ve cultivated an objective palette (oxymoron?), they haven’t. We all bring to a glass of wine our preferences and ideas about what a wine should be, and the pros are not exempt.
Instead, take your own lead. What wines do you find best suited to your taste? When you find a wine you like, find a critic who also rates the wine highly and see what else they recommend. A lesser-known critic with a taste similar to yours will be a more fruitful resource than his better-known peer, so long as you find your palette aligning more with the former. Otherwise, you’ll be frustrated attempting to tune your tastes to the preferences of a wine critic who simply doesn’t like the same types of wine as you
Have some time to burn or need to fall asleep? You can read how Robert Parker's score is supposed to work here.
2. The Grape
Consider this: 80% of the world’s wine comes from 20 grapes. Meanwhile, Wine Grapes, a nearly complete compendium of grape varieties published in 2012 has 1,368 entries of distinct varieties.
Those 20 grapes making up the bulk of the world’s wine are often grouped under the moniker Noble Grapes. Their ascension to this lofty post often has more to do with sociopolitical realities and bouts of chance and less to do with the grapes’ innate qualities. Nature’s diversity has much more to show us outside the usual suspects, so don’t shy away from a wine simply because the variety (or blend) is unfamiliar.
3. The Lingo
Admittedly, we wine professionals often alienate would-be wine drinkers with our lingo. We speak of a wine’s bouquet, recite an inventory of farmer’s market produce with our nose deep in a glass, and use odd wine descriptors like manure and petrol to indicate pleasant (or unpleasant, depending on the taster) aspects of a wine.
You don’t need to describe wines as professionals do, if at all. It is indeed possible to enjoy a wine without saying anything about it. And if a wine inspires you to oration, your own preferred lexicon will suffice.
4. The Pronunciation
Unless you’re a polyglot who moves effortlessly between languages, you’re going to trip over pronunciations in wine. Sure, I’ve come a long way since my early days in the business, but I still bungle pronunciations, my lips and tongue losing confidence as they trip over one another. If you feel comfortable attempting a foreign word, give it a try, and don’t sweat it if you miss the mark. Otherwise, it’s entirely acceptable to utilize your pointer finger. Use ‘em if you got ‘em.
Just in case you aren't convinced, here are a few commonly mispronounced wine words.
5. The Perfect Food & Wine Pairing
Much is made about the correct or perfect food and wine pairing, though neither objectively exists. Pairing suggestions are more of a 9 out of 10 dentists recommend…kind of thing, and even then you will be hard-pressed to solicit some such majority agreement amongst sommeliers in respect of what to pair with what.
So try the classics, and give a back label recommendation a run if you happen to have the scratch materials, but a totally respectable approach is to simply drink what you like to drink with what you like to eat and you’re likely to find some pretty good pairings aimed directly at your palette.
6. How to Smell a Cork
You order a bottle of wine at a restaurant. The sommelier opens the wine and presents the cork on a dish beside your glass. What are you to do? Pick it up and sniff it?
No, don’t smell the cork. Give it a glance. The cork is presented to confirm the bottle’s authenticity, as it will almost always be printed with the winery name and vintage, sort of like a watermark on a dollar bill. After the sommelier has served the wine, she should remove the cork.
7. How to Judge the Legs (the wine on the side of your glass)
While it has a little more practical value than sniffing a recently pulled cork, making a big to-do about the ‘legs’ – the little running tears that rain down the glass after a good swirl – is a bit pedantic. You’re not a psychic reading tealeaves. While they might contain some information about the wine, namely the level of alcohol and/or sugar present, you’ll get a better read of this information once the wine is in your mouth.
8. Wine Service
When sharing a bottle with others, you simply need to get the wine into a glass. A wine glass, preferably, but tumblers work well also, and I myself am not above plastic solo cups. The point being, don’t let the ritual fussiness that often surrounds wine service discourage you from enjoying wine. It doesn’t have to be a whole thing. It can just be a thing.
9. Viticulture (growing the grapes)
Viticulture is what happens in the vineyards, from site and grape selection all the way through to the harvesting of the crop, and in between there is a lot of technical and agricultural know-how put to use by the winegrowers. Fortunately, while many a wine geek may go on and on about biodynamics and what have you, you really don’t have to know how it all goes down to enjoy what’s in the glass.
10. Vinification (making the stuff)
Vinification is what happens in the winery, from the moment the grapes arrive until the wine is finally bottled and shipped. Winemakers employ a lot of technical and chemistry know-how to bring the wine to fruition. But once again, you don’t need to be an expert in the process to enjoy the outcome.
11. The Story
A more romantically inclined sommelier might give you a wine’s origin story in novelistic detail, instead of belaboring you with technical details. Don’t worry if none of the dates or names stick. If at the end of the soliloquy you can’t recall the monk whose name christens the bottle, so what? In the end, the wine should be more impressive than the tale.
12. The Vintage (when were the grapes picked)
Does vintage matter? Certainly. But the most common option typically available will be the current release. As you’re experience expands, vintages will begin to take on more significance, but you don’t have to force it. Besides, you’ll usually fare better selecting a wine by the producer over the vintage. A great winemaker can still make good wine from a difficult vintage, while a bad winemaker may botch a great vintage.
So what's the point of all this? First, we want you to relax and enjoy your wine. When you walk into a wine store or sit down at a restaurant, leave your worries behind. This isn't a test. No one is judging your competence. Wine is a pleasure and not a challenge.
If at some point you decide you want to take a deeper dive into the world of wine and winemaking, go for it. Start with some good wine books. Then you can consider a formal training program like the WSET. But only do it because you want to. You can enjoy wine your entire life without spending any time on the 12 things about wine you really don't need to know.