Unlike milk, you are allowed to cry over spilled wine.
I’ve probably made it crystal clear to you that I love wine. And I’m not your causal wine drinker, either. My friends and family have come to know me as the local (amateur) wine snob who they can call (or drag out to the liquor store) for a recommendation.
My affinity for wine really began in university when I worked at a steakhouse and was trained in wines. While we didn’t have a 30 page wine list, we had standards and it was incumbent upon us to know what to suggest to guests (and the right answer isn’t the most expensive one on the menu!). Since then, I’ve taken to wine drinking and the rituals surrounding it. GOSH I LOVE IT. While I am still very much a beginner, I do enjoy wine on its own and paired with foods, and recently, Chad and I went to Napa Valley and Sonoma and had the time of our lives being immersed in wine country.
I know picking a wine can be very overwhelming and even asking for help at a store can feel daunting because you can’t answer the clerk’s opening question. So, I thought it would be helpful to create an easy beginner’s guide to choosing a wine for your next party, or even just to sip at home. That way you’ll show up with a bottle that works for the occasion and is something everyone can enjoy. It’s simple once you’ve got this basic foundation down. And, if you absolutely must – and let me twist your arm here – buy some bottles and do your own wine tastings to get context.
The Basics: Where to start.
Your starting point, when thinking about pairing a wine with a meal, is to consider the meal you are making, and identify whether it is a light fresh dish (grilled chicken and asparagus!), or a heavy rich dish (beef stroganoff!).
When you walk into the wine store, think – light with light and heavy with heavy.
Lighter dishes, like chicken, fish, and pasta with light or creamy sauces will pair well lighter wines, usually white. You want something crisp to compliment the lightness of the dish.
How to tell if they are light wines? Aside from asking, check the label. New world wines will be eager to tell you they are a “light-bodied, crisp and refreshing”. So if you are having a light dish like chicken or fish, you’ll be looking for a light wine, most likely a Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Grigio (these are also great options if you are having spicy food, the crispness balances the spiciness out).
And what about a heavy wine? For heavier dishes, such as beef, tomato-based pasta sauces, or any gamey meat, you’ll be going for a richer, old world wine, most likely a red. A Cabernet, Merlot, or Shiraz will do the trick. The heaviness of the tannins will help to bring out the rich flavors of your food even more. UGH YUM. I want wine now (it’s 8:58 AM).
Of course, the ultimate question if you are headed to a dinner party and have no idea what will be on the table, is to simply ask the host what you can bring (an opportune time to actually pass the buck!). This way you’ll have an idea of the menu and what would make sense to bring along, or, they might just say the specific grape or brand they prefer, which makes your job even easier.
If you are unable to ask the host and want a safe bet, I say go for a Sauvignon Blanc for white and a Pinot Noir for a red, these both pair nicely with most things. Neither are too heavy nor too light and are grapes the average partygoer enjoys.
If you want a wine just for sipping, say at a wine and cheese or a party without a dinner (um, or how about after work and binge watching Netflix?), go for a nice red, which I find much more ‘sippable’ (as in, you want to really savor it) such as a Pinot Noir or Cabernet.
Getting a little more Pro
Now that you know the red / white rules, let’s get into some more complex stuff. As for the rules above, they‘re a great starting point but now, I’m going to show you how to push the envelope a bit.
To better know and understand wines, pay more attention to the region it was grown in. Rather than just color, wines are really influenced by the soil, weather and other growing conditions in the regions they are from. When I was in Napa Valley, I had a Chardonnay (a grape I don’t usually like) from the region that was delicious, whereas when I’ve had a Chardonnay from Niagara (which is Ontario’s famed wine region) I couldn’t stand it. Region matters.
In fact, small microclimates within a wine region can affect the grape quality too, and real wine snobs know to get a certain wine from a certain winery, simply due to its location within that region (as I recently learned on my California trip). But don’t worry, you need not go that far (yet!).
For American wines, Oregon and Napa Valley/Sonoma are consistently good and crowd pleasers. If you want to head across the pond to France, go for Bordeaux and you’re sure to impress. For Italy, Tuscany can’t miss.
There are also apps that can help you out. If you download Hello Vino, it will suggest a wine based on the food you’re preparing. You can also visit WineFolly.com to learn more about wines.
Okay, so you want to really make a fuss – maybe you want to throw the red with red meat, white with light meat rule out the window! Well, you can.
If you want to pair an interesting wine with a meal that doesn’t fit the rule, just remember light with light and heavy with heavy. To pair a white with rich meats, go for a fuller-bodied option such as a Chardonnay, one that tells you it is full bodied right on the label. It’ll be a *daring* and probably delicious choice. You can also find a light red to pair with a light fish. Once again, just look for a red that tells you it is lighter. Actually, a Rose (not the sickly sweet ones!) works incredibly well with light fish. Be bold!
Full-bodied? Dry? What are we talking about here?
Simply put, these are wine terms we hear all the time and will often nod and smile so we don’t look like wine outcasts. Truthfully, we all appreciate different flavors, and categorizing them this way simply helps better understand what a wine’s flavor profile is so we know how to choose the perfect bottle.
Full-bodied means the wine is heavy, weighty, jammy and full of rich, deep flavors. You really feel it in your mouth, you take your time to sip it. Just imagine the difference between eating a light, bland apple versus a handful of ripe blackberries. The blackberry is more complex; rich, slightly sweet, a bit bitter or sour, tannic. An apple is light, sweet-ish and crisp. Simple.
A lighter wine is usually crisp, clean and easier to sip down. There are less complexities to it.
In terms of dry wines, this relates to the sugar content. Have a look at the wine price label at the liquor store, it will usually indicate sugar content so you can have an idea of how dry a wine will be. I prefer less dry reds (higher sugar content), and drier whites (but not too dry…looking at you, Chardonnay).
There are plenty more terms, but don’t worry too much about them now. You can pick more up as you go along your wine journey. If you do want to know more, let me know in the comments and I will put a follow-up post together.
My Favorite Tip:
Humor your wine! Humoring your wine is the *official* name for what you’re doing when you swirl it around in your glass. Try to work that into a joke at the next party you go to (I have been unsuccessful so far, but maybe you’ll have better luck). It allows the wine to open up – get exposure to air – and release more flavors. After swirling, I tilt the wine glass toward me and ‘drink’ in the scent with my nose (this is what I was taught at the steakhouse). It allows me to consider what I’m smelling here. This sensory knowledge takes time to develop at first but does help you identify the variances in the wine. Once I’ve smelled it and thought about what’s about to hit my mouth, I take a small sip, hold it for a moment and let it roll over my tongue. Then, again, I think about what I’m sensing. Do I like it? What does it remind me of? What will this wine work with? And if I really like it, you better believe I’m that guy who takes a photo of the bottle for my next wine run.
One thing I strongly encourage you to do is to ask for help once you get to the liquor store now that you’ll be armed with the basics. I usually indulge a clerk in several minutes of conversation (usually to the chagrin of other customers!) because I learn a little something each time and it helps them understand my needs and preferences. After a brief chat, they’ll usually make excellent recommendations. In fact, they’ve helped me choose some of the most amazing bottles of wine I’ve had (remember, these guys taste just about everything so they really understand where to point you once they have some direction). The caveat is that you need a starting point to have a meaningful chat with them. And now you do.
If you would like to learn even more about wines, consider going to a wine tasting event, either at a restaurant, local winery or the next time you travel. First, they are so much fun and second, I find I learn the most when I compare wines side by side instead of in isolation. While I’m not calling out ‘rhubarb and chocolate notes with a hint of leather’, I do know what flavors I prefer over others, and that’s what this experience is all about. When you compare wines, you can clearly identify what you love and start to buy in that category, which makes the wine all the more enjoyable. For example, I am not usually a pinot noir fan (too light for me), but I had one from Napa Valley and it was pure WOW (Meomi, for those asking). So now I know that while I don’t tend to love that grape, this one particular producer makes a stand out Pinot.
Overall, it’s important to remember that wine is subjective. If you like a wine, then it’s a good one, no ifs ands or buts. Also remember that it’s all for fun – picking a wine isn’t something we are graded on! The point of wine is to enjoy it, so don’t stress, grab a glass, and give yourself a toast – you deserve it.