Imagine: A dimly lit Italian restaurant. Romantic booth for two.
“May I see the wine list?”
The waiter hands you a veritable encyclopedia of wines.
You frantically flip the leather-bound pages for something, anything you recognize. Your eyes jump from the $25 glass of Côtes du Rhône to the $125 bottle of Sancerre. “Uh, a bottle of Chablis…?” you half-state, half-ask, hoping to hear the waiter’s approving, “Ah, excellent choice.”
Choosing wine is daunting! So, where do you begin? What is good?
Alyssa Rapp knows the answer. She’s the founder and CEO of Bottlenotes, Inc., an online resource for novice and pro wine enthusiasts alike to connect and learn more about their favorite wines, grape varieties and regions. Here, Rapp shares her pointers for any aspiring connoisseur to skim the wine list like a sommelier.
Establish your palette
Before any sommelier knew their Bordeaux from their Beaujolais, they had to start somewhere. Let’s begin with the three basic wine categories: white, red and sparkling. Within those broad categories are many regions, blends, and grape varieties.
Rapp suggests starting with a pinot noir. “It’s a thin-skinned, delicate red-wine grape that’s often light- to medium-bodied, with bright acidity, making it a great red wine to sip all night.” If you prefer crisp whites, follow Rapp’s lead and pour a glass of “tangy and zesty sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or Sancerre from France.”
Similar to white, sparkling wines like champagne or prosecco awaken the palette — making them a great festive option to kick off an evening. Sip a flute of chilled bubbly with your appetizer or before your meal.
Using these popular core wines as a base, you can branch out and try new and different varieties. “The more wine you try, the more you understand your own preferences,” says Rapp.
“Recording what you like is the single best tool for reinforcing what you taste,” suggests Rapp. If you enjoy a particular blend, snap a picture of the label. Or jot down the vineyard name in the notes section on your phone. Tech-savvy wine enthusiasts can download apps like Wine Notes to record a personal wine library keeping tabs on the wines, flavors, and regions you like most.
Keep a go-to wine region up your sleeve
Once you decide you fancy the smoky finish of an Argentinian Malbec or the citrusy crispness of a Californian chardonnay, turn to those countries or general regions when faced with an unfamiliar wine list. Rapp is a lover of French wine: “Champagne, white and red Burgundy, red and dessert wines like Sauturnes from Bordeaux, Alsatian rieslings, Loire Valley sauvignon blancs, Provençal rosés...” And she could go on! Explore wines from regions you’ve already sampled and build your palate from there.
Inquire about wine flights
You’re starting to learn what you like, now it’s time to learn how to talk about it. To jumpstart your vino knowledge, Rapp suggests asking the waiter or sommelier if they offer a tasting flight: typically, it’s a selection of three wines in a range of flavors and aromas. These are served in a small glass so you sample about one to two ounces of each.
Don’t be intimidated — ask an expert!
Stop feeling sheepish in front of the sommelier or waiter — they’re there to help. Ask which wine they would sip. Rapp suggests opening with: “Which wine would pair best with this meal?” If budget is a factor, point to bottles or glasses you can afford and add, “Maybe something like this.” The sommelier will pick up on your cue and suggest wines within your price range — not the $500 30-year-old Burgundy.
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