The bluffer's guide to sounding like a wine connoisseur
When first faced with the staggering array of wines out there, even the most level-headed wine connoisseur can get a little intimidated – and that’s not to mention the complicated lingo. But don’t worry – we’re here to help. Here’s our guide to impressing your date in a restaurant, using words like “flavour notes” without sounding like an idiot, and generally feeling pretty damn sophisticated while you’re on your third bottle of red and working your way towards a serious hangover.
In a nutshell, wine varieties are named after the types of grapes they’re made from. For example, a Cabernet Merlot is made up of both Cabernet grapes and Merlot grapes. The other way wine is most commonly classified is by region. In other words, where the wine is produced. These regions often have really pretty-sounding names: Margaret River, the Hunter Valley and McLaren Vale are three of Australia’s best wine-producing regions.
Different bottles of wine then have different flavours, with as wide a range of possibilities as can be found on a typical restaurant menu. While your standard goon sack may advertise itself as being “a white on the sweeter side with a luscious tropical fruit backbone” (when, in reality, it tastes like dog urine), these flavours are usually a pretty good guide. A fan of plums, cherries, chocolate and cigars? Check the labels on a few reds. Apples, peaches and honey more your cup of tea? Look out for those descriptors on bottles of white.
Sound simple enough? Well, actually, these classifications can get super specific. Did you know that for sparkling wine (the nice fizzy stuff with the bubbles) to be branded as “Champagne”, it has to come from the Champagne region in France? If it’s called “Prosecco”, it’s Italian. No exceptions.
Sparkling wine is then classified by how sweet it is: “extra brut” means it’s extra dry, “brut” means it’s dry, “extra dry” (confusingly) means the drop is medium dry, and “demi-sec” means it’s sweet. Last of all, as with all wine, bottles are marked with the year the wine was produced. If all of that is enough to make your head spin, we highly recommend just sticking to a glass of Macedon 2008 Extra Brut to numb the senses.
Red wine is generally characterised by heaviness: how full each mouthful is, and how long it sits in the mouth. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular heavy red. This wine is rich and full with strong flavours. Shiraz (sometimes called “Syrah”) is a medium to heavy red that is often full of earthy, peppery or fruity notes. Merlot has a medium heaviness - if you’re a beginner, go for Merlot. It’s super easy to drink, and in terms of food, it matches well with pretty much everything. Pinot Noir is the most common light red; you’ll finish a bottle of this variety without even knowing it.
White wine, on the other hand, is most commonly judged in terms of sweetness, with dry being the opposite of sweet. If it’s sweetness you want, Moscato really brings the goods. Riesling and Pinot Grigio are typical semi-dry whites, and have a clean, crisp taste which is perfect for summer. Chardonnay - the most widely grown grape in the world - is dry, and Sauvignon Blanc is the driest of all.
Note that sometimes heaviness also applies to white and dryness to red – you’ll figure it out as you go along.
Now that you’ve got an arsenal of knowledge under your belt, bullshitting about wine should be a piece of cake. If you want to look really legit, sniff the wine and swirl it around in your glass for a while before taking a sip. Then make a comment using basically any combination of the words we mentioned earlier. For example, “I like the lightness of this wine, and I’m a huge fan of the subtle apple notes in the finish – somewhat typical of the Hunter Valley region, I would say.” Nod thoughtfully for added effect, and no one will have any idea that you’re just bluffing. We’ll let you in on a secret: when it comes to talking about wine, most of us are.
Frances Vinall is a freelance culture and lifestyle journalist and Monash University student. She spends most of her free time watching Parks And Recreation and eating cheese. Frances blogs at francesvinall and tweets at @fvinall.