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Passing the Sniff Test

Even if you don't know a Barolo from Boone's Farm, ordering wine doesn't have to be an exercise in humiliation. Here's how to fake it with the best.

Author Edward Lewine Photography Barry Blitt

FOR MOST OF MY LIFE I assumed dry wine was better than sweet. Sweetness reminded me of those soda-pop wines like Blue Nun and Mateus that provided my early introduction to the joys (and sorrows) of drinking. When I aspired to be a wine snob, I’d go into a restaurant or store and say, “Give me something dry,” figuring that made me at least look like one. Turns out, to those actually in the know, the request made me look like something of a rube.

Of course, I didn’t realize that until later. But as I started delving further into the mysteries of the grape, I was surprised to learn that real wine pros — vintners, critics, sommeliers — actually adore sweet wines. Not the mass-produced Blue Nuns of the world (sorry, Sister), but complex, well-made wines like the great Rieslings of Germany, wines that have what experts call “some residual sugar” in the bottle.

“The average would-be sophisticate thinks that because Rieslings are sweet, they must be unsophisticated,” notes novelist Jay McInerney, who moonlit as the wine columnist for the late House and Garden magazine. “But real wine geeks consider Riesling to be great. It’s kind of reverse snobbery.”

For the record, McInerney doesn’t endorse snobbery in either direction. He’s merely pointing to one of the many complexities of the wine world — complexities that tend to bedevil those of us who want to seem in the know. In this rarefied realm, there are always wheels within wheels, as Ezekiel put it (perhaps after some overly enthusiastic Kiddush blessings over the fruit of the vine). You might think you know a little something, but faking it is a perilous undertaking. More often than not, attempts to appear suave — or even Soave — are going to backfire. The wine snobs always seem to be one step ahead.

Or maybe not. Over time, I’ve come up with a few simple tricks for convincingly pulling off the expert routine. Mastering the following tips won’t actually make you an expert, of course, but it might at least help you impress a date. Bottoms up! (LESSON ONE Yes, wine snobs actually say things like “bottoms up.”)

LESSON TWO Some grapes are hipper than others. People in the United States tend to order Chardonnay for white wine and Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon for red. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But wine snobs favor grapes that are thought to produce more idiosyncratic and unusual flavors. To them, Riesling is the ultimate white wine; the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy and Nebbiolos (say it with me: “NEH- bee-oh-lows”) of Northern Italy are the favored reds.

“Obsessing about vintage Champagne is also hip,” says Joseph Bastianich, the famed restaurateur and business partner to Mario Batali. “Saying you drink Champagne with food is cool.”

LESSON THREE Get dirty. Most of us think of wine in terms of grapes; wine geeks think about land and soil. You’ll sound like a pro if you can learn a little geography about a few key regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne in France; Piedmont in Northern Italy; and California’s Napa Valley. Whenever possible use the word “terroir,” which means the soil and climate where the wine was made. Say something pompous like, “This wine really expresses the terroir of [such-and-such vineyard or region].”

LESSON FOUR Learn how to drink. For heaven’s sake, never, ever grab a wine glass by the bowl! Hold it by the stem, near the base, so you can avoid smudging the glass and warming the wine. Before drinking, place the glass on a table and inscribe a tight circle, swirling the wine to aerate it and release aromas. Stick your nose in the glass and give a mighty sniff. Now sip. Hold the wine in your mouth for a good 30 seconds, sucking air over it. Swallow and note the aftertaste.

And one more thing: “Spitting in a winery tasting room is always a sign of sophistication,” says Mary Ewing-Mulligan, a Master of Wine and co-author of Wine for Dummies. “It sets you apart from the thousands of people who visit wineries and swallow.”

LESSON FIVE Break down the taste. The pros discuss a wine’s taste in three parts, say David Kamp and David Lynch, authors of  The Wine Snob’s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Oenological Knowledge. Begin with the “nose,” which means the aroma, and throw around the term “notes” a lot, as in, “I’m getting notes of black currant on the nose.” Then, talk about the “palate,” which means the taste and feel of the wine in your mouth. Finally, analyze the “finish,” or the aftertaste.

“You can come up with wonderful pseudo explanations of why a wine is good,” says Randall Grahm, the force behind the enormously successful Bonny Doon wines. “‘They didn’t filter the wine,’ is a good one, or, ‘They limited the yield,’ or, ‘They picked before the rain.’”

LESSON SIX Sommelier strategy. Ordering wine in a restaurant can be stressful, but now you know enough to navigate the situation. Scan the wine list for slightly lesser-known grape varieties. (Be advised: Learn not to misuse the term “varietals,” which actually refers to different wines made from the same grape.) Summon the sommelier and ask him or her to recommend a favorite wine among these. It’s also helpful to ask about the wine’s alcohol level, which is always mentioned on the label. Wine geeks favor low-alcohol wines, which are thought to be more food-friendly.

If you’re worried about price, silently point to a wine in your range, so only the sommelier knows what you are prepared to spend.

“When they pour the wine,” says Bartholomew Broadbent, a noted importer, “just look at the color, smell it and then tell the waiter it’s okay. The smell should tell you all you need to know.”

Follow these simple rules, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a snob yourself. Just don’t overdo it, because the really cool kids are secure enough in their connoisseurship to branch out, even into untrendy territory.

“There are many things about wine geeks that civilians make fun of,” McInerney says. “What you learn from real wine lovers is that we live in an era when amazing wines are being made all over the world and we should keep exploring them.” And that even includes a nice Chardonnay every once in a while; Blue Nun, not so much.

The Wine Snob’s Glossary

Impress your sommelier with these easy terms.

Balance // The ultimate compliment: A balanced wine has its alcohol, acidity, sweetness, tannins (see below) and fruit flavors working together in harmony.

Corked // The only reason to send a bottle back. It means the cork has gone bad and imparted a wet cardboard flavor.

Finish // A snooty way to say “aftertaste.”

Legs // The wine droplets that fall down the inside of the glass after a dainty swirl. The slower and thicker the legs, the more sugar and alcohol in the wine.

Nose // A hoity-toity way to say “smell.”

Tannins // The mouth-puckering chemicals imparted by grape skins, seeds and stems. Natural preservatives, tannins help wine age and can range in impact from pleasant to searing.

Terroir // The ridiculously indefinable French term denoting the soil, microclimate, topography and other environmental factors.

Ullage // A word of savage snobbery meaning the air between the top of the wine and the top of the bottle. Increased ullage is a sign of age. — EL

One Response to “Passing the Sniff Test”

  1. Polarized Sunglasses Says:
    July 26th, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Great post..