Being able to hack a restaurant wine list is a surprisingly useful skill. Wine is becoming increasingly popular with tasting rooms and wine bars opening up all across the country. As a grad student, I've found that even a basic wine knowledge can be an invaluable skill for dinners and parties with professors and other students. In the end you should just drink what you like, but here is a quick guide on wine just in case.
Some terms to know:
-Color: Reds run from deep purple to light brick red, whites from green-yellow to deep golden
-Nose: Smell of the wine regardless of how silly it may seem. Reds are mainly berries and dark fruits, as well as wood and spice. Whites are lighter fruits and citrus, but also herbs and greens.
-Acidity: Provides tartness and crispness in the wine, with a higher acidity the mouth will tend to water.
-Sweetness: Percentage of sugar in the wine, less sugar means it is drier. Sweetness is recognized on the tip of the tongue.
-Oak: Primarily imparts the woodiness and depth found in most reds and Chardonnay, often giving a vanilla taste or buttery mouth feel.
-Tannin: Creates a drying sensation in the mouth that can be chalky or chewy. It is only found in red wines and is more found in darker ones with loads of oak.
-Body: Weight that a wine has in your mouth, or the way that the wine feels in your mouth (mouthfeel). It can be light and barely lingering on the palate, or can be full and oily.
How to taste properly: You don't have to do the vigorous swishing and sucking in air method, or even spit the wine out- but you should know how to take a proper first sip.
1) See the wine and look at the color
2) Swirl the wine to open it up to the air. Especially red wines need to breathe and open up before their flavor is fully expressed.
3) Smell the wine and note the nose, it doesn't matter how silly it is... A famous writer for Food and Wine Mag often notes chicken noodle soup in her wine, and I've said bubblegum before
4) Taste the wine, noting the feel and effect it has in your mouth. Some wines like oaky Chardonnays coat your mouth and others like Shiraz will dry you out completely.
5) Savor the wine, some wines linger on the palate and some are short bursts of flavor.
Starter White Wines and Red Wines: When I have friends who I'm introducing to wine I start them on juicy wines, which doesn't have to mean generic brands. For whites, look for sweet Rieslings, Vignoles, or Moscato which place an emphasis on peaches and pears rather than herbs or slate. These all have notes that are more like Welch's with a kick, but will still pair well with white meats and vegetables. With reds you want to find table blends, Merlots or Zinfandels that are sweeter and have an emphasis on berries rather than leather or wood.
Final Note: When it really comes down to it, you should drink what you enjoy. If this means buying a $6 Trader Joe's Cab then go ahead and get it. It's better to drink what you enjoy than suffer through something that critics say is delicious.
[Photo via Public Domain Images]