Many people think that wine pairing is a complicated, technical business. But I promise that once you know what you like, it’s not as scary as you may think.
Before I started studying vineyard technology, I knew nothing about wine except that I didn’t like it. One of my classes took us on weekly wine-tasting trips, and slowly but surely I started to change my mind. After several weeks, I found a winery that I liked, so I got a job in their tasting room.
Working in a tasting room helped me to not only develop my own palate, but also to help others find wines they love. I’ve learned that the first rule to wine is you can’t find what you like unless you try everything – leave all your preconceptions at the door and come in with an open mind.
You Know What Happens When You Make Assumptions…
One of my favorite stories of dashed expectations involves a particular rosé and a couple that stopped into my tasting room during a tour through Washington’s wine country one spring afternoon.
The tasting room had one rule: You try all the wines in the order we designed, or you try none at all. Well, the woman wasn’t happy when I attempted to pour her a taste of our bone-dry Rosé of Sangiovese. She flat out refused, insisting that she didn’t like White Zin.
Growing more and more annoyed with the woman, I explained that this was NOT a White Zin, and it wasn’t like any wine she’d tasted before. The man happily tried everything I put in his glass and tried to stifle laughter as I told his bossy lady what was up.
Finally, she tried it – she was surprised, delighted, and immediately in a better mood. The couple left with a full case of the rosé after the tour.
Learning What You Like
In order to point folks in the right direction, I typically start by asking a few simple questions.
Knowing the kinds of flavors you already like helps me understand your preferences in the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Then, we can push your boundaries a little bit to help you find new flavors you didn’t even know you liked.
What’s your type?
So let’s start off by discussing what types of coffee and bar drinks you tend to reach for. If you’re partial to something sweet and airy like a Caramel Macchiato, then a dry red wine might not be right for you (at least right off the bat). Instead, I’d probably start you off with a Riesling, which tends to be sweeter and lighter, and then move on to experiment with light red wines like a Sangiovese.
What do you order at a bar? If it’s beer, what kind? If you only drink Coors Light, I’ll point you in a different direction than a stout drinker (Pinot Gris and Cabernet Sauvignon, respectively). If you like more bitter bar drinks, you might enjoy a tannic red like Cabernet Franc, or even an orange wine.
Next, what’s your favorite fruit and candy? Wine grapes can express an enormous variety of flavors and aromas. If you really like blackberries, I’d suggest a Mourvèdre. If you prefer nutty flavors, I can hook you up with a barrel-aged sur lie Chardonnay. Tobacco, green peppers, mango, leather, peaches – all of these flavors can be found in wines, if you know where to look.
Now that we know what type of wine you would most likely enjoy, we can figure out a good meal pairing.
Here are some simple guidelines:
Whenever you’re dining out and decide to order wine, keep these suggestions in mind, but don’t be afraid to ask the sommelier or wine steward for suggestions and samples – it’s always worth asking.
Also, never be afraid to send a wine back if you hate it. Just like you would send back bad food, you should send back bad wine. Whether you simply don’t like the wine or you receive one of the 8-10% of bottles that have defects, you shouldn’t suffer through quietly.
No matter what, remember my three cardinal rules for tasting wine:
- Don’t take tasting too seriously – It isn’t nearly as complicated as some people make it seem.
- Try new things – You can’t find a diamond if you don’t dig through some coal.
- And finally, if you like it, it’s a good wine – Taste is absolutely subjective, so you can never be wrong about what you like.
Always Keep an Open Mind
Remember my story about the man and the stubborn woman? Well, it wasn’t quite finished yet.
While cocktailing my way through university, I met and fell in love with a big, goofy bouncer. After dating for a year, he took me home to meet his folks. As we sat and talked with his father, I couldn’t get over the feeling of déjà vu. Finally, my boyfriend’s father burst out, “You’re the tasting room girl that bossed my ex-girlfriend into trying something new!”
Yup, that’s right. I’d met him about three years before I met my boyfriend! It’s been almost eight years since we started dating, and trying new things, especially food and wine, is kind of our thing. Just imagine what could happen to you the next time you decide to try a new wine.