When my husband discusses nuances of cricket with his British pals, I'm convinced he's speaking another language. When he pointed out—after my brief conversation with a sommelier on what wine to order—that he “had no idea what we just discussed but I’m sure it will be delicious,” it occurred to me that he isn’t the only one speaking a different language.
In fact, communicating with a sommelier to get exactly what you want can feel as overwhelming as ordering in French. This may explain why many of us just order the second least expensive wine on the menu.
(For the record, I had said, “Can you recommend a medium-bodied, old world-style red, with smooth well-integrated tannins that’s heavy on the smoky notes and under $60?”)
This apprehension to embarrass ourselves by revealing our lack of knowledge is holding us back. Speaking with the sommelier is one surefire way to improve your odds of getting both a good value and a great pairing. But with this whole other language surrounding wine, how do we know what to say to ensure the sommelier truly understands?
Now, I will say straight off the bat that any sommelier worth their tastevin should be able to coax some basic information out of a diner to deliver a wine they will enjoy.
But there’s no harm in arming yourself with a few keywords to help pinpoint your preferences and ensure that you’re speaking the same language:
Here are the terms to know:
A description of the weight of the wine (heavy, medium, or light) that is directly related to the amount of alcohol. Lighter wines have a lower alcohol level, and heavier wines higher. A good way to think about it is how skim (light), whole milk (medium), and cream (full-bodied) feel in your mouth.
Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Bordeaux
Whites: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier
Reds: Rioja, Merlot, Cotes du Rhone
Whites: Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand), Riesling (Dry)
Reds: Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Pinotage
Whites: Sauvignon Blanc (France), Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Grigio
If you like acidity in your wines, then you appreciate the lingering sharpness after you swallow. This is most apparent in whites, as most reds undergo a secondary fermentation that softens the acid (malolactic fermentation).
Descriptors: crisp, refreshing, bright
Examples: Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino
Descriptors: rich, creamy
Example: Chardonnay (California)
Tannin is the drying sensation in wine that's a product of the grape skins or the wood barrels that the wine is aged in.
Descriptors: dry, bold, slightly bitter
Examples: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese
Descriptors: smooth, round
Examples: Pinot Noir, Barbera, Merlot
In these wines, which tend to come from warmer climates (Australia, New Zealand, North America, South Africa, South America), the primary flavors that come through are fruit notes. Red wines can have flavors of berry jams or fresh fruit compote; in white wines, the primary flavors are lemons, apples, or limes.
These wines, which all come from Europe, tend to exhibit flavors that are not fruit related. (There are wines in the new world, for example, in the U.S., that can be made in the style of Old World wines, but that is the exception rather than the rule. the reason why is because climate and soil play a big role in flavor, and those factors are linked to geography.)
Red have flavors like earth, spice, and smoke; white wines have notes of minerality (that slightly ambiguous term that is used when there are notes of wet rocks or minerals in the wine).
And if you don't know (or can't remember) these terms, don't panic!
These tips will help you get something good:
- Start with your favorite wine: If you have a favorite wine that you know by name and want one in a similar style, ask the sommelier if he is familiar with the wine and to recommend something similar.
- Always mention a price range: There is no shame in saying that you’d like a wine under X amount. In fact, it will help the sommelier narrow down the search and stay focused.
- "Surprise me!": This approach, for the truly brave, can result in a great experience. Nobody knows the wine list better than the sommelier, so putting yourself in their capable hands can be an exciting experience. One of my favorite things to do is say, “Surprise me with a wine on the list that has blown you away for under $75.”
Have you ever had great success—or great failure—communicating with a sommelier? Tell us in the comments!