How to Be Cultured
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Interviews by Jennifer Tanaka
HOW TO SILENCE THE INSUFFERABLE WINE SNOB AT YOUR TABLE: Employ these seven devastating one-liners
by BELINDA CHANG, sommelier and wine and spirits director for Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand's restaurant company, Cenitare, based in Buffalo Grove
1. "Actually, it's 'Riedel' [rhymes with needle]. I believe the company is Austrian, thus the German pronunciation."
EXPLAINER: Founded 11 generations ago in a German-speaking enclave of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), the name of this venerable wineglass company is one of those words that are seen but less frequently spoken, and therefore reliably mangled. While we're at it, it's "sawm-el-YAY," not "so-MAHL-lee-ay."
BELINDA SAYS: "Why would you drink wine out of any other glass?"
2. "I know all the critics raved about the '99 Napa cabs, but I think the '98s are more delicious to drink right now."
EXPLAINER: When the 1999 cabernets sauvignons from Napa Valley were released, critics far and wide, including the influential American critic Robert Parker, conferred near classic vintage status upon them as a group. But big-scoring vintages usually reflect the fact that the wines are "cellarable," meaning that some bottles may need years to develop their full potential. So, although a wine may have gotten a huge score from critics, it may not be the best bottle available at its price, the most delicious wine at this very moment, or the one that will perfectly complement the food you've ordered. Ask the sommelier.
BELINDA SAYS: "Don't let a vintage chart stop you from accepting other sources of advice—namely, your sommelier. The best sommeliers are the ones who speak in plain language and make sense to you."
3. "This wine seems a little volatized to me. Let's ask the waiter to refresh it."
EXPLAINER: The proper storage temperature for wine—also known as cellar temperature—is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Busy restaurants will sometimes store wine near the bar where it eventually warms up, sometimes to the point where the alcohol is hot enough to give off volatile vapors, which will block the wine's full bouquet. Never accept a wine that is too warm—or served in a glass that is hot from the dishwasher. Ask your server to put the bottle on ice or briefly into the bar's refrigerator.
BELINDA SAYS: "Don't drink; make them cool it down. Serving hot wine is bad form."
4. "I always ask the sommelier to decant, because any wine is going to be a little reduced right out of the bottle."
EXPLAINER: When you say that a wine is "reduced," you're referring to the fact that the wine, which is sealed with an only slightly breathable cork, has been oxygen starved for a length of time. Any wine straight out of the bottle is going to have a tight, unblossomed quality—similar to the way a white wine lacks bouquet right after it's taken out of the refrigerator. Decant-ing, or pouring a wine into a wide-mouthed container, allows oxygen to penetrate.
BELINDA SAYS: "I've heard that a full 60 minutes of decanting, or longer, is the only length of time that makes any difference. So if you're really trying to be a snob about decanting, you'll have to notify the sommelier the day before you dine."
5. "You're a Bordeaux lover, too? Are you more into left bank or right bank?"
EXPLAINER: A Bordeaux is a wine from the Bordeaux region of France, which is bisected by the Gironde river. Two of the famous wine-producing areas of the right bank are Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. Because the soil of the right bank has a higher proportion of clay, the merlot and cabernet franc grapes thrive there. The resulting wines are fleshy, supple, opulent, and generally more quaffable. The left bank is stonier and more gravelly, ideal soil conditions for growing cabernet sauvignon, and produces the bigger, darker, and more structured styles of Bordeaux. Some famous left-bank regions include Margaux and Pauillac.
BELINDA SAYS: "If you order a Bordeaux, be prepared, because the sommelier will ask, 'Right-bank style or left-bank style?' The sipping one is right bank; the left bank is more ponderous and serious."
6. "As long as a wine has good acidity, I find that a little residual sugar makes it so much more food friendly."
EXPLAINER: The phrase "residual sugar," measured in grams, refers to the amount of sugar in the wine you're drinking. Many wines that taste fruity actually have zero measurable RS (sommeliers like to throw this abbreviation around). There's also a misperception that any wine with RS is bad. Not so. The presence of a little residual sugar simply balances a wine's acid structure, making it seem lush on the palate. Residual sugar pairs well with spicy and fried foods.
BELINDA SAYS: "The bottle will never tell you if a wine has residual sugar; you must taste it. The finish is where you'll find the RS—if you swallow and you still have
a lingering sweet candy taste, that's RS."
7. "You're a Burgundy freak as well? Are you a Côtes de Nuits girl or a Côtes de Beaune girl?"
EXPLAINER: Some would say that the ultimate in wine geekdom is when you've become a Burgundy fanatic, because no other wine genre has more lexicon or esoterica. Burgundy, southeast of Paris, is France's most rarefied wine-producing region because it is relatively small with a long and complicated winemaking tradition, and so carefully legislated that appellations here apply to plots of land comprising as few as two rows of grapes. "It's the most terroir-driven wine in the world," Chang says. "If you were a sommelier and you were not a Burgundy freak, everyone would laugh at you." Côtes de Nuits is the region that specializes in red wines; Côtes de Beaune, in white.
BELINDA SAYS: "Côtes de Nuits, especially vintages ending in 9."