Port

Port: the greatest, and WASP'iest, of all fortified wines.
Port: the greatest, and WASP’iest, of all fortified wines.

After a hiatus, I’m pleased to announce that the how to WASP is back!  And to celebrate its return to the blogging world, I’ve decided to highlight one of my all-time favorite WASP’y indulgences: Port.  Now that I think of it, Champagne would have probably been a better celebratory choice… but that will have to come later.  So for now, Port!

No, we’re not talking about the seaside variety (although confusion could be understandable given the focus of this blog), but rather the undisputed king of all fortified wines.  When it comes to dining like a WASP, there is perhaps no better way to finish off a fine meal that a good glass of Port.  However, the subject can be surprisingly complicated, so it’s important that you know the basics before you can order, and most importantly enjoy, that tote of Cockburn (see Next Steps below) with confidence and pride.

What Exactly is Port?

Excellent question!  And to provide and answer, it is necessary to take a brief trip back in time.  Port, like most things WASP’y, is a product of the British and a dislike of the French.

As most students of history will know, England spent a good portion of the last millennium fighting the French.  However, by the 17th Century they ran into a problem.  The Brits had developed a taste for Continental wine, but thanks to their most recent war with the French, they suddenly found themselves cut off.  Their solution: simply get wine from Portugal (one of their few wine producing allies on the Continent) instead.

A pretty slick solution, but another problem quickly became evident; Portuguese wine proved to be much less stable than its French counterpart   As a result, the Portuguese wine would spoil during the extended sea voyages back to England.  Fortunately for all of us, the classic sense of British stick-to-itiveness prevailed.  They discovered that by adding a small amount of brandy (a process known as fortification) to the finished wine, it could be made stable to endure the long trip back to England and the wine we know as Port today was born.

A Port Primer

Now, you may be thinking “So that’s why it’s called Port, it’s from Portugal!” but you’d be wrong.

The namesake of Port is actually the city of Oporto, located on the Atlantic at the mouth of the Douro River.  This city is where the English set up their first Port Houses to distribute the newly invented wine and where they have remained ever since.  In fact the world’s first Port producer, Warre (established in 1670) is still operation there today!

The Douro Valley, one of the most scenic wine regions on Earth and where Port is born.
The Douro Valley, one of the most scenic wine regions on Earth and where Port is born.

So Port wine comes from Oporto, which makes perfect sense, but it gets a little more complicated.  While Port is distributed from Oporto, the wine is actually produced about 50 miles up the Douro River in the hot and ruggedly mountainous Douro Valley.  This is where the grapes are grown and the wine is fermented.  It’s then packed into barrels and sent down the river to Oporto, where it’s fortified, aged, bottled, and eventually shipped to Port lovers all over the world.

Styles of Port:

Port has two constants: It’s always sweet, and (almost) always red.  Beyond that, however, the varieties and styles of Port are nearly endless.

Part of that variety is thanks to the sheer number of grapes that are permitted in Port.  In most blended wines, you’ll see 3-4 grape varietals, tops.  In Port there are more than 80!  Although in practice the most common types used are Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Barroca.

While the grapes certainly play a role in nature of a Port, it’s really the style of wine that determines its ultimate character (and price).  While there aren’t quite as many styles as grape varieties, there is still a lot to know, so pay attention!  Below are some of the most common Port styles, listed from lightest to fullest.

  • White Port:  White Port is just that, Port made from white grapes.  It’s not very popular and much more difficult to find that the red variety.  It’s also generally known to be not anywhere near as good.  I confess that I’ve never tried it myself, but I’ve heard that it’s best use is when served ice cold as a summer aperitif.  Not really in the same league as red Port, but I included it here for the sake of knowledge.  
  • Ruby Port: The youngest and simplest version of Port.  Just like the name implies, its typically deep red in color.  It’s also fruity, sweet, and easy drinking.  The wine itself is aged about 3 years in wood and is ready to drink as soon as it’s released.  In fact the younger it is, the better it will taste.  Ruby Port is also the cheapest Port available and often a great introduction to the wine.
  • Tawny Port:  By far the most popular and common type of Port you’ll encounter in an after dinner setting.  Tawny Port is generally a blend of good quality wines that have spent a long time aging in oak barrels.  While in the wood, the wine softens and turns to a pale garnet or brownish color (it tawnies, hence the name).  One point of
    Tawney Port is the most common style available.  Note the 20 year marking on the bottle, indicating the average aging of the wine in the blend.
    Tawney Port is the most common style available. Note the 20 year marking on the bottle, indicating the average aging of the wine in the blend.

    confusion is the age marked on the bottle, typically 10, 20, 30, or 40 year old.  This is NOT the age of the wine in the bottle, but rather the AVERAGE time the wines used in the blend have spend aging in barrels.  Tawny Port is generally less sweet and fruity than Ruby Port and offers more complex earthy/nutty flavors.  It varies wildly in quality and price, from less than $10 to well over $100.  Tawny Port is ready to drink upon release and won’t get better with age.

  • Colheita Port:  A sub-variety of Tawny Port where the blended wines are all from a single vintage, usually listed on the bottle.  In other words the wines from a single year are placed in wooden barrels and aged (tawnied) for many years before being bottled.  It’s generally better quality than regular Tawny, but not very common.
  • Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port:  This Port is made from a single, generally lesser quality, vintage year.  The wine is fermented and then aged in wooden barrels for anywhere from 4-6 years before being bottled.  The result is a darker, less soft, and much fuller style Port than the Tawny.  LBV Port is marked with the vintage data and ready to drink as soon as it’s released.  It’s fairly easy to find and you can expect to pay $20-30 for a half bottle, making it a fairly good value.
  • Vintage Port:  The crème de la crème of Ports.  Vintage Port is only made during the very best years and from the very best grapes.  It is aged for a scant two years in oak
    Some older bottle of Vintage Port.  Amazingly these are still drinkable and probably quite good.
    Some older bottle of Vintage Port. Amazingly these are still drinkable and probably quite good.

    barrels before it’s bottled and sold, which is not nearly enough time for the wine to soften or fully develop.  As a result, Vintage Port requires an enormous amount aging in the bottle before it’s ready to drink, typically around 20 years after the vintage, but sometimes even longer (70+ years) depending on the year!  However, the wait is worth it.  Vintage Port is not only one of the best dessert wines in the world, it’s one of the best wines period.  It’s extremely full bodied, rich, and chock full of flavors such as nuts, toffee, chocolate, and spice.  Recent release bottles of Vintage Port are fairly easy to find, but are expensive at $50-$100 a bottle.  For properly aged (and ready to drink bottles) expect to pay around $100 or more, sometimes much more…

Enjoying Your Port

OK, enough with the academic stuff, now it’s time to for the fun part: drinking Port.

As was mentioned earlier in the post, the good WASP will enjoy a glass of Port as an after dinner drink, which means you should too.  Because Port is a sweet wine, it’s the perfect compliment to dessert.

Truth be told, nothing goes better with a good glass of Port than a simple hunk of dark chocolate, but in general the rule is that Port will pair beautifully with any dark colored dessert.  In other words if chocolate or dark berries are listed in the ingredients, you’re good to go.  What if you’re having a light colored dessert?  Sorry, you’ll just have to wait for the post on Sauternes…

Proper Decanting is necessary to aerate and remove sediment from Vintage Port.
Proper Decanting is necessary to aerate and remove sediment from a Vintage Port.

Of course Port can also be enjoyed without dessert on its own.  Or for a truly classic paring, try a glass with walnuts, or any strongly flavored cheese (Bleu cheese is best).

If you’re serving Port at home (or just want to impress your friends/annoy your waiter) it should be served at cool room temperature, or roughly 65 degrees.  Most Ports can simply be poured and enjoyed, but properly aged Vintage Ports (don’t even think about serving otherwise) requires several hours of decanting to remove sediment and allow the wine to properly aerate.  It may seem like a lot of work, but just do it, otherwise you’ll have wasted that $100 investment and worse yet, cast yourself as a WASP noob in front of all your friends.

Port-ing Thoughts

Port really is a wonderful wine and, unlike most things WASP’y, actually represents a phenomenal value.  Port’s popularity has waned in recent years, which is bad for Port producers, but great for you as a consumer since low demand = low prices.  Good quality Ruby and Tawny Ports can easily be had for less than $20.  Even an expensive Port (like a $100+ bottle of Vintage Port) is a great deal considering a comparable quality dry red wine will cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Another value consideration is that unlike normal wines (that will start to turn bad a mere day or two after uncorking) Port will stay good for weeks, or even months, after opening.   The reason of course is the fortification (adding brandy to wine to preserve it) that makes Port so special in the first place.  After all, if it could survive weeks in the cargo hold of a ship, a couple days on your shelf is nothing.

Oh, and one last parting word of warning…  Because Port is a fortified wine, it will typically have an alcohol content that is far higher than normal table wine, usually anywhere from 15-25%.  In other words, watch out!    Generally speaking, a serving of Port is about half that of a normal glass of wine, so pour and enjoy accordingly.  Cheers!

Next Steps:

  • The first step is obvious: Go out, buy some Port, and drink it! I recommend starting with a bottle of Ruby Port and working your way up from there.  The beauty of Port is that it’s usually available in half bottles and cheap enough to try a bunch of different brands and styles without breaking the bank.  And if it’s something you don’t care for, just pour it out or cork it up for a couple weeks till you can offer it to someone who does.
  • Real Port only comes from Portugal, but that hasn’t stopped others from imitating the
    Renwood, out of Amador, CA, makes an exceptional Zinfandel based Vintage Port.
    Renwood in Amador, CA makes an exceptional Zinfandel based Vintage Port.

    style.  Many wine producers (particularly in the US) make at least one port-style wine, often with very good results.  Typically these wines are made with local varieties (Zinfandel makes particularly good Port wine) and will be sold as Ruby or sometimes LBV style Port.  You’ll rarely see Tawney or Vintage offerings.  Some makers can call their wines Ports (via grandfathered rights, otherwise Port is trademarked and can only be used for real Port) but most will not.  You can identify them by their smaller bottles, alcohol content (around 20%), and usually find them along with the other fortified wines at the wine shop.

  • Most high end restaurants will include Port (almost always Tawney, but sometimes Ruby’s or Vintage as well) on the dessert menu, which you should absolutely try.  A popular offering is from a producer called Cockburn.  This is a wonderful choice, but you can save yourself some embarrassment by using the correct pronunciation: COH-burn.  Enjoy!
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The Sunday Brunch

When it comes to upscale socialization and drinks before 5:00, brunch reigns supreme.

With Easter Sunday nearly upon us, what better time to highlight that WASP’iest of all meals: Brunch.  Aside from being one of America’s best loved portmanteaux, the mere mention of bunch is sure to conger up images of the classic WASP lifestyle.  Upscale social interaction, fancy restaurants, preppy attire, and of course, the hands-down best excuse to drink during the middle of the day.

That being said, brunch basics are a must-know for any serious student of WASP culture.  The good news is that learning to brunch (yes, it’s a noun and a verb) properly is one of the easiest lessons you’ll find on the how to WASP.  Really all that’s required is knowing when and where to show up, what to consume once you’re there, and then going out and experiencing it for yourself.  But first, a little history…

Brunch Beginnings:

Like most WASP’y, it should come as no surprise that the institution of bunch traces its origins back to Great Britain.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first used by a man named Guy Baringer in an 1895 article he wrote for Hunter’s Weekly titled Brunch: A Plea.

The traditional English Sunday dinner doesn't exactly qualify as "light" fare.

Prior to Mr. Beringer’s plea, the typical English Sunday consisted of an early breakfast and morning church service followed by a formal Sunday dinner.  Now, it’s important to note that in those days, dinner didn’t mean the same thing that it does today today.  Rather than being the third and largest meal of the day served in the evening, dinner was more akin to a substantial late lunch, served around mid-afternoon.  It was largest meal of the day and typically followed by a smaller evening meal called supper.  The English Sunday dinner in particular was often an especially heavy meal consisting of substantial meat dishes and other savory offerings.

If that sounds a bit daunting, you’re not alone.  Guy Beringer thought exactly the same thing and in Brunch: A Plea he proposed an alternative:

Instead of England’s early Sunday dinner, a postchurch ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare? By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.

Remarkably, this more than a century old proposal almost exactly describes brunch as it exists today.  Essentially a lighter mid-day meal that serves both as an informal social occasion and a reprieve from having to get up too early after a little weekend excess.

Over the course of the 20th Century brunch steadily caught on United States.  It also developed its close association with WASP culture as the meal became a favorite post-church social activity among the upper class establishment.  The golden age of brunch probably occurred around mid-century when each Sunday millions of Episcopalians across the country would head out from church on a weekly trek to the nearest restaurant to eat, drink, and socialize with friends.

While church attendance gradually declined in the decades following World War II, the institution of Sunday brunch stuck around.  Partly out of respect for social tradition, partly out of the appeal of not having to get up too early, and partly out of the aforementioned excuse to drink before five o’clock, brunch thankfully still remains relevant today.

A Quick Guide to Brunching Like a WASP:

As mentioned earlier, there’s really not too much involved when it comes to brunch, but there are couple pointers for first timers looking to do it right.  Remember that brunch is by nature informal and fun, so please consider the following general guidelines rather than absolute rules.

What Day? – Brunch was traditionally served on Sunday and that remains the case today.  Technically you could have brunch any day of the week, but you’ll find most restaurants offering a specialized brunch menu will only offer it on Sunday.

Today most Americans only go to brunch as couple times a year, usually for special occasions like Mothers Day, Valentines Day, or Easter.  However, there’s really no need to limit yourself.  I would encourage you to have brunch as often as you like, every week if possible!

What Time? – Every restaurant is different, but usually you’ll find brunch being offered from 10:30 AM to 2:00 PM.  Sometimes it may begin a little sooner, or end a little later.  In general if you plan on showing up sometime during the late morning you should be OK.

Where to Go? – To do brunch right, you’ll want to find a nicer, fairly upscale, restaurant.  Preferably one that offers a dedicated brunch menu, or at the very least offers both breakfast and lunch options.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive place in town, just someplace nice.  Could you simply catch a late breakfast at Denny’s?  Sure, just keep in mind you’ll be straying a bit from the WASP ideal.

The good news is that since brunch is not a formal meal, most restaurants that might normally be out of your price range for dinner typically offer much more reasonable prices for daytime fare.  Some places will even have special deals just for brunch.  A little research can really pay off.

The general sort of upscale/casual atmosphere you're looking for when scouting a brunch locale.

What to Wear? – Back in the old days it was easy, you simply dressed in whatever you wore to  church.  Today however, the key is balance.  On the one hand brunch is supposed to be a somewhat casual occasion.  On the other it’s still a traditional social event taking place in a nice setting.    If you do decide to dress up, you won’t look out of place, but in general you can get away with a sort of preppy/casual style.  If you’re having trouble deciding between outfits, always err on the side of a little too formal.

You'll never go wrong with Eggs Benedict!

What to Eat? – One of the great things about brunch is the shear selection of choices available.  Because you’re in between breakfast and lunch, it’s appropriate to order either.  Eggs, Bacon, Waffles, Pancakes, Salads, Sandwiches… sky’s the limit.  Brunch is the one meal where everyone at the table can get just about anything they like, all served at the same time.

Personally I favor the breakfast side of the menu.  In fact my go-to selection is Eggs Benedict, which I consider to be brunch royalty.  You get a little bit of everything on a single plate.  The eggs, sausage, and English muffin suggest a casual breakfast while the hollandaise sauce brings a touch of rich decadence to the party.  If you can’t decide on what to get, you’ll never go wrong with Eggs Benedict.

What to Drink? – Brunch offers one of the few socially acceptable excuses to drink in the middle of the day, so you should definitely take advantage!  The only catch is that you’ll want to stick to a few pre-approved choices to avoid standing out.  Translation:  Save the beer and martinis for happy hour.

Basically there are two options: The Bloody Mary and the Mimosa.  Fortunately what you lose in quantity, you more than make up for in quality as both are excellent options and perfectly suited to brunch dining.  For those who many not be familiar with one or the other:

    • Bloody Mary: A savory tomato juice and vodka based cocktail with spicy kick.  It’s a heavy duty drink that can go with just about anything and is a true WASP classic.  Find out more here!
    • Mimosa: A sweeter cocktail of orange juice and Champagne, mixed in a ratio of 1/3 juice to 2/3 wine.  Technically if it’s not Champagne (with a capital C), it’s not a Mimosa, but these days any sparkling wine has become an acceptable, and far more common, alternative.  Mimosas are best enjoyed with egg and mushroom based dishes.
Your brunch cocktail options: Mimosas (left) or a Bloody Mary (right). You really can't go wrong with either.

That’s really all there is to it.  Stick to the guidelines above and you’ll be out brunching like a pro in no time!

Next Steps:

  • Again, this one’s easy, just grab a few friends this (or any) Sunday and have brunch!  Even better, set up a standing weekly brunch and turn it into a new tradition.
  • While Easter brunch is a great tradition, and one I encourage you to try, there’s something to be said for the “off” weekends as well.  By off weekend I mean any Sunday that’s not Mothers Day, Valentines Day, or Easter.  The crowds will be much thinner and the atmosphere more casual and conducive to socialization.
  • Put together a brunch appropriate wardrobe.  While looking sharp for brunch is an obvious benefit, having a go-to preppy-casual outfit can serve you well in a host of other situations.  In fact I’d call the preppy/casual look one of the most versatile dress options today.  Not sure where to start?  You can’t go wrong at Brooks Brothers.
  • Bon Appetite and Happy Easter!

Wine Tasting

Wine.  So simple, yet so complicated, but it’s an undeniable truth that if you want to learn to eat and drink like a WASP, you need to know wine.  Few drinks speak to WASP culture as well as a First Growth Bordeaux, a Grand Cru Burgundy, or a bottle of vintage Champagne.  Unfortunately, while most people are fully capable of drinking wine, surprisingly few know how to properly taste and appreciate it.

Wine. Learn it. Love it.

“Why should I bother with all that fancy tasting stuff when I can simply drink what’s in front of me and enjoy it”, you may be asking?  Well, there are a couple reasons.

First, it’s only a matter of time before you’re at a dinner somewhere and someone offers you the tasting on a fresh bottle of wine.  At that point you will have two options 1) Embarrass yourself by admitting that you don’t know what to do, or 2) Really embarrass yourself by accepting the offer and then screwing it up.  Secondly, nothing will offend your average WASP oenophile more than watching someone throw down a glass of their 1982 Chateau Lafite Rothschild like a shot of cheap tequila.  And finally you might actually find you enjoy your wine more by taking the time to evaluate it.

Excellent, so we both agree that tasting wine is something you need to learn how to do.  Fortunately it really isn’t that difficult.  Lets start with the dinner example from above.

Say that your WASP’y friends have invited you out to eat at their favorite Michelin 3 star restaurant and have selected a nice bottle of wine to go with dinner.  The bottle arrives and the offer is extended “I say, would you care to do the tasting, old chap?”  With confidence you say “I’d love to!”  And then proceed with this easy 10 step process:

When inspecting a bottle, verify the producer (Caymus), the vintage (2004), and the variety (Cabernet Sauvignon).

1) The waiter (or Sommelier) will bring the bottle and present it for inspection.  Basically your job is to verify that it’s the same thing that was ordered.  Give it a brief once over paying particular attention to the producer and the vintage (year).  If something is wrong, make sure to say something (Unless of course you know enough to spot when the mistake has been make in your favor…)   If everything checks out, you may proceed.

2) At this point you may also want to feel the bottle of wine for temperature.  Generally you’ll want your red wines served between 60-65 degrees, whites between 55-60, and sparkling wines between 45-50.  As an easy frame of reference, keep in mind that your fridge keeps liquid at around 50 degrees.  If a bottle is too warm, it’s acceptable to ask for a bucket of ice to chill the wine before it’s served to the table.

3) The bottle is opened table side and you’ll be given the cork for inspection.  Pick it up and make sure it feels like normal cork, not dried out or excessively moist.   Visually inspect it for things that don’t look right.  Mildew (a little on the top is OK) or other odd discoloration are bad signs.  You may smell it as well if you like, but that’s not really necessary.

4) Once the bottle and cork have passed muster, it’s time to get down to business.  The waiter will pour a small amount of wine into your glass and then it’s showtime.

5) Pick up the glass and inspect the color of the wine, preferably against a light background, like a tablecloth.  At this point you may think that wine simply comes in red or white, but try to get beyond that and look more closely.  If it’s red is a really deep, almost purpley, red or is it a lighter ruby, or even brownish?  If it’s a white is it pale or a deep golden color, is it slightly greenish?  Don’t spend a long time here, maybe just a few seconds, but make sure you do it!

6) Next up is the swirl.  Take you glass and rotate it in small circles to get the wine up and swirling around the side of the glass.  Make sure to keep it under control because if the wine leaves the mouth of the glass, it’s game over. 5-10 good rotations are ideal for most wines.  Sparkling wines only need 1 or 2.

Get your nose right in there and concentrate. Don't cut corners here, it's the most important step!

7) Stop swirling and quickly stick your nose into the glass.  Again, use common sense here and keep your nose out of the wine…  Inhale slowly through your nose and think about what you’re smelling.  Is it light and barely perceptible or is the aroma (“nose” in wine-speak) strong and intense?  Pull your nose back, take in a fresh breath, and repeat at least one or two more times.  Make sure to take your time as this is the most important step in tasting wine!  

8) In a restaurant it’s acceptable to to simply give the wine a pass/fail rating.  However in a more formal tasting situation, you make be required to describe what you smell.  No fear, just check the tasking cheat sheet below for some helpful hints.  If the wine is a “fail”, you’ll know it immediately.  It will smell like mildew, sulfur, or something else you don’t want to put in your mouth.  If that’s the case, stop here and send it back immediately.

9) Assuming the wine passes the smell test, it’s finally time to taste.  Ideally tasting is done in three steps:  First take a small sip and immediately swallow to acclimate your mouth to the wine.  Next take a full sip and hold the wine in your mouth.  If you can, draw in a little air through your lips to help release aromas.  Move the wine around in your mouth letting it coat your tongue, cheeks, teeth, etc… and swallow.  Take one more sip and repeat.  What you’re looking for is sweetness (or lack thereof) in the wine, acidity (how tart the wine is), tannins (that dry, cotton-mouth feel, similar to when you drink tea), and the level of alcohol.  Ideally these tastes (the wine’s “pallet” ) will all be in balance without any one dominating over the others.

10) The end of the process is the final pass/fail test.  If the wine tastes OK (no vinegar or other nasty tastes) then signal your approval and the waiter will begin to pour the wine into each guests glass, or a decanter if appropriate.  At that point you’re done!  Unless…

10.1) If any aspect of the wine seems “iffy” there’s no shame in asking someone else at the table for their opinion.  People will always interpret the aroma and taste of wine differently and sometimes a second opinion is warranted.  If the wine is bad, then make sure you send it back.  While it can be awkward to refuse a bottle of wine, it’s not nearly awkward as giving your approval and then being responsible for everyone at the table getting stuck with bad wine. 

That’s all these is to it!  That procedure will serve you well no matter what WASP’y wine situation you may find yourself in, be it a fancy restaurant, a dinner party, or attending a wine tasting.  

Ah yes, wine tasting.  What is that about?  Why it’s a perennial WASP favorite where people gather and do nothing but drink and discuss wine.  Sounds like fun, yes, but remember that this is a situation where you’ll required to go beyond the simple pass/fail test and actually describe what you’re tasting.  How to go about doing that?  Well that’s where things can get more difficult. Fortunately we’re here to help!

Wine Tasting Cheat Sheet:

When it comes to wine, most of the “flavors” you detect are actually scents and identifying those scents are the bread and butter (both actual wine descriptors) of any wine tasting. 

If you’ve ever attended a wine tasting, or even read the description on the back of a bottle, you might be a little put off by the depth of aroma/flavor analysis.  After all, how the heck can a grape product smell like pencil shavings, root beer, or tar?  Well, we’ll get to that, but first we need to recognize that the vast majority of the scents in a glass of wine come from two sources: The fruit from which the wine was made and the wooden barrel it was fermented and/or aged in.

The Fruit: The aromas generated here typically smell like… wait for it… fruit!  What kind of fruit depends largely on the grape variety used.  Instead of trying to pick out individual flavors, try to classify the smell in broader group.  Below are some of the most common.  The first two apply mainly to reds, the latter three to whites.

Black Currant (AKA Cassis) is a little known berry in the US but is a common descriptor for dark red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
    • Black Fruit (blackberry, blueberry, plum, currant/cassis)
    • Red Fruit (cherry, strawberry, raspberry)
    • Tree Fruit (apple, pear, peach)
    • Citrus Fruit (orange, grapefruit, lemon)
    • Tropical Fruit (pineapple, coconut, lychee)

Once you’ve identified the group, then you can start to name individual flavors.  The good news here is that no one can challenge your assessment of specific flavors since everyone experiences wine differently, so be bold!  As long as you can identify the broad group, you’ve got the freedom to say whatever you want.

Note that it’s possible for the grapes to produce other scents as well.  Examples include a grassy aroma, vegetables, flowers, or earthy flavors such as mushrooms or truffles.

The Wood: Most red wines and a few white wines (primarily Chardonnay) are fermented and/or aged in oak barrels.  There are all sorts of variables when it comes to barrels.  American Oak, French Oak, Hungarian Oak…  Different levels of “toast” describing how much the inside of the barrel was charred during its production.  Age of the barrels used.  All these factors affect the flavors of the wine.   For now just know that oak can add the following aromas:

    • Oakiness – The flavor/aroma of the wood itself
    • Smokiness
    • Spicy – Cloves, Cinnamon, Pepper
    • Vanilla
    • Chocolate
    • Coffee
    • Tobacco – Think the dried leaves, not a pack of Camel Lights
    • Earth – That damp woodsy/soil smell
Wine aging in French Oak barrels. The wood contributes tannin and a range of new flavors and aromas to the wine.

Note that if a wine wasn’t aged in wood, as in the case with most whites, non of these flavors will likely be present and you can simply focus on the fruit as described earlier.  How do you know whether a wine was aged in wood or not?  Simple, just ask!  Quite the opposite of sounding ignorant, any good wine-geek will appreciate your interest in the vinification (winemaking) techniques behind the glass you’re about to sample.  

If you can identify the fruit and wood flavors in a glass of wine, you’ve got all the tools you need to conquer any tasting situation.  But wait, now it’s time for the fun part!  Remember all those crazy descriptors on the back of the label?  Well once you’ve proved that you can identify the basic aromas in a glass of wine, you then have license to go crazy and add in your own unique ideas to the mix.  Does it smell like playground mulch?  Maybe Domino’s pizza crust?  Sky’s the limit and again, who’s to say any different?

The Taste: AKA the “Palate” of the wine.  Most of this was covered in Step 9 above, but here are the basics one more time for those with reading comprehension issues.  In terms of actual taste, there are usually only 4 things you’re looking for in a wine:

    • Sweetness:  Perceived up front by the tip of your tongue, sweetness levels in wine speak range from “dry” (not sweet) to “off dry” (kinda sweet) to just regular old “sweet”.
    • Acidity: Basically a fancy word for the tart or sour flavor in a wine.  It’s sometimes described as giving wine a “crisp” flavor.  Remember Sour Patch Kids candy?  Those are highly acidic.  You perceive acidity on the sides of your tongue.
    • Tannins: More of a texture than an actual flavor, tannins are responsible for the cotton-mouth dry feeling the wine creates in your mouth.  Highly tannic wines are described as “astringent” while wines with light tannins are described as “soft”.  Since tannins are largely a product of grape skins and wood aging, they’re typically only a factor in red wines, but not always…
    • Alcohol: The reason most people even bother with wine to begin with.  By this point I’ll assume that you know what alcohol tastes like.  When it comes to wine the key is judging how much is present, which itself is usually a factor of the climate where the grapes were grown (warm and sunny = higher alcohol).
Sweet and fruity is good, but try to appreciate the other aspects of wine as well. You'll be glad you did.

Again, the key idea when it comes to taste is for all these sensations to be in balance with each other and for no one component to stand out too much.  Beyond that it’s really a matter of personal taste.  One word of caution is not to dwell only on the sweetness of a wine.  It’s a sure mark of a novice wine drinker.  Yes, we all like sweet stuff, but when it comes to impressing your WASP friends, you’ll need to look beyond the sweet.

The Body:  I’ve always found this term a little confusing because it’s said to the describe the “weight” of the wine in your mouth.  Well, doesn’t all wine weigh about the same?  Technically yes, but when it comes to wine speak the answer is a resounding no.  What wine snobs are actually describing here (I think) is the concentration of the wine.  The analogy I’ve heard used most often is the difference between types of milk.  Skim is light bodied, whole is medium bodied, and cream is full bodied.  Again its all very subjective, but in general if you describe concentrated/high alcohol wines full bodied and thin/low alcohol wines light bodied, you can’t go wrong.  If you’re in a pinch, you can always hedge your bets and go with medium bodied.

The Finish:  The final aspect of any wine tasting and no, I’m not talking about the part where you say goodbye and hope that you’re cool to drive… The finish of a wine describes how long the flavors and aromas of a wine last after you’ve swallowed it.  In general the longer the finish the better, that is unless the wine has left you with a bad taste in your mouth…  Fortunately the answer there is easy, just try more wine till you find one you like!   

Next Steps:
  • This one is easy, just go out, get a bottle of wine, and start drinking!  Try to find bottles that have in depth descriptions listed on the label.  At first read the descriptions and then try to find those flavors yourself.  Once you’ve gotten a few bottles under your belt, try drinking first and then reading to see how close you can get to the experts analysis.
  • Make sure to sample a variety of wines.  It’s easy to get caught up with a single type or style of wine, but be sure to explore so you know what else is out there.
  • Once you’ve got a little confidence, attend an actual wine tastings, even if it’s just at the local wine shop.  That gives you the opportunity to sample a bunch of different wines side by side without having to pay for four or five complete bottles.
  • If the wine bug gets you, then start reading up.  There are literally thousands of books out there on the subject.  I’ve found the “Wine for Dummies” series to be a good all around guide.