French Wine Tasting: How to Be (or Sound Like) a Wine Expert (or Snob)

Lesson 1: Left, Good. Right, Bad.

September 10, 2019By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris-Update-CestIronique-Wine Bottles
Lesson 2: If you drink enough of the wine on the right, you will forget Lesson 1.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Paris Update on February 8, 2017.

For my most recent birthday, a friend gave me a bottle of a Pauillac grand cru classé from 1986. If you don’t have a friend like that, you should get one. It’s not the kind of wine that I drink every day. It’s not even the kind of wine that I drink every year. Or incarnation.

A 1986 Pauillac grand cru is a wine that should be saved for a special occasion. A very special occasion. In fact, a very, exceedingly, exceptionally, extraordinarily, especially special occasion. Examples of occasions on which it would be appropriate to drink this wine include:

• Your platinum wedding anniversary happens to fall on the same day that you win the lottery, the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and at least two Nobel prizes.

• The Yellowstone Supervolcano begins to erupt, promising to destroy most of life on Earth, at the same moment that a huge asteroid enters the atmosphere, promising to destroy the rest of it, but the asteroid happens to fall directly into the mouth of the volcano and turns out to be the perfect size to plug the hole, their opposite energies cancel each other out, and the world is saved.

• Donald Trump does something unselfish and sensible.

When one of those occasions arises, or when I feel like it, I will drink that wine. And when I drink it, I will pay close attention to its flavors and aromas. Later, if someone asks me to describe it, I will probably say something like, “It was real good.”

This is because I am not a wine expert. An enthusiast and aficionado, yes, but expert, no.

I’m one of those wine drinkers who select a bottle based largely on price, take it home, open it, let it breathe for the amount of time it takes to lift a glass from the table to mouth level, drink it, throw away the bottle and immediately forget its name.

If I like a wine and want to buy it again, I look for the same color of label in the same place in the store. If my wine sellers reorganize their stock, I’m out of luck — unless I rediscover it a month later and think I’ve found a new favorite.

A real wine expert, on the other hand, can accurately describe a wine’s gustatory qualities, know what foods to serve with it, rate it compared with other wines and, most importantly, remember its name.

Another thing a real wine expert can do is all of the above without sounding like a jerk. A lot of people are turned off by any wine commentary because they’ve seen too many insufferable snobs stare rapturously into the distance while holding their glass by the base with a roach clip and saying something like, “Very architectural… Teaky shoulders… I’m getting notes of yttrium and cobra venom mid-palate, with a soupçon of rehydrated mummy in the finish. Oh, and grapes.”

Here’s how to tell the difference between a genuine wine expert and a wine snob: the expert wants you to understand the wine, but the snob wants you to understand that he understands the wine. I say “he” because most of the wine snobs I’ve met over the years have been guys, but, as they say in the oenological world, if the cru fits, pair it.

All right, smart readers, I know what you’re thinking: how can I (meaning you) become a wine expert? The answer is: it ain’t easy. It takes years of effort, a refined sense of taste and, as I said (I think), a good memory.

On the other hand, if you aspire to become a wine snob, then I can help you! All you need is the:

C’est Ironique Glossary of Fancy-Schmancy Wine Terms

Impress your friends! Meet new people! You’ll need to!

White/rosé/red
These are the three basic colors of wine. Novices often complain that white wine is actually yellow, but that’s just a conspiracy theory. The proof is that if you pour white wine into red the resulting color is not orange but pink (rosé). This is the kind of scientific knowledge you need to be a wine expert.

Grand cru
“Cru” is the French word for “vintage.” It’s also the past participle of “believe.” A “grand cru” is a wine whose owners have managed to make people believe that it’s great.

Varietal
Indicates a wine made from a variety of different ingredients: grape juice, dandelion blossoms, soup bones, onion dip, etc. The wider the variety, the better the wine.

Nose
This is a rating of the alcohol content of the wine. A wine with a “big nose” will give you a bigger snootful.

Blush
What you will do when you wake up in the late morning and remember what you did at that party last night after drinking a wine with a big nose.

Bouquet
What you will probably need to send to the hosts of that party if you ever want to be invited again.

Dry
This is a desirable quality in wine: it’s so good that you gulp it down and lick all the remaining drops out of your glass.

Oaky
This term is used to describe a wine from Oklahoma, distinguished by the lack of marijuana notes in the aftertaste.

Appellation
A wine that has this word on the label is not actually wine, it’s moonshine whisky. A stemmed glass is not necessary.

Brut
Designates a wine that can also be used as an aftershave.

Corked
This is the term used to describe wine that has been impregnated with the taste of the cork. It is considered “ruined,” but if you think about it, the cork is also ruined by being impregnated with the taste of the wine, and you never hear anyone complain about that, do you? And you know why? Media bias.

Sparkling
What you’ll be if you drink an entire bottle of wine.

Still
What you’ll be if you drink another bottle of wine.

Legs
What you won’t feel anymore, perhaps permanently, if the bottles in the two previous definitions were actually Appellation clair de lune.

Decant
A French verb meaning to sing, probably off-key, and even more probably the obscene lyrics to “I Could Have (Danced) All Night” under the influence of too much wine.

Lees
This is a term that appears on sticky notes applied to wine labels. It means that those bottles belong to your housemate Lee, who is sick of you drinking his wine.

Phylloxera
This is the French spelling of “Filloxsara,” which is a mnemonic to remind wine buffs of the traditional accompaniments for a fine wine. Rather like the lime and salt with tequila, it is considered proper among connoisseurs to precede each sip of wine with a Buffalo wing from Chick-Fil-A wrapped in smoked salmon, and to clear the palate afterward with a slice of Sara Lee coffee cake.

Terroir
This is the French word for “terrier.” It means that the winemaker never walks his dog in the vineyards. Wines with this term on the label are considered superior.

Earthy
A euphemism used to describe wines that do not have the term “terroir” on the label.

Notes
What I should have been taking the other day when I drank that great Burgundy whose name I couldn’t recall when I returned to the wine store, other than to say that it was either “Château-something” or maybe “Saint-something.”

So there you have it! Just spout off three or four of these terms every time you bring any liquid anywhere near your mouth, and in no time you’ll be known as a respected wine authority.

And if that really happens, let me know. I’ll come over and share my Pauillac with you.

Click here to read more C’est Ironique columns in the Paris Update archive.

An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

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