You’re giving a dinner party. You’ve pulled out all the stops to create a menu everyone will be talking about for weeks to come. You’ve polished silver, pressed table linens, and taken out your best china. Everything is perfect, except for one important detail — you haven’t selected the right wine to serve alongside that fabulous menu.
That’s probably because choosing a wine sends shivers down most people’s spines. There’s an urban legend that has many people believing you have to be a charter member of some snooty insider’s club in order to know how to pair wines with food. It’s time that myth was dispelled.
However, you do have to know how to talk the talk before you can walk the walk. And to help you learn the talk is the consulting sommelier at the Pranna Restaurant in Manhattan, Lee Campbell. A sommelier (pronounced sum-mahl-yay) is a trained wine professional who is part of the wait staff at a fine restaurant that usually purchase the wine served there, and helps patrons select the appropriate wines for their meals. Sometime a sommelier is also called a “wine steward”.
In addition to her duties at the Pranna, Lee teaches wine lovers about sustainable winemaking methods, and is a sales representative for a respected national wine importer. She has spent the last 10 years working at some of the top restaurants and wine stores in New York City, including Gotham Bar & Grill and Chambers Street Wines, and helping to open the pioneering wine boutique Harlem Vintage. Lee took time out of her busy schedule to discuss selecting wines.
If you’re going to select a wine like a pro, the first word you should become familiar with is “tannin”. This is an element used to age wines that is found particularly in red wine. The more tannin a wine contains, the more bitter the taste. Lee says, “It is perceived as a mouth-drying or chunky sensation on the palate, and can also be found in black tea and dark chocolate. It is derived from the grapes’ skins and, if used, also from newer oak barrels. Certain red grapes, especially those which are considered full-bodied, typically throw off more tannin. For instance, Malbec grapes generally make more tannic wines than Pinot Noir grapes.”
Another characteristic of a wine is its “nose,” or the aroma of the wine. Lee says there is only way to really appreciate the aromatics of a wine: ”Use a generously-sized glass, but don’t over-fill it. Swirl the wine vigorously, stick your nose right into the glass unselfconsciously and inhale deeply.”
How do you “taste” a wine to determine its quality? Lee recommends, “After fully appreciating its nose, take a deep sip, and then slurp or chew the wine a bit to draw out its flavor. Don’t worry about how you look — try to fully taste the wine. You are looking for a balance of ripe fruit, acid, structure, and earthiness. What all this adds up to is a wine with a deep and pleasurable flavor.”
Another way to determine a quality wine is if it has what wine connoisseurs call a “finish”. According to Lee, “If the flavor of a wine lingers on the palate, or has a long finish, it indicates a high-quality wine, lots of layers of complexity.”
It’s now time to walk that walk all the way to the wine shop or liquor store. There in front of you is a sea of bottles, so what should you be looking for on the label that tells you that this is a good quality wine? Lee says there isn’t any real way to tell from a label what kind of quality you’re getting. She recommends that instead of memorizing producers, vintages, and regions, find a smaller neighborhood shop with a well-educated wine staff, and throw yourself at their mercy. “The other thing which is helpful is to learn a few quality wine importers and look for their name on the back label. I recommend Louis Dressner, Terry Theise, Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, and Peter Weygandt.”
The other burning issue when you’re selecting a wine is, should you follow that old adage that red wines always have to be paired with red meat, and white with chicken and fish? And if that’s true, where does rosé fit in? Here’s Lee’s take on the issue:
“In general, red meat begs for red wine, but the contrary is not necessarily true. Red wine, especially if it is lighter to medium-bodied, can be very versatile. Not only is it a natural match for red meat, but it can also pair well with white meat, as well as grilled seafood and richer fish dishes. The most flexible of reds are made from lighter grapes such as Gamay and Pinot Noir, such as the wines of the Beaujolais and Burgundy districts. Rosé wine tends to go best with lighter meals, especially salads and fish dishes, and is thusly [sic] more of a warm weather tradition.”
If you see bottles with screw tops, does this mean they’re second-rate wines that should be served in dirty, crumpled, brown paper bags? Absolutely not, says Lee. “But what it generally means is that this is a casual wine meant for early-consumption. It is not meant for long cellaring (keeping it for an extended period of time). The global cork shortage means that there is just not enough good cork to go around. Too many delicious bottles of wine are tainted by bad corks. Since the true benefit of natural cork has to do with aging, there is absolutely no detriment to early-drinking wines to be bottled [sic] with screw caps. And in the end, it prevents waste.”
Most individuals, even though they aren’t connoisseurs, know that there are certain regions that have a reputation for producing great wines. Lee’s favorite regions are the Loire Valley in France, Austria, and the Marche and Alto Adige regions in Italy. These are regions which are retaining their distinct local character, while still making quality wines at great prices.
Armed with some basic knowledge, and enough confidence, you too can choose a wine that will be the right complement to the food you are serving. Think of it as putting the finishing touch on the plans for a perfect evening.