Do you panic just a little bit every time someone hands you a wine list? Me too. That's why I signed up for a course offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. You may recognize the organization for its role in the 2013 documentary Somm, which illustrated the grueling test required to earn the master sommelier distinction—it's so tough that only 230 people in the world have attained it.
While I don't have the intention—or frankly ability—to go that far, the Introductory Sommelier course I completed, which is the first of four levels to becoming an M.S., as they're called, equipped me with a foundation to feel like I now know my cabernet sauvignon from my carménère. Here are a few tips I picked up:
DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP.
At a restaurant it's the sommelier's job to help you choose a wine you'll like, so take advantage of his or her presence. Pro tip: If you've been tasked with choosing the wine for a group and would rather your friends not know how much you're willing to pay, point to a wine on the list in your price range (rather than vocalizing it) when the sommelier asks if anything caught your eye. He or she will get the hint, says Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson, a former wine director at New York's Eleven Madison Park whose online wine shop, Verve Wine, launches today.
BE ABLE TO ANSWER THREE BASIC QUESTIONS ABOUT THE WINE YOU'RE CHOOSING.
Think of your conversation with with a sommelier or a waiter as a "Mad Libs where you fill in the blanks," says Mark Oldman, author of the new How to Drink Like a Billionaire: Mastering Wine with Joie de Vivre. The first question is easy: red or white. Second, they should ask you about weight. "You don't have to get poetic—some wines are lighter in weight relative to their category, like the difference in your mouth between water and milk in texture, and in wine they call it body," says Oldman.
Third, Oldman also says drinkers should know the difference between acidity and tannin, which he describes as knowing "your tingle from your pucker." When people like or don't like a wine, often that preference "hinges on the acidity, which is the tingle or crispness you feel, or the tannin, which is puckering dryness in your mouth." So if you know you don't like your white wine with a lot of that tingle and you prefer it smooth and round, say that. In red wine, perhaps you do like a lot of pucker (you might tend toward flavors like espresso and endive) and so that's a way of identifying you like bitterness in your wine.
WHEN COMBINING FOOD AND WINE, REMEMBER THIS PRINCIPLE: "WHAT GROWS TOGETHER GOES TOGETHER."
A goat cheese from the Loire Valley, for example, matches perfectly with a sauvignon blanc from Sancerre in that region. Spanish food goes with Spanish wine, and Italian food marries well with Italian wines (think of how well a Chianti tastes with tomato-based red sauce pasta). It makes sense that wines and food from the same region pair perfectly with each other since the agriculture and grapevines are grown in the same place.
THE WINE SHOULD COMPLEMENT THE FOOD.
In the above example, the wine and the cheese have high acidity, so they complement each other nicely. A few other classic pairings include foie gras and Sauternes (the creamy, rich, salty fat of the dish meets a rich, unctuous wine), steak and cabernet sauvignon (the full-bodied, high-tannin wine goes with a bold, rich steak because its tannins help to soften the fat and release flavor).
SPICY FOOD IS DIFFICULT--BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE TO PAIR WITH WINE.
Look for sweet or what's known as an off-dry wine to help moderate the heat of a spicy dish. ("Off dry" means somewhere between dry and sweet.) An off-dry riesling from Germany or the Finger Lakes would do the trick. Avoid the big, high-alcohol reds at all costs.
WHEN IN DOUBT, OPT FOR A MEDIUM-BODIED CROWD-PLEASER GRAPE.
Pinot noir for reds. Sauvignon blanc or chardonnay for whites.
CHAMPAGNE GOES WITH EVERYTHING.
Not only is sparkling wine the perfect aperitif to get your mouth watering for a filling meal, it's also a worthy contender for pairing with everything from spicy food to pizza to French fries.
IF YOU'RE NOT HAPPY, SAY SO.
"Restaurants want you to be happy with your choice of wine, so if you aren't content for any reason, just explain why," Wilson says. "Most good restaurants with good wine programs will take the bottle back and find you something you like."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.