Taking that leap into one’s twenties and leaving mum’s wallet at home affords a lot more emphasis on where you choose to spend a night out. Alcohol is often a large part of a night, so it’s important you get it right. Sometimes, though, getting a Latin encyclopedia of a wine list thwacked in front of you is pretty intimidating. If you’ve ever taken a St. Cuths’ girl out for dinner, you’ll probably know what I'm talking about; appearing to know things about wine is a valuable skill to make it look like you’re cultured and really have ditched the high-chair. Through my experiences from meeting both parents and potential employers with wine cellars I have come to learn a couple tricks. What follows is a sneaky five top tips to help enjoy consuming wine without looking like a hick.
1) Remember where decent wines come from in NZ
There is always a region somewhere in NZ that grows grapes perfect for certain varietals (a varietal is the difference between sauvignon, or chardonnay etc). It’s important to know where the most popular wines come from, and which regions grow them the best. People are quite easily impressed when you know how much Kiwis love Central Otago Pinot Noir’s, or that a Marlborough Sauvignon is going to be ‘fresh’ and ‘lively’. Make sure you put a bit of effort into memorizing where the best wines of each varietal come from so you can have quick reference to work with when perusing a wine list. Try thinking of little catch lines to describe these wines that won’t make you sound like an idiot. You can taste these out for yourself (there’s nothing more fun than drinking nice wine), but for quick reference, look for a Sav from Marlborough, Chardonnays from the Hawkes Bay, Pinot Gris from Otago or Waiheke Island, and for Pinot Noirs' definitely go for Central Otago. Getting bold and going for a Shiraz means eyeing up South Australian wines, the equivalent of a Syrah in NZ.
2) Learn how to describe these wines
Before we go nuts trying to pinpoint the very small valley, hill or lake these wines were made in, on, or next to, we need to understand each varietals characteristics. Every wine rep will quote these same characteristics to you when, or if, you ever go to a wine tasting, ever. I’ve seen a fair few well overdressed (maybe overpaid) wine reps in my time and they will all tell you the following:
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc will be zesty, fresh, with a hint of citrus (and maybe some outwardly unique fruit - like watermelon and gooseberry) – you won’t be able to taste this until you’re told about it. The best way to go about this is to nod your head and say, “Yes, I love the fresh aftertaste of those kiwifruit rind flavours.” I say this because you won’t be able to recognise the aftertaste of lime and freshly cut grass - until you read it off the back of the bottle. To be honest for me, as long as it’s made from fermented grapes, I’m sold.
Chardonnay: Always, always have buttery oaky chardonnays. I don’t understand the logic behind a un-oaked chardonnay (oaked = left to rest in oak barrels, so it will almost be a little smoky). To me a un-oaked chardonnay is like decaf coffee - pointless. For best bets, look for the Mills Reef Reserve 2012; it’s perfect in terms of boldness. Remember that it will be buttery, definitely a bit heavier than your other Chardonnays. This is a little different to tasting a sav because it’s definitely bolder, a bit more of a meal - you’ll actually be able to taste the difference with this one.
Pinot Gris: Always asked first is, “Is it dry or sweet?” This comes down to where it was made, but don’t worry, it’s not that deceptively hard to taste. A dry Pinot Gris will leave a taste on your tongue making you want to take another sip, almost draining the hydration out of your throat. A sweet Pinot Gris will have you imagining they’ve stirred a tablespoon of sugar into the glass itself. Those are only the two extremes on the spectrum of Pinot Gris; everything other one falls somewhere in between. My favourite is Wairau River; it balances dry and sweet perfectly. Your mum probably drinks the Ned Pinot Gris, often referred to as cougar-juice. Please (please) avoid White Cliff.
Pinot Noir: Remember that this is a red wine; all of the above are white (wasn’t sure if I needed to outline this). Pinot Noir is most likely the most popular of all the reds, next to a Shiraz or Merlot. Central Otago Pinot’s are, “Earthy, with high tannin and a full bodied texture” and you can almost quote this for almost every Pinot Noir made north of the university. I like Rabbit Ranch, going for something like $25 a bottle at trusty Pak n’ Save, but settling for a BYO flat budget friendly Stoneleigh is just as good value. There’s also something about Roaring Meg that everyone loves.
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3) Know your occasion
It is important to know what wines are appropriate when. Once you’ve shown off to your St Cuths’ date that you know the difference between dry and sweet Pinot Gris, it might be important to know that your boss probably drinks something a little more sophisticated. So there are a few different moments where different wines are appropriate.
Summer afternoons: Definitely Sav, all the way. It’s perfect for chilling on the deck, and if you know to bring that along to the mid-afternoon barbecue you’re being dragged to, then you’ll definitely earn some well-deserved brownie points.
Dinner: Pre meal, chardonnay. And mid meal, if eating anything with the colour red in it, the wine needs to match. If your boss is taking you out to celebrate a killer work week, this is the situation where you will probably be going for a red wine. Don’t ever try to quote any sparkling wine made in NZ as being champagne.
Winter: The months between April and October should almost exclusively be designated for Merlot’s, Malbecs, Cab Savs, or a weird combination of all three (see anything made by Esk Valley). Something about winter attracts people to red wines and bigger glasses; bars even tailor their wine lists to suit. Get adventurous and try a Zinfandel (it’s usually from California).
4) Don’t get ahead of yourself
To be honest, a lot of the time I’m talking out of my ass and hope no one notices. If a waiter gets someone to taste the bottle of wine they are about to try, there will never be another response apart from, “Yes that is what we ordered.” Take this guide as a quick few tips on how to join me in the bullshit party that is talking about wine, but also remember that there is some fact behind what we’re talking about here. Viniculture is huge, an art form that is globally celebrated, but all you need to know right now is where these wines come from, typical characteristics of each, and where to use them; ready to impress. This is where I tell you not to step too far outside your comfort zone when showing off your mad wine knowledge, except to say when you taste you swill, sniff, sip, and enjoy.
5) Drink responsibly
A carefully selected $25 bottle tastes a lot better than a cheap-drunk-inducing $10 one; try to remember why you wanted to be a wine connoisseur in the first place. If you get out there and try a few different wines, sure enough you’ll have a repertoire of knowledge to whip out when you’re keen to impress.
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Co-authorship credit to David Hughes