You’re at your favorite restaurant, about to order your favorite meal, and you’d like to try a new wine to accompany your food. It’s time to put your vineyard vocabulary to work and get exactly the experience you’re looking for. Are you ready? (Don’t worry, it’s not that complicated.)
Work with your Server
A good sommelier or server will know how to ask the right questions to arrive at the perfect recommendation for you. But to increase the likelihood of loving their advice, you will find it helpful to use some wine-related descriptors.
Start by identifying words that describe wines you’ve enjoyed in the past. These are some of the most important words to use when ordering wine. Armed with these, you can effortlessly request a “full-bodied, earthy and tannic red,” an “off-dry aromatic white with high acidity,” or whatever else you may desire.
Dry wine refers to a taste sensation attributed to tannins that causes puckering in the mouth. Dry wine is what you get when all of the grape’s sugars convert to alcohol. It is the opposite of sweet wine, which still has residual sugars left from the grapes.
Sweet is a tasting term referring to perceptible flavors and odors of sugar in the wine. Sweet wine is the opposite of dry wine.
Tannic or Smooth
Many people who use the word “dry” actually mean “tannic.” That’s because tannins can make your mouth feel dry. Tannins are phenolic compounds in the wine that leave you with a bitter, dry, puckery feeling. Tannins are important because they provide texture and mouthfeel to the wine and a sense of structure and balance.
Soft tannins are no longer astringent and result in smooth wine. Low tannin red wines are even-textured and round.
Some grape varieties are naturally predisposed to high tannin levels. If that’s what you prefer, be sure to mention it. Conversely, if you want to avoid tannic wines, the word you’ll want to use is “smooth.”
A complex wine has many layers to it and exhibits numerous odors, nuances, and flavors. If you’re looking for a wine that can change from the moment you taste it to the moment you swallow it, ask for a complex or deep wine.
Do you like wines that make your mouth water and pucker? If so, ask for a high-acidity wine. Acidity is the perceived level of crispness or sharpness of wine. A wine needs high levels of acid to provide liveliness and balance.
If you find the puckering sensation undesirable, low acidity is the way to go. Acidity works on a spectrum, of course, and many people find themselves somewhere in between.
Some people prefer their wines to be light and airy, while others want to drink something more substantial.
Full-bodied wine refers to wine that is high in both alcohol and flavor. Most full-bodied wines are red wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Bordeaux. Full-bodied wines have complex flavors and a rich mouthfeel.
Fermenting or aging wines in new oak (barrels that have not been previously used) will give them a woody profile accompanied by a range of flavors such as vanilla, spices, coconut, and mocha. If you like those flavors, you’ll want to mention that you prefer an oaky wine.
Buttery flavors in wine (most notably, domestic Chardonnays) come from a process called malolactic fermentation, in which the tangy malic acid in the wine (think green apples) is converted to softer, gentler lactic acid (think yogurt, cheese or, well, butter).
Wherever you land on the butter preference spectrum, this is an important term when you’re ordering chardonnay.
Earthy wine refers to an odor or flavor reminiscent of the earth, soil, or even mushrooms, dried herbs, leather, and tobacco. If you’re not afraid to get really earthy, you might request a wine that is “funky” – a descriptor often applied to natural wines.
If you enjoy wines with fruity flavors, you’ll want to request a wine that’s fruit-forward. These tend to be bright, approachable, and easy to drink. Fruit flavors vary with each grape variety; white wines can have flavors of tropical fruits, citrus, or stone fruit, while reds tend to have characteristics like cherries, berries, or plums.
Are you the fresh-from-the-garden type? Try asking for a herbaceous wine if you like flavors such as oregano, rosemary, and basil. Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine variety that is commonly positively described as herbaceous.
Your Price Point
If you’re not comfortable stating your desired price range out loud at the table, point to the price of a wine on the list and casually mention to your server that you’d like something along those lines. They’ll get the hint.
Specific Grape Varieties or Regions
If there’s a region or grape variety that you know you love, sharing this with your sommelier can be one of the best ways to get a great selection.
Saying something along the lines of “I love cabernets from Napa”, or “sauvignon blanc is my favorite grape” is a great way to relay your desires to your server. For instance – knowing that you like sauvignon blanc lets them know that you prefer light-bodied, high-acidity white wines with bright citrus and herbal flavors.
Enjoy your Experience
When it comes to ordering wine, it’s unnecessary to memorize the countless terms and phrases associated with wine. Knowing a handful of these terms will allow you to communicate your taste preferences to your server. And remember, enjoying wine is a social experience. You can’t go wrong with good food, good friends, and the right bottle of wine.