By Troy Knapp
Troy Knapp is executive chef at the Hyatt Hill Country as well as a certified sommelier.
I will always remember the first time I had a truly remarkable and well-aged vintage port. The bottle I speak of was 36 years old and well taken care of. Pulling the cork was like opening a buried treasure and from the enormous amount of sediment in the bottle a beautiful purity emerged as it was decanted. The glasses were poured. I took my first sip. My first thought: “This is amazing, perfect, truly beautiful.” And after I took it all in, my second thought: “Damn! Where had this been? All this time, it had been missing from my life.”
Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot may be your loved one; however, they are not your spouse and will not be heartbroken if you experience different wines. The vast world of wine has much to be explored and the diversity is intriguing. Don't be afraid to play the wine field a bit. One of two things will happen; you will find that absence has made the heart grow fonder or you'll discover a new love. Regardless, the journey will be enjoyable, I promise you that. Here are a few tips while you allow your palate to gallivant around.
Put the sommelier to the test
Looking for wine can be intimidating. In the restaurant setting, the sommelier [saw-muh-LYAY] can be a good ally to have. No sommelier? Ask for a wine steward or someone who knows the most about the selections offered. If the restaurant doesn't seem to offer a good selection, stick to beer or cocktails. Don't go looking for an experience where there is none.
A sommelier, wine steward or any industry professional truly wants to lead you in the right direction and to assist you in selecting a bottle that will align with your specific needs. That is his or her role. Be vocal. Let preferences be known along with what you are eating and your budget. Wine experts love a good challenge and will want to deliver the best experience for you; after all, their pride is on the line.
Purchase for the season
Sample around the wine world for a great many unique flavors.
Wines from a warm climate are typically richer, heavier and fuller in body than wines from a cool climate, which are lighter in body and have greater amounts of acidity. Drinking cool climate (refreshing) wines in the summer and adversely warm climate (richer) wines in the winter is a good seasonal approach, and can lead to a better experience.
Wine regions can be quite diverse. California, for example, has a range of climates varying from hot to very cool, based on their proximity to oceanic influence, elevation and a host of other factors. This can be a little confusing. An easier way to decipher if a wine is going to be full or light bodied and the climate it came from is to simply check the alcohol level on the bottle. I prefer wines with the alcohol of 13.5 percent and under in the summer and 14 percent and upwards in the cooler months.
Pursuing similar traits
Seek out unique varietals that may have similar traits to the wines you are familiar with. These general relations may steer you to something new:
New World vs. Old World
- If you like California Napa Chardonnay you may like other full bodied whites such as Viognier, Fiano from Southern Italy or the fleshy (fuller) wines of Alsace, such as Pinot Gris.
- If you like Sauvignon Blanc, you may like Albariño from Spain, Grüner Veltliner from Austria or Pinot Grigio from North East Italy.
- If you like Pinot Noir, you may like Barbara d' Asti from Piedmont Italy, Cru Beaujolais from Burgundy, Agiorghitiko from Greece.
- If you like California Cabernet Sauvignon, you may like Shiraz from Australia, Malbec from Argentina, Carmenere from Chile or Nero d'avola from Italy's island of Sicily.
If you like fruit-driven wines, purchase selections from the New World, such as California, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and Australia. If you like earthier wines, seek out Old World selections, in other words, wines from traditional producers in France, Italy and Germany. Spain, Oregon and Washington state offer the best of both worlds and are known to offer traits that are reminiscent of the New and Old World wine-producing regions. They typically display generous fruit with an integration of earth or minerality.
Points and critics can cause confusion
Let's face it, wine is quite subjective and with the world of facts, figures and opinions it can get rather convoluted. I usually take critics’ scores with a grain of salt when selecting wine. These common ratings are abundant on retail shelves, in magazines and on the Internet. In theory, a 90-point wine should be very good. Not always, I've had my fair share of highly rated wines that ended up disappointing me. The point system is fairly one-dimensional and doesn't take into consideration several variables that should be considered when selecting wine. Time of year, temperature, personal preferences as well as what you may be eating are all important factors that the point system shows no consideration for. I feel these ratings are overly influential and frequently under deliver. Keep in mind that a critic’s score is merely one person’s opinion. Does this critic know what you like? And seriously, is there truly any good "one-size-fits-all" approach, let alone with something as personal as wine?
Remember, variety is the spice of life and while heading down the wine trail remember, the journey, as well as the destination, will most definitely be sure to reward. Enjoy!
Troy Knapp is executive chef at the Hyatt Hill Country and a certified sommelier.