Working in a restaurant can be a thankless job. Apart from the ‘hustle bustle’ of a busy service, you’re expected to be a fountain of knowledge on a wide range of complicated products. Guests see you as the solution to a confusing collection of food and drinks lists that have been dumped on their table. None is more daunting than the wine list itself, especially if it’s as thick as an old phone book.
So where do you start? And how do you break it all down? Thankfully wine leaves clues and these clues can help you explain the differences between the various bottles sitting in your cellar. The information is right there on the label. A little background ‘Googling’ can soon make you perform like a Superstar Sommelier.
Here are 4 simple things you can use, right now, to confidently describe any wine. Things to tell the guest so they know what to expect once you pop that cork.
This is the one big factor that can really make a real difference to the aroma, taste and texture of a wine. All grape varieties are different and a little understanding of the basics will give you a huge head start at the table. Riesling, for example, is high in acidity and therefore produces wines that are fresh and elegant. Viognier, by comparison, has lower acidity and delivers soft, fuller whites with perfumed aromas. Pinot Noir is thin skinned red grape and this leads to lighter styles of wine with red fruit flavours. Cabernet Sauvignon is more powerful and tannic, thanks to its naturally thicker skins. By learning a little bit about these basic raw ingredients, you’re in a great position to find a wine that suits the guest.
Another important influence on the character of a wine is the location or the origin of its grapes. Every country, region or specific appellation has a unique set of conditions that affect the development and character of the grapes. Factors include soil, climate and topography and these will ultimately end up in the glass. You can look into the difference between Old World and New World wines or warm climate wines (riper, richer, higher alcohol) vs. cool climate wines (fresher, more elegant, lower alcohol). Researching the specific sub region of a wine on your list may tell you something about the local rules affecting the style in which the wine has to be made.
Someone who has a big say in the specific style of a wine, is the winemaker themselves. It’s worth investigating a little bit about their philosophy as this will give you a great story to tell about the wine. Some producers like to use oak with their wines and this can add body, flavour and softness. Others use techniques, such as lees stirring, to give texture and some play around at fermentation to add more tannins. Even a unique story about playing music to the vines
Not many products heave the year of harvest so confidently splashed across the label. But with wine bottles, it’s an important piece of information. Grapes from the same vineyard will change in character from year to year and this will alter how the wine tastes. Cooler vintages are higher in acidity and have more subtle flavour. In a warmer vintage the wine will be bolder and richer to taste. Another useful thing about the vintage is it can tell us how old the bottle actually is. Younger wines will be dominated by fresh primary fruit, whereas older wine will have softened over time and developed more savoury, earthier flavours.
If you stick to these 4 key elements, you’ll never be short of something interesting to say about any wine. Your guests will love your brilliant advice on how the wines should taste.
Focus first on the wines by the glass, as these are the ones you’ll get the most questions about. Then work your way through the top selling, popular wines. This will also start you on a journey of discovery into the wonderful world of wine; one that will lead to a happy life of drinking, food & matching and more fun when enjoying wine with family & friends.
When and where did you first start working with wine? Did you receive any training? Was there anyone in particular who inspired you to learn more?