In my work as a sommelier, I’m often asked to name my favourite wines. Well, I’m forever looking for that elusive sip that hits the spot and is just right for the moment.
Bubbles, especially champagne, rarely disappoint. That distinctive “pop” of the cork never fails to get my attention. To me, it heralds a happy occasion. And it’s often the first drink served at wine events.
If I’m in a healthy mood, I’ll look for a wine that’s organic or bio-dynamic, and also environmentally friendly. These wines contain minimal amounts of SO2 (sulphur dioxide), which lessens the chance of an allergic reaction or headache for those who are sensitive to sulphites. That said, SO2 – a natural compound – is necessary to the winemaking process as it helps to maintain stability of the wine in the bottle. It’s a preservative, protecting against oxidation and microbes that would make the drink unpalatable.
The best way to avoid a sulphite reaction is to drink wines that have some age, as the level of SO2 in the bottle decreases over time. I also find that inexpensive or new wines made from young vines tend to have more SO2, which helps maintain the flavours in the bottle. If you’ve ever sniffed a glass of wine that has a burnt aroma reminiscent of a freshly lit wooden match, that is most likely the smell of too much SO2. Decanting makes a difference, even for a white wine. If no decanter is available, pour the wine back and forth between two glasses or even stir the wine with a spoon to aerate it.
When I want a red wine but only white is available I will go for a chardonnay, one that has a fair amount of oak, such as a buttery Napa chardonnay – American winemakers get this flavour just right – with that toasty, vanilla bean, creamy tropical oak that goes so well with shellfish, grilled salmon or a simply roasted or grilled pork belly. The only French chardonnay that comes close is a fairly young Meursault, made by a winemaker bold enough to use heavily toasted oak barrels.
For something other than chardonnay, I might choose a white-wine grape from a warmer climate. None, in my book, fits the bill better than viognier. It’s a white-wine grape with a lovely perfumey nose, gently spiced ripe apricots and lush pears. Quite often, especially in Australia’s Barossa Valley, viognier is added to shiraz/syrah to lighten and balance the red grape’s intense pepperiness and soften its intensity. A slightly aged viognier – say, about five years old – can hold its own in a pairing with a grilled steak or lamb chops.
Moving on to reds, my preference is for those with some bottle age. Really young reds are aggressive on the nose, alcohol being the first thing I notice when I take a sniff. Fruit is another note that makes an overwhelming first impression; if the wine is from a warm climate, the fruit is usually jammy. Oak jumps out, too, in many young wines, reminiscent of a piña colada cocktail. Young tannins can be astringent on the palate, like licking an aspirin tablet. Then there’s the SO2, which can be prevalent when winemakers want their young wines to continue to taste fresh.
With age, all of these elements settle down to harmoniously form that just-right sip that wine lovers seek: mellow on the palate, with a nose that entices you to take another sniff, and each sip revealing another layer of flavour.
When I am working and see someone take a sip, and then a contemplative look comes across their face, I know a wine has touched their imagination and that they might have found wine perfect for that moment.