BLIND TASTING WSET EXAM TIPS

 Me before the exam: please let there be a Riesling!

Me before the exam: please let there be a Riesling!

Some of the trickiest elements of the WSET Diploma are the blind tasting exams. I recently had an email from a reader requesting blind tasting tips for their upcoming exam.

After giving it some thought, I've put together my top 5 tips to help you ace your blind tastings, plus one bonus tip. One item I want to note up front though: you don't need to ID a wine to pass the exam - your ability to accurately assess the wine's characteristics is what will get you a pass (although it's always nice to get it right)!

Have a routine

There was some research recently that said when you have a routine when you taste, like looking in a particular direction, it can help you be more effective. There was also a study on the parts of the brain a somm or wine student accesses as they taste wine, and doing MRI's found they were the regions that govern logic and memory.

After I read the research, I took note of where my eyes went when I tasted, and found it's always up and to the right as I test a wine sample. This was a habit I'd developed without thinking about why. After noting it, I make efforts to repeat the same movement, especially in exams and when I can't pinpoint what a wine is. Having a habit is comforting and helps you feel in control when you're in a stressful situation.

Pretend you're picking up and swirling a glass of wine under exam conditions, and pay attention to any habits you have: where are your eyes looking? Try it out next time you do a blind tasting. I'd be interested to hear in the comments whether you look up and to the right too, or somewhere else completely (maybe your eyes are closed)!

Memorize & Scan

As you smell and taste, mentally run through the different aroma and flavour categories in your mind. Use the same order each time, so it becomes a strategy.

I always start with fruit: red fruit, black fruit, stone fruit, citrus, dried fruit. Oak: toast, vanilla, wood spice. Dairy: cream, yogurt. Herbaceous: cedar, tobacco, mint. etc. You don't need to find something from every category, just mentally ask yourself whether that category is present in the wine. It's a prompt to get you thinking.

Personally, I used to occasionally miss noting minerality, but now I make sure to just ask myself if it's present in the wine.

Pretend you are running a computer scan of the wine with your mind. Yes, it's a bit geeky, but now that I've memorized the categories, it's quick, easy, and intuitive.

With the tasting grid, you need to memorize the categories and their order. Absolutely! When I write a note, the elements are in the same order every time. Avoid going higgledy piggledy and be consistent: markers love it because it makes their job easier. If you're making markers lives easier, and your thoughts are in order, you'll convey 'mastery' (that's what WSET are looking for).

So you might think this is sounding a bit robotic? Maybe, but there's room to let your opinions shine in your note. If you think a wine is excellent, say so. If it tastes muddled and lacking in intensity, say so.

Note Your First Impression, But Don't Judge

The exam begins when the invigilator says it does, but there's no rule against being extra observant as your pour your wine samples. You can already be checking for clues without touching your glass: what's the colour, how viscous is it, is it clear or hazy, are there bubbles. Which order will you taste these wines in (there's no law saying you should taste in the order they're numbered! If one's opaque purple and another's pale garnet, start on the garnet).

When the exam begins, if something leaps out at you right away about the wine, write it down. For example, it's got screaming high acidity, or smells hot and jammy, or it's very floral, put a note at the top of your tasting sheet for later. Often these first impressions will help you suss out what the wine is when you're making a final conclusion. Not to be too neurotic, but choose a place on your scrap paper where you'll make these notes, and put them in the same place every time. Systems = success.

But... don't make a judgement call till the end!

As tricky as this is, try not to immediately jump to a conclusion about the wine. If a grape or region spring immediately to mind, make a note of it, but continue to assess the wine as if you don't need to ID it. If you're convinced at the start your wine is a Syrah, then without even meaning to, you might start writing out a Pinot Gris note when it's really a Torrontes.

Be A Detective

When studying for the Unit 3 Tasting exam, at the end of a flight of three wines, use the notes you've made from your three wines to give you clues. 

On my scrap paper, at the start of the test, I write down a list of all the main red and white grapes. When I go to conclude and an ID is called for, I narrow that list down as much as possible. For example, I recently tried a flight of three red wines. They were all medium intensity ruby, with aromas of black fruit, and peppery flavours. One showed herbaceousness, and another was rich and ripe. One was very meaty.

I narrowed down the grape shortlist to Cab Franc, Syrah, and Grenache. From there I went back to my notes and underlined common words and characters. Black pepper was in every note. Blackcurrant was too. All showed medium+ or higher tannins. One of the wines was extremely herbaceous. The key clue though was the strong smoked meat character of one of the wines.

I ruled out Grenache due to the high tannins present and lack of red fruit character. Hmmm, are these wines Cab Franc or Syrah? What classic regions could these wines be from? I make a list of all the regions these wines could logically come from: on the left for Cab Franc, on the right for Syrah.

If I go with Cab Franc, the Loire would be a prime guess, but are there other Cab Franc regions that would fit the other two wines? Hmmm. If I go with Syrah, the Northern Rhone would be a good fit for the meaty wine. The riper one could be from a hotter climate, like Australia or California. The herbaceous wine is from a cooler climate, but I can't place it. Of the two grapes, Syrah made more sense, and was the correct answer.

All that logic being said, sometimes you get a gut feeling at the end: "these are from Spain" or "this wine is Zinfandel", and it's important not to ignore why that thought is coming to you. Run your gut feeling guess through the lists you made and see if it's a fit.

Practice Under 'Extreme' Conditions

No, you don't need to practice blind tasting in Antarctica, but you do need to train yourself to write excellent notes in short times, under some duress.

You'll have 10 minutes a wine, but in the exam time flies by like crazy, and a blank page gets you no marks. Start by practising at 8 minutes a wine, but each week, drop it down by a minute until you can write a great note in 6 minutes.

During the exam, there will be 20 - 30 very stressed people in the room, shuffling, coughing, clinking glassware, etc. This can be a big distraction if you're used to tasting in silence, so I'd recommend playing music, blind tasting in a group, or having other ambient noises (like a TV in the background) as you practice.

On test day, if you've prepared this way, you'll have extra time to go back and re-taste the wines to make any final comments in your conclusions. I've picked up extra points by going back at the end, and picking up a note of cream or pepper that I missed previously that helps me ID what's in the glass.

You'll also have a little extra time to scan your answers to make sure you haven't left out a category, costing you points. For example, I noticed in practice exams that I sometimes forgot to note flavour intensity or alcohol. I made a point of checking at the end of my exam and caught that I had indeed left it out on a couple notes. Yes, two extra points! Check your tasting notes against the grid to see if you're regularly forgetting categories.

Bonus Tip: Read & Re-read the Questions

This is something that everyone says to do, but only because it's true. Every exam, there's someone who fails to read what the question is asking and may not pass because of it.

There's an easy fix though: bring a highlighter to your exam, and highlight the action words from each question. For example, if the question says, "Note the differences in quality. These wines are from different regions", then highlight and circle in pen "Note the differences in quality" and "different regions". When you're making conclusions, look again at your highlighted sections.

Thanks for reading! If you have a tip to share, please leave a comment.

Cin cin,

Rachel

HOW TO PAIR WINE & FOOD

Which wine will pair best with a meal? Or, which meal will pair best with a wine? It’s the number one type of question I get. But it’s really not that complicated, I promise.

Think about how you would go about decorating a room. If you’ve watched Sarah’s House, featuring the lovely Sarah Richardson, you’ll know she always chooses her key fabric first, the one that has all the colors she’ll be working with. Then she chooses the paint and accessories to pop from that key fabric. I think you know where I’m going with this…

The ‘fabric’ in our case is the meal. When pairing wine, we always want to start with the food that will be served. That dish will give us all the key flavors and textures to pair with. Then we start thinking about, is the dish light, or rich? Is one flavor dominant, like lemon, or is there a blend of flavors like roast onion, herbs, and pepper? Is it rustic or elegant?

Next, choose your color. What color wine do you think will go best?

Body – do you need a heavier bodied wine or lighter one? This will lead you to cool or hot wine regions.

Flavor intensity is important. The wine should bring out the best in the food and vice versa, never dominate and overpower. This is where the grape you choose will play a big role.

Most important though, is to have the courage of your convictions…

If you’re ordering for the table, or have chosen the wine for a dinner party, don’t let them see your fear! I’m convinced 99% of their reaction will be based on how confident you appear. So remember: be confident, be creative, and as Julia Child said, “Never apologize”!

Here’s a fun Pinterest graphic that my talented friend Susannah of Feast + West created based on my top pairing tips {I recently wrote a series of Wine 101 articles featured on her site, be sure to check them out}!

 

HOW TO WIN AT A WINE FESTIVAL

 Yes, I did say to wear comfortable shoes, but... no birkies please 

Yes, I did say to wear comfortable shoes, but... no birkies please 

Are you heading to a big wine tasting event?

Fight the overwhelm, check out my top 9 wine tasting tips for having an awesome time at a wine festival:

~Don’t drink everything in sight (despite the temptation), be discerning, try to read up a little on the wineries you want to check out ahead of time. I take a look at the wineries participating in the event, and make a list of 3-5 must try wines that I’m excited to sample. I head to those tables first, which helps me get oriented in the room and avoid being overwhelmed by options.

~Circle the floor once before you start tasting to get the lay of the land, plan your attack, make note of your favourite wineries.

~It’s more than OK to spit out the wine. It can be a long night, and there are many wines to try. Have a sip if it’s really delicious, but don’t be embarrassed to use ‘ye olde spit bucket’ or tip out your glass into it after you’ve had one sip – you don’t have to finish everything they pour for you. I spit out 99% of the wine – unless it’s mind blowing or 50 year old port 

~Eat a solid meal before the party. Pasta, bread, anything that will fill out the corners of your stomach. Food served at tasting events is usually of the bite-sized canape persuasion, there are lineups, and they are snacks not a substitute for a real lunch/dinner.

~Dress for success. Of course, you can wear jeans and a t-shirt, but this is a fun event to dress up a little. A cute dress, or nice blazer will really help you stand out as stylish. Leave the 3″ heels at home though, your feet will thank me. I opt for cute but comfy wedges or ballet flats.

~Be polite and friendly to the people pouring your wine, it can be a long event for them, especially as the crowd gets buzzing. Don’t forget to compliment the wines you love, you may even be talking to the person who made them!

~Once your wine glass is filled, step aside so others can reach the table. If it's busy, don't monopolize the table's host. If it's reasonably quiet, feel free to ask your questions about the wine (or grab a card from the table to look up later).

~Have a plan to get home safe. No drinkin’ and drivin’ of course. Plan your transit route, grab a cab/uber, or take advantage of the festival's hotel packages.

~If the table you want to visit is too crowded, head to the quiet booth you’ve never heard of before. I’ve tasted delicious wines and met interesting people just by being open minded about trying something totally new.

~Lastly, have fun and keep an open mind. Try a new grape, a new winery, a new region that you’ve never had before. I also challenge you to try a grape you’ve had before and not enjoyed. If you’ve completely written off Chardonnay, you could be missing out just because you had that one off-putting bottle, when another style may blow your mind!

HOW TO BUY SPARKLING WINE AS A GIFT

 A flower? How thoughtful... but I was really hoping for some Champagne

A flower? How thoughtful... but I was really hoping for some Champagne

One of the top questions I get from wine lovers is, “What wine should I buy for X occasion”? Or, they need a gift for the boss, or a wine to bring to a dinner party.This is my answer: SPARKLING WINE!

Let me enumerate my reasons:

#1 It goes with everything. From oysters to pizza, you can’t go wrong with sparkling.

#2 It’s fun! Everyone loves the bubb.

#3 There’s a wide range of pricing. From entry level, to spendy Vintage Champagne, whatever your budget, there’s a sparkling for it.

Now we’re going to talk options. We all know Champagne (which on a label denotes it’s made in the Champagne region of France). But there are some other less well known bubbles I want you to know about too. They’re not all made in the same way as “Champagne Method” (called “Traditional Method” when used outside Champagne) which greatly affects their price. For a primer on the Champagne Method, check out #Instawineschool Day 6.

Prosecco:

Made in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions of Italy (the North-East corner). Often cheap, cheerful, perfect for making cocktails (Bellini anyone?), or enjoying on it’s own, Prosecco is the go-to wine to bring to a house party or as a small thank you to the neighbors for picking up your mail. Most Prosecco is made using the tank method, in which the bubbles are added to a wine while it’s in a tank (as opposed to created in the bottle via secondary fermentation) which makes it cost effective. Prosecco is made from the grape Glera, and is usually crisp, fruity and fairly dry, although sweeter versions do exist. If you’re looking for a top quality ‘Secco keep an eye out for the letters DOCG on the label.

Cava:

Made in Spain. Cavas are actually made in the same method as Champagne, so you’ll see ‘Traditional Method’ on the label. It’s often produced from a blend of local grapes that you don’t hear too much about: Macabeu, Parellada and Xarello, mainly in the Catalonia region in the North-East of Spain, although we're starting to see more made from Chardonnay too. This is a smart buy, as you'll find flavours comparable to Champagne (shhh, don’t tell them I said so) but at under half the cost. Cava is perfect for bringing to a dinner party or fancy brunch, and I love to make my favourite cocktail, the Kir Royale, with it (top your Cava with a lashing of sweet ruby Cassis liqueur).

Non-Vintage Champagne (NV):

Made in Champagne, France, this is for when quality counts. NV Champagne is usually made from a blend of three grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The grapes can come from all over the Champagne region, and the final wine will be a blend of wine made in different years, hence the term “non-vintage”. Master blenders are responsible for recreating the house style year after year. My favourite NV Champagne is Veuve Clicquot, as I love the truly toasty brioche note it has, and I'm also partial to Taittinger and Ruinart. Expect bubbles that are fine and creamy; some people say they look like a string of pearls running from the bottom of the glass. This would be a delightful birthday present, Mother’s Day gift, or something to thank your hostess for a weekend stay. PS: if you see Blanc de Blancs on the label, it's made from Chardonnay, and Blanc de Noirs is Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.

Vintage Champagne:

OK, take your best grapes, from your best vineyards, in a great year, and you have the beginnings of a Vintage Champagne. This Champers is from a specific year: while the grapes may come from various vineyards, they were all grown in the year declared on the label. Vintage Champagne lays on its lees for even longer than the NV stuff. That’s where the bottles are resting in the caves with the yeasts (lees) still in the wine, and gives us those sought-after bready notes. Vintage Champagne can be had for sometimes just a slight premium over the NV, although you can always spend more, and it's perfect for a special celebration. I’d buy Vintage for a wedding anniversary, romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, or to celebrate a big business win!

Thanks for reading! I’d love to know what’s your go-to sparkling? Send me a shout out in the comments below.

HOW TO TASTE WINE LIKE A PRO

 This woman is contemplating all that goes into  truly  tasting a wine...

This woman is contemplating all that goes into truly tasting a wine...

No one needs a lesson on how to drink wine, that part comes naturally. Today we’re talking how to TASTE wine, and by the end you’ll be tasting like a pro. These are the techniques I use in my wine Diploma course for every wine I taste – and they’re all poured blind (aka from a plain decanter, no label), can you believe it?

Before we get to tasting, I want you to harness your inner Sherlock Holmes, because what we’re embarking on will require you to pay attention to lots of little clues, use your powers of deduction, and make a conclusion (you're also going to need to dispatch any self-consciousness you have around seeming precious). 

For this exercise, you’re going to stop thinking of wine as a beverage, and start thinking of it as a mystery you need to solve.

Remember this, it’s your tasting shorthand: SEE – SWIRL – SMELL – SIP – SAVOUR

First, we SEE the wine. Ideally you’ve got a white counter or piece of paper that you can view your glass over. Taking a look at the wine, we’re specifically looking for three things: how deep is the colour, opaque or pale? Is the wine crystal clear and bright, or is it a little murky? What colour is it – for whites does it have a green tint, is it lemon yellow, gold, or does it have a brown tone? For reds, is it vivid purple or ruby red, does it have a hint of garnet (brick red), or even brown?

When I’m looking at whites, I tilt the glass at 45 degrees over the paper, and look at the rim of the wine for hints. For example, Sauvignon Blanc tends to be very pale, almost watery, and sometimes has a bit of green in it. With reds, I do the tilt too, but I also put the glass down, and look straight down to see if I can make out the stem. If I can’t see the stem, I call a wine opaque.

Depth of colour can give you a clue about where the wine was grown and potentially even what grape it could be. Grapes grown in hot climates like Australia or California can have deeper colour. Some varieties like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo will appear paler and more translucent in the glass. Wines like Zinfandel and Shiraz can have very deep colour, and sometimes they are totally opaque, so I’m mentally perusing what grapes it could be right from the get-go.

A clear, bright wine can indicate a well made wine, whereas a murky wine can indicate a few things: it’s an older wine that has thrown sediment (ie the tannins have precipitated out of the wine and are now visible), the wine was not filtered by the winemaker, or in some cases it could be faulted (ie something is wrong with it – this will come through when we smell and sip). Colour will also give us clues about the potential age of the wine. As wines age, they tend to become paler (reds), deeper in colour (whites), or develop a brown tone (brick colour in reds, tawny colours in whites).

We’re also taking a look at the “legs” or “tears” as they run down the sides of the glass. Thick, heavy, slow-moving tears can indicate a wine that has higher alcohol or could have residual sugar (ie it’s sweet). Whenever I see really thick tears, I think hmmmm, what will this taste like?

Next, we SWIRL. We talked the importance of swirling on Day 1 of #Instawineschool. This step is sometimes overlooked, but it’s really important in order to get the clues we need when we sniff. When we swirl our glass, we’re oxygenating the wine, and creating a wine vortex in the glass. Give your glass 5-10 seconds of swirling, as this sends the volatile aroma compounds into our noses as we SMELL.

Don’t laugh, but when I SMELL a wine for the first time, I swirl then breathe out and inhale deeply with my eyes closed. I try to put out all other thoughts except for what I’m smelling in the wine. If I need to take another smell of the wine, I give myself a couple of breaths before going back to the glass so I don’t wear out my nose.

As I smell, I’m looking for the very first impression I get. It might be blackberries, or vanilla, or spice. This is our first clue as to what the wine is. Then I start running through the scent families to tease out specifics. Do I smell fruit? Yes, is it stone fruit (apricots, peaches, plums), apples (red or green), pears, tropical (pineapple, mango, passionfruit), citrus (lemon, lime grapefruit)? Are there any floral notes (roses, violets elderflower, orange blossom)? Do I smell any hints from winemaking – butter, cream, bread, vanilla, toast? How about scents that tell us about age – earth, spice, leather, mocha, tobacco?

If a wine is all fruit, that is, the scents you’re picking up are wholly types of fruit, then we’re likely dealing with a younger wine. If you can pick up some hints of winemaking, like vanilla or oak, bread notes, then the wine is developing. If all you’re getting is smoke, spice, earthiness, mushrooms and tobacco, with no fruit, then the wine likely has some age on it, and we’ll call it fully developed.

If you’re smelling wet cardboard, you may have a ‘corked’ wine. We hear this term all the time, and no, it doesn’t refer to bits of cork floating in your glass. There’s a compound called TCA (trichloroanisole), that can sometimes be found in cork, and it creates a musty wet cardboard or wet dog odor. It can also dull the aroma and taste of a wine, making it flat. Cork production is much more careful these days (it was found that chlorine was an issue), so cork taint is becoming less common than in the past.

Some grapes have ‘tells’; you smell the glass, and the bouquet is so evocative that you just know what it is. Gewurtztraminer smells like lychees and roses. Riesling can smell of petrol. Pinotage can smell like tar. Cabernet Sauvignon of mint or eucalyptus. Syrah of black pepper. Gruner of grapefruit. Take note of any distinct aromas you get.

If you think I’m spending lots of time on SMELL, you’re absolutely right. This step is where I pick up most of my clues about a wine!

Now, we SIP. Finally we’re tasting some wine. Close your eyes, take a good sip, and don’t be afraid to slosh the wine around your mouth. We need to get the wine to all your tastebud areas (sweet, bitter etc).

If you’re feeling brave, try the SLURP. Taking a sip, purse your lips as if you’re playing the flute, tilt your head forward a tiny bit, and breathe in a steady amount of air. The air will pass through the wine, creating a slurping sound. This trick brings extra aroma compounds to the back of your mouth, where they will be picked up by your nose. Careful not to drip down your shirt!

Again, take note of your very first impression of the wine. Is it super acidic (juicy, vibrant, mouth puckering)? Is it tannic (velvet or toothpaste feeling, gritty, astringent, sandpaper tongue)? Does it feel heavy like cream (full-bodied), full fat milk (medium-bodied) or light like fat-free milk (light-bodied)?

Sensing alcohol is another trick. Take a sip, swallow or spit your wine, then pay attention to how fast your saliva starts running. Sounds strange, but the higher the alcohol, the more your mouth will water.

Then, like we did with SMELL, start running through the flavours you’re getting. They may echo the same things you smelled earlier, or you may pick up something totally new. Run through fruit, spice, flower, other flavour families to try to put a name to what you’re tasting. If you need a tip, read the back of the bottle to see what the maker is suggesting, although it’s best to learn by reading this after you’re done! When you can pick up lots of different flavours, we call the wine complex.

Now, we SAVOUR. This step can get skipped, but the whole point of drinking the wine is to enjoy it right? After you swallow, how long do the pleasant flavours linger? The longer the finish, the more you can be sure this was a well made quality wine. A quick or simple finish, or one with unpleasant aftertaste can indicate a cheaper or commercial grade product.

Now that we’ve SEEN – SWIRLED – SMELLED – SIPPED – SAVOURED, think of all the clues you picked up along the way, the flavours, texture, aromas, and consider them.

Finally, ask yourself the most important question of all: Do I like this wine?

Developing your palate, learning to identify grapes, and picking out flavours is all well and good, but it’s all about finding wine YOU love.

HOW TO FIND A NEW GRAPE TO TRY (BASED ON WINE YOU LOVE)

Hey, sometimes it’s nice having a routine. You know, get home on a Wednesday night, put on some PJ’s and pop the same old merlot while you cook dinner. It’s comfy, cozy, familiar, and for sure it’s going to taste great.

But you only live once, and there are so many delicious grapes out there that you could be missing out on (#grapefomo - it's real).

I’m here to issue a challenge: Try A New Grape

Find your usual go-to grape below (they’re listed in order from light to more powerful flavour-wise), and check out the alternate I’ve suggested for you.

Next time you find yourself in the shop or at the wine bar, I double dare you to try something new!

If you usually drink: Pinot Grigio Try: Pinot Gris

Yes, these are absolutely the same grape. I’m not trying to trick you! There is a stylistic difference between the more acidic, crisp and neutral Italian Pinot Grigio, and the softer, fuller bodied but still racy Pinot Gris. You’re going to find the Pinot Gris has riper flavours of lemon and peach, and will often carry a whiff of honey. PG is such a food wine, it’s going to go great with everything from cheeses to spicy take-out. The regions to look out for are Oregon (I LOVE Willamette Valley) and Alsace in France.

If you usually drink: Sauvignon Blanc Try: Gruner Veltliner

When you think of Sauvignon Blanc, do you picture New Zealand? I know I do. The classic NZ Sauv is distinctly grassy and herbal, sometimes with green pepper, elderflower and gooseberry flavours, and is deliciously juicy. OK, so now I totally feel like a glass of the stuff. But I want you to try something new, a funny little grape called Gruner (pronounced “groon-er”). Gruner’s had a hot moment among sommeliers, so you should be able to find one by the glass no problemo. Expect a fuller bodied white, with citrus flavour and a little white pepper spice. The country to look out for is Austria, and make sure you ask for a dry Gruner as some have residual sugar (aka are off-dry).

If you usually drink: Chardonnay Try: Semillon

Where my ABC’ers at (Anything But Chardonnay)? Keep moving, peeps. For those who love the Chard, you know it can make everything from refreshing un-oaked lemony goodness, all the way to buttery vanilla bombs. I personally don’t mind a distinct oak flavour, although wine snobs will rue my lack of sophistication! I want you to try Semillon, which produces ripe, fuller bodied wines with honeyed citrus flavours. The home base of Semillion is Bordeaux, France, where it’s often blended with Sauv Blanc (and makes the cult sweet wine Sauternes). Look to Australia (Hunter and Barossa Valleys, and Margaret River) for lusher, quaffable dry examples.

If you usually drink: Riesling Try: Chenin Blanc

If you’re a true Riesling evangelist, nothing I say is going to make you jump ship to another varietal. Heck, it’s my favourite white grape. I love that it can produce incredibly refreshing, zesty wines with a distinctive white flower andpeach/nectarine aroma, but with it’s high acidity is also capable of making some of the best sweet wines in the world. Think mouthwatering honey, orange peel, and a distinct petrol smell when it ages. I’m putting forward Chenin as an alternate. Look to France’s Loire Valley for Chenin, from Savennieres for a dry style or from Vouvray for sweet. Chenin has bracing acidity, and can have a pleasing minerality. Let me know if you like it!

If you usually drink: Gewurtztraminer Try: Viognier

Gewurtz (‘guh-werts-tra-meen-er’) is one of those grapes that I pray is on a blind tasting exam. It’s got a lovely rosewater and lychee perfume that is unmistakable. However, it can be an acquired taste, as its strong aroma and full body can be overpowering for some. If you love the Gew, I want you to try Viognier, also a full bodied wine with pleasing bouquet. Viognier also has this incredible waxy texture that I adore, and flavours of nuts, stone fruits, and honeysuckle. Both Gewurtz and Viognier tend to have lower acidity (that mouth puckering effect), and can have higher alcohol than other whites. Viognier’s classical home base is Condrieu in France’s Northern Rhone Valley, but that area can be a bit spendy. Look to British Columbia, California, Australia, and Argentina for thriftier options.

If you usually drink: Pinot Noir Try: Tempranillo

Pinot, the darling of the movie “Sideways”, totally has my heart. If there was a perfume I could buy that accurately captured its enticing strawberry, cherry, forest floor and leather scent, I would bathe in it. Pinot can range from the elegant and “restrained” reds of Burgundy, to the riper and more accessible wines of New Zealand (Central Otago) and Oregon. Not that it will replace your beloved Pinot, but Tempranillo (“tem-pran-ee-yo”) can also claim an intoxicating perfume of cherries and tobacco. Look for luscious examples from Ribera del Douro or Rioja in Spain (watch out for these aging terms on the label: Crianza are youthful and riper, the Reserva/Gran Reserva have less overtly fruity flavours).

If you usually drink: Merlot Try: Carmenere

Ahh, plummy, ripe and plush Merlot, why do people neglect you so? Nothing goes so well with a pleasant evening as a nice glass of easygoing Merlot.  That being said, why not give Carmenere a try? Both of these grapes call Bordeaux home, they’re like kissing cousins, really. Chile is where you’ll find the Carm, some of it from very old vines, where it produces a deeply coloured wine with smooth, plump red and black fruit flavours.

If you usually drink: Syrah/Shiraz Try: Mourvedre/Monastrell

Syrah and Shiraz are two sides of the same coin, the same grape done in different styles. Syrah can be lighter in colour, more restrained, with more chewy tannins, and finds its home in the Rhone Valley. Shiraz, the fruitier, riper, chattier of the two is famously produced in Australia and California. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone dislike a Shiraz, they’re just so unrepentantly jammy and tasty. I want you to give Mourvedre/Monastrell a try. Again, these are different names for the same grape. Mourvedre calls Southern Rhone home, and Monastrell lives in Spain. They’re stylistically closer to Shiraz, with peppery, meaty, mocha, and blackberry notes. Look for approachable examples from Eastern Washington State, Valencia, Yecla and Jumilla in Spain, and the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France.

If you usually drink: Cabernet Sauvignon Try: Pinotage

When I picture Cab Sauv drinkers, they’re in a cozy, masculine den, a roaring fire, smoking cigars after dinner. This powerhouse, known as the “King of Grapes, makes some incredible wines, with good acidity, full body and noticeable tannins. It has black fruit flavours, and sometimes you can catch a whiff of mint or eucalyptus on the nose. Cab’s often blended with Merlot to soften it up, and if you’re in Napa Valley and hear someone say “it’s a Bordeaux blend” that’s exactly what’s going on. Cab lover, I want you to give Pinotage (“pee-no-taj”) a try. Although Pinot Noir is Pinotage’s parent, they are very different, which you’ll learn as soon as you encounter it’s bold tannins. This grape finds its epicentre in South Africa, and makes dark, spicy, black fruit, and mocha wines that can have a neat licorice finish.

If you usually drink: Zinfandel Try: Nero D’Avola

Zin, you’re another one of those grapes where I’ve never had a bad glass. Perhaps it’s because you thrive in hot sunny climates, where getting ripe is not a problem. Zin has smooth velvety tannins, bold black fruit flavours, and mocha and tobacco notes. It’s home is Lodi, California, and is also found under the name Primitivo in Puglia (heel of the boot), Italy. I want to steer you towards Sicily, where you’ll find Nero D’Avola (“the black grape from Avola“). This is another full-bodied, heat loving grape that’s going to give you soft plummy spice flavours of with a little more acidity than your Zin.

Whew! We made it through. Now I want to know, what’s YOUR go-to grape, and what’s new to you that you’re most excited to try?

HOW TO SWIRL YOUR WINE GLASS

There’s poetry in the glass, they say. I agree, but I think there’s perfume in the glass too. Today we’re talking “Why We Swirl”.

Most #winelovers can all agree that we love to sniff our wine, especially when trying a bottle of something new.  It’s one of the key steps in the see-swirl-sniff-savour school of tasting. But did you know that swirling creates a wine vortex in your glass?

This delicious vortex makes it easier to identify which flavours we’re smelling and can make our wine taste better. As the wine courses up the sides of the glass, it creates a lot of surface area to interact with oxygen, like a mini-decanter treatment. This loosens up all the volatile scent compounds, and the swirling vortex takes them up to your nose.

If you want maximum pleasure out of your wine (don’t we all), this move is your new best friend. It’s especially helpful for what the wine snobs calls “Elegant” wines, aka those that don’t have much of a bouquet, or tannic wines that need a bit of softening. The wines I take care to be gentle with are sparkling or really old; I don’t want to disperse those gorgeous bubbles or injure them!

The Trick to Swirling

Now that we know how much tastier a wine can smell by creating our wine vortex, let’s talk the #1 trick you need to know: put less wine in your glass than normal. What? Less wine in my glass, are you crazy!

That’s right, I’m asking you to hold back on your pour, leaving your glass more half-empty than half-full. The ideal pour will sit just below the widest part of the bowl of the glass.

*More empty space = more room to swirl up a storm*

In my WSET class, we use the pro ISO tasting glasses, that hold about an ounce of wine, and taste every kind of wine from them. At home, I like a glass that isn’t too big, has an elegant stem, and a nice thin rim.

Two Techniques to Try

My time tested, party-approved swirling methods are the Freehand Swirl and the Tabletop Swirl. Fox maximum effect, you need to swizzle for just 5 to 10 seconds. Don’t wear your wine out!

To achieve the more attention-getting Freehand Swirl, grasp the glass near the bottom of the stem, just above the foot, with your thumb and two fingers. Pinching the stem, rotate your wrist in a counterclockwise circle, as vigorously as you dare (southpaws: go clockwise). Extra points for Gryffindor if you can hold your glass aloft to admire its colour at the same time. If you need a little extra help to stabilize the glass, tuck your pinkie finger under the foot.

When a more subtle move is called for, employ the Tabletop Swirl. Setting your glass on the table, place the stem between your first two fingers, and rest the top of your palm lightly on the glass’s foot. Move your hand in a small counterclockwise circle, and watch the magic happen. This move is a little more devil-may-care, but like Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, don’t be afraid to “make it sexy“!

So go on, grab your wineglass, pour in just the right amount of wine – remember: less than normal – and give both techniques a try.

Breathe Out Before You Breathe In

Last tip of the day, and it’s an important one: as you finish swirling, breathe out fully, then as your nose approaches the glass inhale the sweet, sweet wine vortex you’ve created.

Enjoy, and leave a comment below: which technique do you prefer?

HOW TO GET THE BEST DRINKS IN VEGAS

First a cacophony of countless dings, rings, chimes, and cheers hit my ears, then the lights flashing and beckoning from a thousand slot machines. The smell of high end air freshener, like sweet suntan lotion, mingles with cigarette smoke and a man’s cologne as he brushes past. Down the carpeted pathway, my eyes catch the sign, “High Limit Slots” and beyond, a row of green felted tables. I’m on the Vegas Strip, and about to order what’s known as the world’s most expensive free drink.

Whether they are served as an old-fashioned perk, or to encourage desultory decision making at the gaming table, is a matter of opinion, but the free Las Vegas cocktail is both myth and reality. Served only to those with money on the line, the drinks may be free, but the gambling is not. I’m here to test the waters at some of Vegas’ most famous casinos to see how high I can aim, and perhaps learn some unspoken rules along the way.

“A Macallan 18 Year, neat please”, I request solicitously. I make what I hope is confident eye contact. Why not start by aiming for the stars? The Wynn cocktail waitress, tray balanced neatly on her hip, looks up at me with an arched brow. Her next glance is at my slot machine balance. Seeing my bet set at $7.50 a pop, she replies, “I can get you the Mac 12”. I nod, and she’s off, passing under the handpainted Fortuny lanterns. Judiciously, I decide to slow down the gambling to await her return. My one ounce pour is presented without fuss in a pleasantly hefty glass, all smooth spice and toasty vanilla. Whisky’s getting poured in Vegas, but if you’re looking for single malt you need to be betting high.

Next I head South along the Strip to the cavernous new Linq, home of Guy Fieri’s latest restaurant and the behemoth High Roller observatory wheel. My order is taken by an iPad wielding assistant server. Do they have Grey Goose? “No, we’ve got Stoli though. Do you want blueberry, vanilla, orange?” There’s a long list, itemized, that she scrolls through to display. I try to tip her but she refuses the money, a first in Vegas. My blueberry Stoli and soda arrives no more than three minutes later carried by a different server. I’ve barely had time to gamble. What this casino lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in celerity.

Strolling into the hushed grey tones of the Aria, a newer five star hotel in the CityCenter development, I find one seat left at a $15 blackjack table. Almost immediately, a waitress wearing a bedazzled yet comely black microdress appears. I order a Kir Royale, wait for her confirmation, then turn to keep playing, the debonair dealer having halted for me. Several hands down, and my drink floats into view, gracefully placed onto a monogrammed napkin, like a supermodel disembarking a private jet. The lemon twist dangles precipitously from the rim just so, above a crimson float of cassis. The glass is crisply chilled, and the smell of freshly cut zest fills the glass as I take my first sip. This impressive exhibit is drawing covetous looks from the other players. The two women next to me both order one. I glance at my chips, the pile much smaller now.

Rumor has it that the Mirage’s famous volcano pipes out a pina colada scent when the eruption goes off. It’s just past 10 o’clock, and the showstopping 100 foot flame has fired. Inspired, I head through the thatch-leaved casino entrance to test out the tiki cocktail factor, asking the briskly efficient waitress, “Can you do a daiquiri or a pina colada?” Whipsmart, she immediately suggests, “Try a Miami Vice, they’re half and half”. A few minutes later, the frosty concoction arrives, smelling of sugary synthetic pineapple and coconut, a ribbon of strawberry slush tracing a dna-like helix through the glass.

Inside my last stop, the venerable Caesars, I request a bourbon and coke. Pappy van Winkle, if you please. The waitress looks over at the pit boss, standing beside our table, and he neatly shakes his head, no way. “How about Knob Creek?” I try again, and it seems this time I’m a winner. The dealer laughs, “Going for the good stuff, girl”. He draws an ace for me, patting the table for luck. Blackjack.

Tips for ordering free drinks on the Vegas Strip:

Dress For Success: or if not success, then at least to stand out. You’ll have better luck ordering the good stuff if you look the part, and it’s easier for your waitress to spot you if you’re moving between slot machines if you look distinctive (if not distinguished).

Tip, To Improve Service: While the going rate is $1 to $2 per drink, tipping your server a $5 or more on the first drink is highly likely to increase how often she visits to take new orders.

You Get What You Pay For – ie: better casinos = better drinks: The classiest casinos, Wynn, Venetian, Bellagio, Cosmo, Aria, generally have top shelf on hand for their good customers and are more likely to put together fussy cocktails like a chocolate martini or peach puree Bellini for you. The same holds true for high rollers, the more you’re betting, the higher your selection.

Plan Ahead: Fight overwhelm and panic ordering, by having an idea of what you’d like to drink. It’s much easier to ask your waitress whether she has Single Barrel Jack Daniels, than to have her list every bourbon available.

Aim for the Stars: there’s no harm in asking for the good stuff, you may be lucky enough to get it. It’s Vegas, after all.