What Your Wine Really Says About You

By / Magazine / June 30th, 2010 / 4

Why is it that being caught with a glass of White Zinfandel is like being caught staring at a computer screen full of topless car-wash girls holding dipsticks?

Why? Because wine is unequivocally and absolutely not just a drink. It is an admission and extension of who we are, or at the very least, our arms. It’s an accessory. Frankly, our wine choices say as much about us as our wristwatches, iPod menus, reading material and shoes.

Ironically, some wines say something strikingly different than you might think. Let’s look at what drinking sherry, sweet wines, Chardonnay, Merlot, rosé, and Champagne look-alikes really says about you.


Sherry, that fortified wine from Spain, has a reputation for being a thick, sweet, geriatric concoction that Granny stores in the back of her pantry. And that image, I’m quite certain, keeps it the most undersung wine style in the world (see Tony Aspler’s Final Word, Tidings April 10). Truth is, sherry can be dry and pale, sweet and dark, and quite often deliriously delectable — from fine Fino with its layered flavours of sea salt, minerals and bread dough to oomph-endowed Olorosos packed with dried fruit, nuts and caramel.

Frankly, it’s an open secret in the wine trade: sherry packs more complex, varied, undervalued pleasure than almost any other wine style. And like the youth who lead fashion, the wine trade is the cool-kid clique that influences the vinous choices of the masses. So sherry is on its way up. And drinking it shows you’re very aware. Here are a few selections that would look good on you:

González Byass Tio Pepe ($15)

A classic example of a fine Fino — bone-dry and very neutral with a slightly salty tang and hints of fresh bread, white flowers and lemon–lime twist. Not a fruity drink; an extraordinary aperitif. There’s a reason it’s the best-selling brand of  sherry in the world.
Food Pairing: Big, firm, green olives

Bodegas Hidalgo Napoleon Amontillado ($20)
An excellent, bone-dry sherry that’s all coffee, toffee and nuts.
Food Pairing: Roasted almonds

Bodegas Osborne Oloroso Premium Sherry Medium 10RF ($16)
A medium-sweet attack of dried figs, dates, prune, dried orange peel and buttered toffee melt away to a long, dry, roasted-nut finish.
Food Pairing: The cheeseboard

Sweet Wines

I’ll let you in on a secret: Drinking sweet wine reveals a streak of unbridled sophistication. Some serve Betty Crocker chocolate cake for dessert with jelly-bean designs on top. Others serve Monbazillac, Port or Tokaji Aszú after dinner. Some gear down with a Labatt Blue and a bowl of Doritos. Others unwind with an off-dry German Riesling and a few nuts.

Sweet wine is the suave selection, but there’s a catch; it must be complex and balanced with enough tongue-tugging acidity to finish dry. If the wine finishes dry, no matter how sweet it is, it cuts the Dijon. Here are three sweeties with impeccable balance — a couple to start your evening and another to finish it.

Schmitt Söhne Relax Riesling 2007, Mosel–Saar–Ruwer ($12)
Don’t let its cobalt blue bottle with the word “relax” in huge print fool you into thinking this is a wine for the squeeze-cheese set because, despite the gimmicky packaging, it’s a very chic little wine. Its sleek texture and compelling complexity — reminiscent of lemon zest, lime purée, minerals, peach and apple — charm the palate, and the little wink of sweetness is balanced with a sour stroke of cleansing acidity.
Food Pairing: Roast turkey

Domaine Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Vieilles Vignes 2005, Alsace ($35)
Winemaker Olivier Humbrecht is well-known for his knack for making complex, concentrated creations with an impeccable balance of acid and sugar. And this wine is a prime example with its lush flavours of stewed peaches nuanced with white pepper, white flowers, honey and stones.
Food Pairing: Hors d’oeuvre-sized Alsatian onion tarts

Château d’Yquem 1999, Sauternes ($195)
Skip the torte; pour this. It’s a stellar stickie from a top producer in an excellent vintage. Sweet yellow fruit, honey, spice, oak and floral notes wrap unctuously around a firm core of tight acidity. And though this wine will keep for decades yet, it is drinking marvellously now.
Food Pairing: Solo or with fresh peaches in season


I’m actually not sure whom I abhor more: wine drinkers who say, “I hate Chardonnay”, those who say, “I hate Chardonnay but oh, I just love Chablis”, or nerdy snobs who insist on reminding these people they’re made from the same grape.

Let’s admit it. Chardonnay has a reputation for being the wine of choice for the same set that punctuates sentences with emoticons and acronyms like LMAO. But in top form, it’s one of the most refined white wines on the planet. And that rubs off on you if you’re tipping back a glass of it. But how do you know whether that Chardonnay is fluffy or fabulous?

The hallmarks of fabulous in this case are subtlety, concentration and complexity — essentially, if it has lots going on to make it an interesting sensual experience, you can hold your glass high. Any of the following dream machines fall firmly in the fabulous framework.

Sterling Vintner’s Collection Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($15)
This wine seems modelled on fine French Burgundies with their subtle power, taut fruit and judicious use of oak. Buttered toast nose leads to flavours of lemon zest, cooked apple and fresh figs with a topcoat of caramel and spice.
Food Pairing: Caesar salad

Kendall–Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, California ($20)
Coconut and tropical fruit cocktail aromas lead to fresh flavours of juicy pineapple, marzipan and toasted coconut with a long and seductive coconut-cream finish. Seamlessly integrated oak and pristine purity of fruit create quite a stylish, refined wine.
Food Pairing: Bar snacks—this wine is best as a cocktail alternative

Domaine du Château de Melin la Corvée des Vignes Puligny–Montrachet 2007, Burgundy ($60)
Aromas of flint and McIntosh apples lead to soft, cool, lemony freshness layered with wet stones, warm toast and a pinch of white pepper. This dry, elegant and classic Chardonnay resonates for ages on the finish, and would be best served close to room temperature.
Food Pairing: Roasted lobster tails


Since the lead character, Miles, ridiculed it with, “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f*!ing Merlot!” in the 2004 hit flick Sideways, this varietal has suffered from an image problem. Truth be told, it can be a tad simple, soft and even dilute — but not always.

Château Pétrus, which fetches $4,000 per bottle in good years, is pure Merlot — a blunt reminder this grape is not just wine for newbies. In best cases, Merlot tastes like perfect cherries swirled in melted chocolate layered with notes of warm wood, coffee, cigars and spice. Drinking Merlot — good Merlot — shows you understand that Miles was a bit of a turnip who had a lot to learn. Don’t believe me? Taste any of the following bottles.

J. Lohr Estates Los Osos Merlot, California ($23)
Precise aromas of raspberry jam, cherry and crushed blueberry lead to a captivatingly complex palate of raspberry jam imbued with blackberry, prune, turned earth, damp stones, cedar, tobacco leaf, tar and sweet spice. A plush and lustrous texture pervades this full-bodied wine.
Food Pairing: Roast beef

Stellenrust JJ Handmade Wines Merlot 2006, South Africa ($18)
Clean nose of plum purée and black cherries leads to smooth, succulent flavours of blackberry, damsons, cassis, anise and a kick of black pepper.
Food Pairing: Beef stroganoff

Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Merlot, Chile ($13)
Pronounced aromas of black cherries and coal lead to an incredibly sumptuous and utterly seamless palate. Smooth, rich, mouth-coating flavours of black plum, cedar and black cherry, as well as a plunging mineral depth that gives the wine quite a grown-up feel.
Food Pairing: Spaghetti bolognese


Well-chilled White Zinfandel and other softly sweet pinks have their place: on campus. And by the lake. But that’s about it. Pour it elsewhere and you risk looking like you harbour a secret collection of Day-Glo jelly sandals. But this stigma does not extend to all pink wine. In fact, dry rosé is chic — especially in its most restrained, complex form. Dry pink goes well with food; it makes a killer aperitif; and it yields a very stylish hostess gift. And in a glass, it’s almost as beautiful with a little black dress as something that sparkles. Try any of the two renditions that follow on for size.

Chat-en-Oeuf Dry Rosé 2008, Rhône Valley ($14)
With a coy nod toward the famous neighbouring vineyard region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this ultra-pale dry rosé is a gem. Think tart red and sweet black berries, crushed with a dash of white pepper. And the stony minerality anchors the wine with a certain gravitas.
Food Pairing: Warm goat cheese on mixed greens

Billecart–Salmon Brut Rosé NV, Champagne ($100)
Can’t think of a better way to spend that kind of cash. Dancing notes of strawberry, warm brioche and tarte tatin lead to plunging mineral depths on the nose and palate. Subtle, sophisticated, stylish and utterly charming wine. Good edge of acidity. Fine bubbles. One sip and you’re away.
Food Pairing: On its own or with smoked salmon on toast points

Champagne Look-Alikes

Holding a flute — or worse, serving flutes — of cheap Champagne is cringe-worthy, and here’s why. Cheap Champagne tastes like battery acid, and anyone who drinks wine much knows this. Forty bucks will score you only blush-worthy bubbly from Champagne, but it’s more than enough to buy a beautiful Champagne look-alike, which, unlike sporting a designer handbag look-alike, is an entirely respectable thing to do. Here are a few distinguished examples.

Roederer Estate Brut Sparkling, California ($30)
This fizz is the closest thing to Champagne outside the famed French region, and it brims with elegant flavours of poached spiced pear and hazelnut. The property is owned by the house of Louis Roederer, which makes the coveted Cristal Champagne in France. Clearly, the Californian climate gives this offering the same charming Roederer house style but with a round approachability only found in great years in Northern France.
Food Pairing: Quails’ eggs on toasted brioche with a side of sautéed mushrooms

Sumac Ridge NV Sparkling Tribute Gold, British Columbia ($50)
Proving Canada is capable of stellar sparkling wine, this 100% Chardonnay is a complex, concentrated yet delicate wine that teems with creamy cooked apple, freshly rolled pastry and understated notes of warm bread.
Food Pairing: Sushi

Château des Charmes Brut NV, Ontario ($23)
This 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir yields fresh apple, zingy citrus and slightly toasty biscuity flavours with an understated white cherry finish.
Food Pairing: Potato chips


Wine book author and critic Carolyn Evans Hammond first fell in love with wine during her first trip to France many moons ago when she picnicked in the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone. Now she makes wine accessible with her witty and light approach to the topic. Carolyn’s latest book, Good Better Best Wines: A No-Nonsense Guide to Popular Wine, is the first book to rank the best-selling wines in North America by price and grape variety, with tasting notes and bottle images (April, 2010, $12.95, Alpha Books). Within weeks of release, it soared to #1 wine book at Amazon.ca and the #2 one at Amazon.com and remains a bestseller to this day. It’s available at bookstores everywhere. Watch the trailer at www.goodbetterbestwines.com Her first book, 1000 Best Wine Secrets, is a compilation of trade secrets designed to illuminate the topic and help wine drinkers make more satisfying wine choices. It too is a bestseller, earning critical acclaim and international distribution (October, 2006, $12.95, Sourcebooks, Inc). As well as an author, Carolyn’s reviews and critical articles appear regularly in Taste and Tidings magazine, she has talked about wine on radio and TV throughout North America, and has contributed material in such eminent publications as Decanter and Wine & Spirit International in the United Kingdom, as well as Maclean’s in Canada. She issues a weekly newsletter, publishes a blog, runs a Facebook wine club, twitters, and conducts seminars and private consultations. Constantly learning, Carolyn spends much of her time tasting wine and meeting with winemakers and industry professionals. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers in the UK and the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada; she holds a Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in the UK; and she earned a BA from York University where she studied English and Philosophy. She has lived in many cities in North America and Europe, and now resides in Toronto, where she was born.

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