A guide to hobnobbing with the wine snobs
With wine of grapes, the cups of jade would glow at night,
Drinking to pipa songs, we are summoned to fight,
Don’t laugh if we lay drunken on the battleground,
How many warriors ever came back safe and sound?
Whether this thirsty soldier ever made it back from battle, the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) poet Wang Han didn’t say. But even if his life was cut short, his reverie about drinking wine in jade cups has lasted hundreds of years.
Though traditionally less popular than baijiu, the ubiquitous sorghum “white spirit,” grape wine or 葡萄酒 (pútaojiǔ) still has a long history in China. The earliest mention of it can be traced back to the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Historian Sima Qian wrote in the Records of the Grand Historian that when the envoy Zhang Qian went to the Western Regions (now Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia), he witnessed local wine-making methods and brought these techniques home.
Nowadays, wine has become associated with high-end banquets and connoisseurs more concerned with taste and quality than intoxication. Whereas “how much can you drink?” is the principal—if not only—concern when it comes to baijiu, wine gives much larger scope for discussion: famous brands, producing regions, grape varieties, relevant etiquette, and even its value in the market. As a result, it’s often difficult to join a conversation about wine if one doesn’t have the expertise.
As wine appreciation skills can take months to develop, the simplest short-term solution is usually “fake it ’til you make it.” If you’re given a wine list in a restaurant, the rule of thumb is that red wine goes best with dark meats and spicy dishes, while white wine easily pairs with similar-colored meat.
We’re having seafood today, so how about pairing it with some white wine?
Jīntiān wǒmen chī hǎixiān, pèi diǎnr bái pútaojiǔ zěnmeyàng?
These dishes are spicy, and go better with reds than with whites.
Zhèxiē cài wèidào xīnlà, pèi hóngjiǔ bǐ pèi báipútaojiǔ héshì.
Older reds typically need a few minutes to oxygenate before serving. To avoid sediment, some of the best vintage wines are best decanted before drinking, a process called 醒 (xǐng) in Chinese—literally, “woken up”:
Does this wine need breathing?
Zhè jiǔ xūyào xǐng ma?
When tasting wine, observing the color, aroma, and appearance are crucial parts of the ritual. Color can best be observed in the wine’s “legs,” known in Chinese as “挂杯 (guàbēi, clinging to the cup)” or “酒泪 (jiǔlèi, wine tears).” This is a tasting term for the pattern and spectrum of color formed when the wine is swirled, then tilted in the glass.
It’s a common myth that wine with more legs tends to be of higher quality. Experts say it’s not true, but it doesn’t matter—most people like to check out the legs just because it looks professional, so feel free to angle your glass and say:
This wine shows a deep ruby-red color.
Zhè kuǎn jiǔ chéng shēnbǎoshíhóngsè.
This wine doesn’t have many legs.
Zhè jiǔ bù zěnme guàbēi a.
Discussing a wine’s aroma, or “nose,” can be similarly complex. Try talking about its density: It can be “轻淡 (qīngdàn, light)” or “浓郁 (nóngyù, pronounced).” Wine buffs draw on terms from all other kinds of food (nutty, fruity, smoky, peppery). Vintage wine stored in barrels may have some oak aroma, but if you don’t know what you’re talking about, better to keep things simple or just use vague, safe terms:
The wine has a pronounced aroma with blackcurrant.
Zhè jiǔ dàizhe nóngyù de hēijiālún guǒxiāng.
The nose is complex and pleasant, with mature fruit aromas.
Xiāngqì fùzá, lìng rén yúyuè, dàiyǒu chéngshú de guǒxiāng.
This wine is fruity, and it has elegant oak aromas.
Zhè kuǎn jiǔ jiǔxiāng fēngyù, sànfà zhe yōuyǎ de xiàngmùxiāng.
But you don’t necessarily have to praise the wine if you don’t like it. If it doesn’t smell right, for example, the wine might have been spoiled (“corked”) by a fungus in the cork stopper, which can only be detected after the wine is bottled, aged, and opened (many modern and cheaper wines no longer use corks, partly for this reason).
This wine is faulty; I think it’s corked.
Zhè jiǔ yǒu yìwèi, wǒ xiǎng tā shì rǎnshang le mùsāiwèir.
I think it is oxidized.
Wǒ juéde tā bèi yǎnghuà le.
Now, the final step—taste or “mouth.” Usually, acidity and tannins are the main concerns. When it comes to acidity, except for “high” or “low,” you can keep the descriptions as neutral as you like:
A: How about its acidity?
B: It has a high acidity!
Zhè kuǎn jiǔ de suāndù hěngāo!
C: This wine has a rich and dense mouth, developing an attractive acidity.
Zhè jiǔ rùkǒu nóngyù yǒu shēndù, suāndù hǎo.
Tannin, a constituent and preservative, is more common in reds than whites. It affects the wine’s texture: Some tannins are ripe and soft, while others are unripe and green.
The tannins are strong but fine.
Dānníng hěn hòuzhòng, què hěn xìzhì.
Another aspect to focus on is “酒体 (jiǔtǐ, wine body).” Generally, this describes the sensation of a wine in one’s mouth (“mouthfeel”), quite literally 口感 (kǒugǎn) in Chinese. Wines break down into three categories: light, medium, and full-bodied.
While there are many factors that can contribute, a wine’ s body is mainly influenced by the alcohol percentage, which gives a wine its viscosity, and is responsible for either a full or light mouthfeel. When a wine contains more alcohol, it feels fuller in our mouths.
Usually, wines under 12.5 percent are said to be light-bodied; those between 12.5 and 13.5 percent are medium; and any wine over 13.5 percent alcohol is full. To describe the body, you can say:
This wine is medium-bodied, with pleasant softness in the middle.
Zhè kuǎn jiǔ jiǔtǐ shìzhòng, kǒugǎn róuhé.
In most cases, people describe taste as a whole, including its flavor, tannins, and body. This is when the poetic language you may have heard some wine snobs use can be helpful. Cheers!
This is a full-bodied wine with flavors of plum and mulberry, sweet tannins, and a lingering harmonic finish.
Zhè kuǎn jiǔ jiǔtǐ fēngmǎn, fùyú lǐzi hé sāngshèn de chúnxiāng, dānníng lüè dài tiányì, yúwèi yúnhe miáncháng.
Grapes and Regions
When it comes to wine-producing regions, many people have a favorite. Even if you can’t identify where the wine in your hand originates, you can still talk about your personal preference:
I like red wine from Australia, but I prefer white wine from France.
Wǒ xǐhuān Àodàlìyà de hóngpútaojiǔ, dàn báipútaojiǔ wǒ gèng xǐhuan Fǎguó de.
I like sparkling wine, especially from the Champagne region in France.
Wǒ xǐhuan qǐpàojiǔ, tèbié shì Fǎguó Xiāngbīn chǎnqū de.
Besides regions, grape variety is another good topic for showing off your expertise. Of course, you will need to memorize some widely planted varieties, like Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinot Noir for red wine, or Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for white wine. Then, naturally slip a variety into conversation, and don’t be afraid to give some comments:
I have no bias against any Pinot Noir, regardless of whether it’s from Burgundy or any other region.
Duìyú Hēipínuò pútaojiǔ, búlùn shì Fǎguó Bógěndì háishì qítā chǎnqū de, wǒ dōu méishénme piānjiàn.
But if it’s too difficult to memorize grape varieties, or you just don’t feel comfortable bluffing, you can always ask a question. This way you can not only show your interest in wine, but also be the gracious dinner party guest by allowing others an opportunity to share their knowledge.
I hear that an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon dry wine may need five years or longer for its flavor to mellow. Is that true?
Wǒ tīngshuō yī píng míngguì de Chìxiázhū gānhóng kěnéng xūyào cúnfàng wǔ nián shènzhì gèng jiǔ kǒugǎn cáinéng biànde róuhé, shì zhèyàng ma?
“Vine Vocabulary” is a story from our issue, “Grape Expectations”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.