Nowadays, showing off your wine IQ is less about rattling off fancy chateau names and more about knowing good value -- both environmentally and in the wallet. Here are some quick tips for drinking wine smarter:
1. Try a biodynamic wine
- It may sound a little kooky to pack an animal's skull with bark or hang stuffed deer bladder from the rafters, but while there is a spiritual aspect to biodynamic farming, 90% of it is just strict organic farming that pays close attention to the balance of the land.
- In the U.S., Oregon is known for its biodynamic winemakers, so much so that wine writer Katherine Cole recently published the book, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers. She recommends trying Montinore's Gewürztraminer, with its bright aromatics and citrus notes, and Maysara's Roseena Pinot Noir Rosé, full of ripe fruit and fresh flowers.
- Most wine shops don't have a biodynamic section, but if you build a solid relationship with your local seller, you can always request that they order some for you. A number of restaurants carry biodynamic wines these days, which are often described as such on the wine list. If not, there's no shame in asking your waiter or sommelier if they stock any.
2. Organic isn't the only way to drink sustainably
- Don't only look for the word "organic" emblazoned on the label. Most truly sustainable wineries are a lot subtler than that. Some are certified organic, but many aren't. They are simply wine producers who avoid the use of herbicides and pesticides, and try to use little or no chemicals and additives during production.
- Again, it's a good idea to ask your waiter, sommelier or wine merchant for advice when looking for a sustainable wine. If no one is on hand, turn the bottle over and look at the name of the importer. Rosenthal, Louis/Dressner Selections and Kermit Lynch are examples of wine importers that specialize in organic and sustainable wines.
- Señorio de P. Peciña, in Rioja, farms organically, making a fresh and fruity young wine best enjoyed with a light chill. Perraud, in France, is a sustainable vintner who makes beautiful Beaujolais.
3. Opt for greener packaging
- There's nothing like popping open a bottle of wine, but you can experience the same pleasure without the pop. Innovative packaging allows you to enjoy wine in a more eco-friendly and affordable way. Plus, with some 10% of bottles corked, alternative packaging can ensure that your wine stays fresh.
- Despite its bad reputation, boxed wine has improved tremendously in recent years. Take From the Tank, for example, is a light-bodied and fruit-forward natural wine with notes of cherry, violet, and mineral. Yellow + Blue (equals green, get it?) are filling their liter boxes with fresh, exciting organic wines, like Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, Malbec from Argentina, and rosé from Spain.
- A number of bars and restaurants are even installing wine on tap using a keg system like beer. Speaking of beer, ELKAN Chilean wines are available in 250ml and 375ml cans, completely recyclable and portable.
4. Try a half-bottle
- Sometimes, you just can't finish a whole bottle. And, other times, you want to drink something different from what your dining companion is having. The answer to both solutions? Think small. The benefits of half-bottles go beyond practicality.
- As wine ages, the flavors change due to oxygen slowly seeping into the bottle through the pores in the cork. Over time, where you once had fruity flavors, you start to see secondary notes develop, such as earthy and herbaceous characteristics. In half bottles, wine can age up to twice as fast as it does in a full-size bottle because there is a greater oxygen-to-wine ratio inside. That means you don't have to wait 20 years to drink a great bottle of wine.
- Also, if you want to mix things up at dinnertime - say, start with a white with your appetizer, then move on to a red with your main course - smaller bottles are an affordable way to try a different wine with each course. The best part? There's no waste: anyone can finish a half bottle.
5. On second thought, go big!
- Most of us buy wine in 750-ml bottles. Sometimes, when we're celebrating, we spring for a magnum. But rarely do we go larger than that. Some restaurants stock large-format bottles and springing for one can be great fun. The Methuselah, named for the oldest man in the Bible, holds six liters; the Salmanazar, named for the King of Assyria, holds nine liters; the Balthazar, referring to one of the three wise men, holds 12 liters; the jumbo Nebuchadnezzer, a King of Babylon, holds 15 liters.
- Why order one of these monsters, you might be wondering? Honestly, they typically aren't cheaper than regular-sized bottles and they are not terribly practical to transport or pour. But wine geeks will tell you that big bottles are better for aging. With less oxygen in the bottle compared to the volume of wine contained, the wine oxidizes at a slower pace, which results in a more thorough maturation and greater complexity. But, really, the main appeal is the ostentatious, rap-mogul excess of it all.
6. Experiment with a grape variety you've never heard of
- When Chardonnay becomes a bore and Pinot Noir no longer gets your motor running, it's time to start expanding your wine repertoire. Why not try a grape you can't pronounce?
- For whites, Falanghina from the Campania region in Southern Italy is one of the oldest grapes in the country. Try biodynamically-farmed Ocone Falanghina del Taburno "Flora." Assyrtiko, from Greece, is another ancient grape. It's floral and flinty, great with food or on its own. Try the naturally fermented Gai'a Assyrtiko Wild Ferment. Txakolina, from Basque country in Spain, is light and refreshing, as well as low in alcohol, which means it's perfect for sipping into the wee hours with friends. Try Oxinbaltza Katan Bizkaiko Txakolina Mendiko... if you can say it, that is!
- For reds, Noir isn't the only Pinot around. Pineau d'Aunis, from France, is rustic and earthy. Olivier Lemasson Poivre et Sel is a great example. Blaufränkisch is a German grape also grown in Washington State. Try rich, velvety Shooting Star Blue Franc.