How to Navigate a Wine List

Drink, Food & Drink, Wine


Written by Brett Llenos Smith

Published on February 6, 2015


While Buffalo’s craft beer renaissance and craft cocktail scene are sexier than ever these days, it’s easy to forget about the third member of the Holy Trinity of Alcohol: wine.

Most bars and restaurants still curate a healthy wine list, a few of them place a heavy focus on wine and navigating that list is something every self-respecting tippler should be able to do.


Dry v. Sweet

A sweet wine, like Riesling or Lambrusco, should always be chilled before drinking and almost always be knocked back on a warm day. These wines can be refreshing, but often are cheap and one-dimensional. If sweet wines are the only thing you’ll ever drink – you can stop reading now.

Wine lists will often describe a wine as dry or semi-dry, but make no mistake – a semi-dry wine is still very, very far from the super sweetness of pop or grape juice. If you’re looking to really get into wine, a semi-dry can be a great gateway drug to the wider world of flavors and aromas.

Like porters or Negronis, dry wines are definitely next-level beverages for people looking to move on from lighter fare. The better drys have subtle, complex flavors that tend to get better with time.

Stopping out for a few glasses of wine after work? It’s best to start with a dry and end on a sweet note.


RELATED: How To: Craft Cocktails



Vintage is simply the year that the grapes used to make a bottle of wine were picked. You really don’t need to know much about vintage – except the fact that there are “good years” and “bad years”.

In recent conversation with Traci Donaldson Lee from City Wine, she told me that 2005, 2009 and 2010 were particularly good for the Bordeaux region of France and “2009 and ’10 all around Europe are being regarded as two of the best years in – if not recent history – a long, long time in history.”

In Australia’s wine growing regions, 2005 through 2007 are considered particularly good years – and in the US, 2008 and 2010 are pretty safe bets.


Body and Pairing

The body of a wine is pretty self-explanatory – a full-bodied wine is heavier in the mouth compared to a light bodied wine. Once again, if you’re stopped out for a few glasses – it’s best to start with a light bodied wine and end on a heavy one.

Body is particularly important when it comes to pairing. Basically, you want to pair a full-bodied wine with a full-bodied dish. For example, if you’re eating a steak or lasagna – go with a full-bodied Cabernet or Chardonnay. If you’re having a piece of broiled fish and some grilled vegetables – a light Pinot Grigio or Merlot might be in order.


Other Pairing Basics

While wine and food pairing is often dictated by personal taste, there are a few basics. Just Vino owner Jeff Borsuk noted that sweet wines will often pair well with spicy foods. He also said eating fatty dishes, like fettuccine alfredo, often benefits from a pairing with an acidic wine, like Sauvignon Blanc.

“If you eat something really fatty and greasy, it’s going to coat your tongue and you’ll start losing flavors,” Borsuk said.

He also noted that sometimes a so-so wine can be unlocked by being paired with the right dish.

“There are a lot of wines that are so tannic (bitter), it’s like having sawdust in your mouth and by itself you can never imagine drinking a whole glass,” he said. “But, when you pair a steak with it – all of a sudden they balance each other and it’s like, ‘Wow this is delicious.”

Most of the wine folks I talked to emphasized there are no real hard and fast pairing rules. But they did suggest that you ask for a sample when trying to make a decision. Most places should let you taste something before you buy it and tasting should never be rushed. Let the wine sit in your mouth and reveal all its subtle flavors.  The guys at Just Vino also suggested asking a server or bartender for recommendations.

Of course, you can always do some research beforehand by picking up a few bottles and pulling up Sideways on iTunes.


Comment below with the restaurant your favorite wine list in town!


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Written by <a href="" target="_self">Brett Llenos Smith</a>

Written by Brett Llenos Smith

Brett Llenos Smith is a freelance writer based in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood who has been covering local food and culture for Step Out Buffalo over the past six years. As someone with a multi-ethnic background, he has a passion for exploring and understand the many diverse corners of Western New York.
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