When it comes to buying wine, most new drinkers simply ask for white or red. If they find several wines from California, South Africa, Chile or Portugal and in different styles it becomes an overwhelming purchase. Some end up buying the same type of wine without graduating to more sophisticated tastes. Of course, ordering is an art, and honing your skills takes time and experience.
A good wine is like a musical composition, with peaks and troughs, perfectly balanced for it to be memorable. It should be a sensory journey through different regions and grape varieties.
So how do you choose South African, Portuguese or Chilean bottles?
“When buying wine per country, you need to understand where the grapes are grown and the regions that produce the best native fruits,” says Peter Chege, a sommelier at Radisson Blu's Chophouse restaurant.
“You need to know the trends. You also need to be daring to get that memorable, dramatic bottle.”
If you are buying red wines from Italy, you will never go wrong with bottles from Chianti, Amarone or Barolo. The last two are the king grapes that you can get from Italy, says Peter.
From Spain, he says, you can get wines like Tempranillo which is a black grape variety widely grown to make full-bodied red wines.
Tempranillo is Spain’s top variety, made famous by where it comes from, a region called Rioja. A well-made Tempranillo can easily age in an oak for over 20 years.
“Aged Tempranillo wines pair nicely with steak and a roast rack of lamb. However, some Spanish wines don’t have labels showing the grape variety on the bottle. This is because the winemakers do many grapes blending,” the sommelier says.
If you love Chardonnay, which has a range of styles from bold, buttery and oak-aged, get a bottle from Burgundy or Chablis in France or South Africa. Not all regions produce good Chardonnay.
“The taste differs depending on the cool or warm weather,” Peter says.
Chile produces very good Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape in the world and it is usually rich, red, and robust.
This grape originated in France around the region of Bordeaux but it is now grown in many countries, including South Africa, which is now competing with old wine producers.
“Interestingly, quite a number of international diners, the well-travelled ones and experienced drinkers, order wines from South Africa. They want to taste African,” Peter says.
“Stellenbosch in South Africa produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that can competes what comes in from France. The wines are also cheaper at Sh1,400 a glass.”
Most people who enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be blended with Merlot, know that it should not be enjoyed alone. Pair it with good rib-eye steak, philly steak or lamb chops.
Gauge the boldness
From Australia, you can get a very good bottle of Syrah also known as Shiraz. This grape produces boisterous, rich, and peppery reds.
“Australia winemakers blend most of their wines with Shiraz. Get a good bottle from Barossa Valley. It has a kind of soil that suits the Shiraz. You can also get good Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, which is a wonderful choice with herb-rich foods like chicken, or fish,” he said.
You could also choose wine depending on your mood or as a celebratory drink. If you are celebrating, buy sparkling wine. It could be a Cava, champagne, Prosecco or Lambrusco. If it is wine for a hot afternoon, open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and serve it with salad.
For those still learning the art of ordering, buying and drinking wine, start with light-bodied white and switch to red wine.
Peter says you should not be restricted to famous wine producers.
“You can even try Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir from New Zealand. Marlborough is one the best wine-producing regions. From Argentina, get a Malbec from Mendoza,” Peter says.
Portugal is known for blends. They have a lot of native grapes that cannot stand on their own.
Most female drinkers, Peter adds, prefer lighter sweet wines because they are less tangy.
“Try sweet wine from Germany. We serve one type called Rosso Nobile Al Cioccolata that is our best-seller among female diners in Kenya. It is sweet red wine flavoured with dark chocolate,” says Peter, a graduate from The Wine & Spirit Education Trust which certifies sommeliers.
He is keen on teaching Kenyans about wine, saying that instead of ordering water or juice with lunch and dinner, buy a glass or two of wine with every meal.
Wine taking comes with rules, but gradually, they are being broken. So can one mix full-bodied and light-bodied wines? I ask.
“You could, but the rule is to start with light-bodied then go to full-bodied. If you're having a starter, which is a beef carpaccio, have it with a light-bodied wine such as Pinot Noir. Thereafter, if you are having rib eye steak, then order for another glass of full-bodied wine,” he says.
Gauge the boldness of the wine before you break the rules. If you have a very bold red wine, it may overwhelm the taste of the chicken.
Smoked foods go well with oaked wines. If it is grilled or roasted chicken, pair it with oaked Chardonnay (which has spent time in oak barrels). It is more complex and it is layered with buttery notes of vanilla from the wood.
If you are not the traditional kind, jump right in the aromatic wine world. An explosive, perfumed aroma springs out of the glass as the sommelier pours it.
“You could get Gewürztraminer which is very aromatic and it goes well with Asian or Japanese dishes. Riesling from South Africa is also a good aromatic wine,” says Peter, one of the few Kenyan sommeliers with mastery in wine.