I was having a frustrating conversation with a couple at Hugo’s a few weeks back. They weren’t annoying or obtuse. They were trying their level best to describe the kinds of wines they enjoy drinking so that I could recommend a bottle that they would like. What was frustrating is that I didn’t, at first, understand their language. For example, they told me that they liked “full-bodied, dark wines” and that, “Pinot Noir is one of our favorites.” For someone in my profession, that’s tantamount to saying to a car salesman, “We prefer fast, sporty cars and that’s why we drive a Prius.” Wait, what?

I had some linguistic unpacking to do, and I’m used to that. I fumbled my way through a few questions, then their answers and finally figured out what they meant by what they said. I was then able to recommend a bottle which fired on all the cylinders they were looking for. They thanked me on their way out and everybody, including me, was happy. But I found myself meditating on the situation on my ride home. Wouldn’t it be great if everybody had a rudimentary vocabulary about wine that was accurate?

This is not an easy thing. Not least because wine has a subjective element. It’s not merely subjective, but it is subjective in part. For example, when someone asks for a wine with lots of minerality, I have to wonder what they mean. I genuinely do not know what people mean when they use that word, nor can I assume they know themselves. How can we have a meeting of the minds if neither of us is meaning the same things, even if we’re using the same words?

Fortunately, wine has enough objective elements, or, better stated, commonly agreed upon things, to get us going in the right direction. I’d like to unpack a few of them so you’ll have the tools to get what you want when you’re buying wine. What follows are a few of the more common misconceptions about wine I’ve encountered.

1. What does body refer to?

Most technically, body refers to the amount of alcohol present in the wine, how heavy or light the liquid feels in your mouth. Your mouth experiences alcohol as something that lends viscosity to a wine. So, the more viscous a wine is, the fuller-bodied it will feel. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how darkly colored a wine is. Many people mistake a dark red wine with full-bodied. Certainly, many dark red wines are full-bodied, but not all of them. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a great example of a truly full-bodied red – they are, by law, at least 14.5 percent alcohol – that isn’t the color of squid ink.

2. Legs are an indicator of quality.

Not at all correct. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched someone swirl a glass of wine, hold it up to the light and exclaim, “What beautiful legs! This is going to be good!” The legs, or tears, that fall down the inside of the glass are telling you the alcohol content of the wine and, basically, nothing else. So, the accurate thing to say in that moment would be something like, “Wow! What beautiful legs! This wine is going to be full of alcohol! I hope it doesn’t taste like nail polish remover!” As a brief aside, high-in-alcohol doesn’t mean good. The opposite, actually. Alcohol can be quite a bully; if it gets too big, it pushes other important components in wine, say fruit aromas and acidity, out of the picture.

3. Fruity vs. dry vs. sweet

This is a tricky one. People conflate fruity and sweet. You can have wines that are fruity and dry, or fruity and sweet, but not dry and sweet simultaneously because dry means the absence of sugar and sweet means the presence of sugar. Most wines are fruity primarily because grapes are a fruit. Wines will either be dry or semi-dry or sweet based upon the choices the winemaker made during the fermentation process.

4. Expensive wines are better.

The best answer I can give to this is: yes and no and what do you mean by better? For starters, “better” and “enjoyable to you” are not the same. A symphony might be technically better and more interesting than a pop song, but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy listening to it more.

Wines can be expensive for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with enjoyment. Wine, like any other commodity, can see its prices soar when the demand is higher than the supply. If reputable wine critics laud a wine as exceptional, you will often see the price go up in the following years. Some wines, Champagne for one, are expensive because of the process involved in producing them. Also Reserva Rioja, which requires, at least, five years of aging both in barrel and bottle. However, none of these reasons necessarily means that you will think these wines better than others you enjoy. There is no traceable line between a wine’s price and its enjoyment factor for you. You’ll just have to try it.

That said, I can attest to something interesting: My wife and mother-in-law have no formal training in wine, yet they routinely enjoy more expensive wines when tasting them side by side with less expensive wines. They can’t, and don’t want to, point to the technical reasons. By and large, they just like expensive wines more.

Expensive wines tend to be more complex, because of the care given to the grapes as they grow, the vineyard site or how the wines are treated during fermentation and after its completion.

So, there you have it. I picked these few misconceptions because they are the ones I encounter the most. An ocean of delicious wine awaits you and me. Let’s not let our misconceptions get in the way of our enjoyment of them.

Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns three restaurants in Portland: Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw.

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