It's a secret aspiration, I know: You really want to be a wine geek. Now, nobody actually wants to admit to being such a thing, let alone wanting to be one. Yet I know. I can see it in your eyes.
When you scan a restaurant wine list, especially one of those hipper-than-thou lists where you not only don't recognize a single wine, you can't pronounce any of them either, I know that you secretly want to awe your guests and send the sommelier into a submissive cringe.
You don't have to confess it here—we can keep it between ourselves. But you do want to know how to become an instant wine geek, right? You want that street cred, that been-there-and-tasted-that air of assurance that comes with wine geekery. We can help.
But first you have to do your part. The first thing that you must always remember is to keep it terse. The more you blabber on—to your companions, to the sommelier—the greater the likelihood that you'll be found out as just a regular Joe or Jane, rather than that superspecies known as a wine geek. No less a wine geek than Mies van der Rohe put it best: Less (verbiage) is more.
The second rule is easier: Never spend more than you absolutely have to. This is one of the secrets of true wine geekery. Anyone (and everyone) can order, say, a Vosne-Romanée. A true wine geek instead chooses something utterly obscure, like a Côte de Nuits-Villages, murmuring that this red Burgundy is a hidden jewel—and pocketing the difference of a hundred bucks.
These two rules are easy to remember. Here's the mnemonic: Keep your mouth and your wallet closed.
So what's the trick to instant wine geekdom? It's all in the grape. I can hear you already: Everybody says it's the producer that matters. Sure it does. But there's a problem: Unless you're some sort of idiot savant who can absorb the Manhattan phone book, you're never going to remember the names of the best producers in every obscure (read, cheap) wine district around the world.
That's why sticking with suitably geeky grapes is the key. After all, how many grapes do you need to remember? Maybe 10 at the most. And that's really pushing it. But I know you can do it. I know that you really, really want to be a wine geek.
So here's what you want to commit to memory and conjure up from the very next wine list you see:
Godello: This is a white grape grown in the Galicia region of northwest Spain. It's sort of like Chardonnay, but it’s not. In other words, it's a terrific all-purpose dry white wine with the added benefit of a high geek rarity-to-price ratio. Most Godello wines retail for $15 to $20.
The hardest part to Godello is remembering to pronounce it correctly: go-day-yoh. After that, it's a piece of cake. The thing about Godello is that, if my experience is anything to go by, it's hard to find a bad Godello—especially if you buy one that's really cheap. (The more expensive versions have oak, which is like pasting on a smiley-face sticker.)
Trousseau: Big geek points for this red grape variety, grown almost exclusively in the Jura region of eastern France hard by the Swiss border. Jura wines of all sorts are the current throb in geek wine love.
The thing about Trousseau—the shocker, really—is that in a world awash with dense, nearly opaque red wines, Trousseau is a luminous ruby hue. Everyone at your table will think that you're a nutter for having ordered it—until they taste it. Then the light bulb comes on. Trousseau is like a 90-pound karate champion who breaks six bricks. It delivers major flavor impact despite its seeming lightness. There are only a handful of producers who are imported, all good, so no worries on that score. Make sure it's served on the cool side, by the way.
And for extra geek points, you can also order a Poulsard, another Jura red that's deceptively "light," delivering a wafting, ethereal strawberry scent.
Nerello Mascalese: Sicily's Mount Etna is the new darling of the Italian wine geek crowd, which itself is a major subset of world wine geekery. A red variety that's been grown in Mount Etna for seemingly all of recorded human memory, it's only now seeing celebration. Why? Partly because for centuries it was blended away with other red varieties, it's greatness subsumed in a muddied blend. And it's partly because only now is the winemaking on Mount Etna seeing real proficiency.
Whatever the reasons, Nerello Mascalese (and its near-twin, Nerello Cappuccio) creates an unusually delicate red wine that reminds more than a few tasters of a red Burgundy. It's got finesse and surprising (for a place as hot as Sicily) delicacy. You can thank high elevation for those qualities, and volcanic soils for an appealing earthy quality.
Regrettably, prices are now inching upward, but with any luck you can still snare a really good Nerello Mascalese for a price that most drinkers would consider reasonable, a few high-priced ($75 and up) producers notwithstanding.
Mencía: Spain's Galicia region shows up again with this red grape, which is the grape variety most commonly seen in the Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra districts. It is thought by some to have evolved from cuttings brought to the area by Cistercian monks on their pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. (They would stay at abbeys and monasteries on the way, and what better house gift than a few vine cuttings?)
Mencía typically creates a rich red wine, often with a pronounced mineral/slate note from the slate-filled slopes, especially in the Ribera Sacra zone. An increasing number of Mencía versions now see oak, sometimes too much (although the grape can accommodate oak pretty well). Prices range from dirt-cheap to respectable but not ridiculous. This is the perfect geek red for all sorts of meats, not least a good steak.
Obviously the challenge of being an instant wine geek can extend to many other grape varieties and wines. Some of you surely would nominate, say, Sherry. (Count me out, as the oxidation turns me off.) One might submit the Garganega grape that creates Soave. (Count me in on that one, as I love the taste and I also just love saying the name, which comes out as gar-GAH-neh-gah.)
The instant wine geek possibilities are vast. The trick is to keep it simple enough to actually remember when the pressure is on—when the wine list is put in front of you. I'll happily leave it to your suggestions, at this point. Tasmanian wines? Greek whites? Canary Islands? Skin-contact amphora-aged whites from Georgia? Geekery knows no bounds.