20 Essential Wine Tips from Chef Fabio Viviani

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20 Essential Wine Tips from Chef Fabio Viviani
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20 Essential Wine Tips from Chef Fabio Viviani

Want to learn how to taste and talk about wine? Italian chef and wine lover Fabio Viviani shares his essential wine tips, so that you can keep sipping and toasting, America!

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“When I'm tasting wine, it's different than when I'm enjoying it with a meal,” says Fabio. “At times, we need to taste, smell and evaluate the flavors and aromas. Other times, we need to focus on table conversation while using wine as the vehicle that steers its direction.”

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According to Fabio, there are three areas that you can evaluate when tasting wine: The Harmony, The Intricacy and The Ending.

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1. Wine with harmony sings.

“Harmony, in wine terms, is searching for two parts that help the overall taste shine. An example would be when a wine has lots of oak or wood notes, [which] can be balanced by having good amounts of ripe fruit flavor. Maybe a dessert wine’s sweetness can be sung beautifully by adding notes of acidity found in tannins. We want a song in our mouth, not just a chorus.”

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2. Intricate wine takes you on a trip.

“When you find harmony between flavors, intricacy doesn't always follow suit. When a wine is intricate, you will notice a cascade of ever shifting tastes and aromas. You don't just taste fruit, but an array of berries, stone fruits and flowers. Wait another 10 minutes, and pick up hints of soil, minerals and savory spices such as nutmeg or clove.”

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“'Big’ wines like a Bordeaux or 2006 Burgundy might treat your palette to such sensations. What a wonderful trip your mouth might have the opportunity to go on!”

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3. Wines with great endings last up to a minute.

“Everyday wine, or table wine, usually has an aftertaste that isn't memorable. Not that it's bad, but just doesn't offer the palette anything to hold on to. A good finish should last anywhere from 15-30 seconds. Great endings can last up to a minute - now that's sexy, America!”

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“Experienced tasters look for not only how long the ending is, but what is happening during that ending (finished harmony and continued intricacy).“

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“Does the wine leave an alcoholic taste, an almost burning sensation? How about a smooth and comforting feeling on the roof of your mouth and back of your tongue? Perhaps the tannins are the finishers that give your mouth a pleasant pucker? All of these traits can be used when describing the ending.”

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4. Remember this mantra.

“For a quick reference, it's as simple as my chef mentors shared with me – ‘The better wines will leave you smiling, while the great ones will leave you breathless.’ If a wine has the ability to create harmony, show intricacy and end like a champion, then I would make sure you mark it as a keeper!”

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5. Save great wines for special occasions.

“But always remember, not every wine will need to be great. Sometimes you just need a good wine. When cooking, an ok wine will do the trick. Save the great wines for special moments and occasions.”

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6. “Dry” wines are the opposite of “sweet” wines.

“A truly dry wine gets that way when the natural sugars in the grapes are completely converted to alcohol during its fermentation process. But when we talk about a ‘sweet’ wine, some of these sugars are left unconverted, leaving the wine with a sweet dimension. We call this leftover sugar 'residual sugar' in the wine world.”

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7. But, some “dry” wines can taste sweet.

“Wine has tricks up its sleeve though. Many wines produced today, when completely fermented, can somehow STILL have sweetness about them.” Fabio lists Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Shiraz as a few examples.

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“But this sweetness isn't from residual sugars - there's the trick! It comes from insanely and intensely ripe grapes. In warmer climates (California, Australia, etc), it's more common to see this happening. These grapes can have an effect on the wine that gives our palettes a sensory memory of sweetness. It's not that they are actually sweet, but they register in the brain as having a sweet attribute.”

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8. Tannin-rich red wines have bitter flavors.

“Tannins are described as the ‘pucker’ or ‘bitter’ sensation found in some reds,” says Fabio. “We notice tannins in reds mostly due to their production process. Skins are added to the juice when red wines are being produced. Since grapes have those natural tannins, they impart them when coming in contact with the juice.”

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“Let's take another look at the grape though - not all tannins are created equally though. The grape that produces Cabernet Sauvignon are well-known for their ability to give us big tannin sensation while the Pinot Noir variety only conjures a lighter tannic mouth feel.”

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9. Choose aged wine for smoother flavor.

Over time, the bitter tannins mellow out. “As the wine ages, the tannin structure ’loosens’ and [flows] out as sediment,” reveals Fabio. “It leaves the wine with a softer, smoother texture and an added height of complexity.”

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“The best way to notice this is to taste them side by side. Taste a 2012 then compare to a 2007. What do you smell and taste? Your cheeks and tongue shouldn't pucker and 'sweat' as much as they do when tasting the older one. Every mouth is different though.”

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10. Tannin-rich red wines are perfect with fatty meats.

According to Fabio, tannins are part of the reason why many people enjoy a red wine when eating fattier cuts of meat? “Along with adding a small ‘bite’ to [even] out the wine's ripe flavors of fruit, they help cleanse the tongue of fats found in richer meat cuts,” he explains.

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11. Test for soft or hard tannins.

“Sip the wine, touch your tongue against the top of your mouth for five seconds and assess. Does it leave your mouth slightly dry? Perhaps leaving what some winemakers like to call ‘a soft coating’? This is a soft-tannin attribute.”

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“Or does [it] suck all the moisture from your cheeks, gums, tongue and everything in between? This is an attribute of hard tannins. In the second mentioned sensation, foods like cheese and nuts might help to neutralize those harsh tannins.”

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12. Acidity heightens wines.

“Acidity takes my food and gives it a boost - it heightens it. The same sensation happens in wine. Not with lemons, limes, or vinegar per se, but through naturally developing acids in the wine. Some of the most noticeable that I've found are in whites like Sauvignon Blanc and lighter reds such as a Beaujolais.”

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“Just [like] how a squeeze of lemon [acts] as a flavor booster, acid in wine can sometimes make certain foods taste better! I'm Italian to the core and Chianti wine speaks to me. This wine pairs excellently with pasta and tomato sauces and some cheeses… The acids sort of subdue each other and the effect your mouth is left with something slightly sweet and pleasing.”

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13. Don’t confuse tannins for acid.

“You can recognize these acidities by the tingly or bubbly sensation that occurs on the tip of your tongue and around the edges. Don't confuse tannins for acid though - tannins draw from the side and roof of the mouth.”

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14. Describe wine’s acidity like you do for citrus fruits.

“When you want to describe a wine’s obvious acidity, try to use words like juicy, zesty or tangy - words that are usually associated with citrus.”

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15. Dessert wines need acidity for balance.

“Acidity in dessert wines lends itself as a counterbalance to the sweet tones found in them. You will be left with light, sweet sensation rather than having something that tastes like syrup - thick and coating. The acidity splits up the sugars and helps to break through the sweetness.”

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“But be careful, if we have too much acidity in our wine, chances are that our mouths will be left with tastes of salt and sour - that's not good drinking. Keep the sour for candy and out of the wine please America.”

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16. Serve dessert wine ice-cold.

“A reason why dessert wines should be served ice-cold is that the cold will emphasize the acidity. It's a necessary component that will bring out its tartness, helping to cut through and balance the sweetness found in the dessert.”

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17. Avoid pairing acidic wines with sweet foods.

“Try to stray away from pairing acidic wine and sweet foods. There is a difference from acid found in wine and acidic wines though. Everybody's palette is different, but generally speaking, that combo will take a nose dive on most peoples’ tongues. We are looking for a smooth, enjoyable flight, not a nose dive crash. Save the Sauvignon Blanc for fish, not chocolate chip cookies.”

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18. Oak wood can enhance wines – to a point.

“Oak has been used for centuries by winemakers to impart sweet scents and a subtle creamy texture, rounding off the wine for a perfect finish. Oak wood can be seen as an add-on to enhance grapes natural flavor and sweetness.“

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“On [the] flip side, add too much and you might as well not be making wine in the first place. When too much is applied to the wine process, it can create an extremely heavy wine (destroying the natural grape flavor), muting the palette and clashing with food. Taste buds beware - proceed with oak at your own discretion.”

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19. Train your nose for oak.

“Train your nose to notice scents of cinnamon, caramel, or even smoke. These are indicators of the wine having spent time in contact with oak. A good bottle of Chardonnay from California or down under in Australia are known for their oakiness, while a Cabernet Sauvignon or deep red, such as Bordeaux, see many months in conversation with oak.”

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“To take a step further, very mature reds can even smell like a cigar box or spending the night inside a cigar factory. Rich aromas of smoke and wood combine with sweet flavors to create a beautiful, sexy, intelligent wine.”

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20. Look for these on the label.

“Here are three widely used descriptions that you can notice on the bottle to steer you in the direction of wine coming in contact with oak.”

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Barrel Fermented - "The juice of the grapes has been placed into barrels, usually in oak, and in the same barrel, transformed into wine."

Barrel Aged - "This is when the juice has already been turned into wine, then spends extra time in the barrel. Sometimes the same barrel and sometimes a different one. The wine stays here for its maturation period. The time spent could be for a couple months up to a couple of years."

Barrel Selection - "This refers to specially selected barrels by the winemakers. Maybe a strong oak from France or oak from heirloom seeds. Its definition is broad, but none the less, an indicator."

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Former Top Chef contestant Fabio Viviani is passionate about wine and wants you to be, too, but he stresses that you shouldn't be intimidated by it.

"Always find what you like and never mind what others think. It's important to take notes from experienced tasters, but only as a blueprint. Let them mold the house, while you create the interior," declares Fabio. "It's silly to let others decide what you HAVE to taste or thinking you are wrong if you don't get the same sensation. Every mouth is unique and special, as are the wines that grace them."

To train your palette to be able to taste the wonderful nuances of wine, Fabio shares his expert tips on how to taste and talk about wine. Find out the three main things you should look for in a great wine, and why attributes like acidity, tannins and oakiness are important.

Check out the slideshow above to discover Fabio Viviani's 20 essential wine tips.

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