Wine seems to intimidate and mystify many people. It really shouldn’t, there are only a few wine pairings that will actually ruin a dish. The following is an overview of wine, with some simple rules to get you going on choosing the right wine for a meal.
What is wine?
Wine is of course just fermented grape juice. There are white wines, which come from white grapes, and red wines which come from red grapes, right? Wrong. An often misunderstood piece of information is that it is the color of the grape that determines the color of the wine when in fact all grape juice is clear. White wine is made from the juice and just the juice, so it can be made from any color grape. Red wine is made from the juice but the skins are allowed to steep with the juice which is what gives red wine its color and also its flavor. Red wines are therefore made from only red grapes. The grape skin is what gives red wines their dry, mouth puckering flavor. Rosé wines are pinkish in color and come from red grapes where the juice is left in contact with skin for a very short period of time. Wine is then aged in either steel vats or wooden barrels and then bottled and corked.
Types of Wine
This is where people begin to get confused. They don’t know their Chardonnay from their Burgundy. Other than White, Red, or Rosé, wines are typically categorized either by region or type of grape.
Let’s start with type of grape since that is more common. When wine is categorized by its type of grape you will see popular white varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio and popular red varieties such as Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. When ordering wine at a bar, you would usually say one of these. I would also suggest you try and get to know these varieties as well as which ones you prefer and don’t. Try one after the other to get a sense of the difference. After a few times you will find ones you like and get to know there flavors. The basic differences you will be looking for are if it is light or heavy, fruity or acidic, dry or sweet.
It is also common to see wines categorized by the region they grow in. Region is important because wine benefits from what is called “Terroir” (prounounced Ter-Wahr.) The word is based on the word terre
, which means land. It denotes the fact that a wines taste has very much to do with where the grape is grown. The minerals in the soil, the humidity, and the sunlight of a specific region all influence the taste of a glass of wine.
Popular regions for wine would be Chablis, Bordeaux, and Burgundy in France, or Chianti, Brunello, and Barolo in Italy. Some of these regions produce both white and red wines. The wines that come from these regions are made from certain grapes, like a Pinot Noir grape , but the wine is named after the region they are produced in since it tends to be more specific. So for example, a Pinot Noir can come from many different places but it is still a Pinot Noir wine, while a Burgundy, can only come from the Burgundy region of France. Red Burgundy wines are typically made from Pinot Noir grapes in fact.
In countries such as France and Italy, these regions are strictly defined and law prohibits calling wines outside of these areas by such names. Knowing what grapes make up these wines then becomes a bit more of a learning exercise, but you can do some research and also ask for help. At the very least, when dining out, if you are offered a Barolo, you can ask what type of grapes it is made from and associate that with your knowledge from tasting the different varieties described above. Please not, some of these wines are blended from a few different types of grapes, that doesn’t mean they are of lesser quality, it is just how the flavor is created.
Other Types of Wine
Champagne – Yes it is wine (fermented grapes, remember) except it sparkling (carbonated) which occurs naturally by adding additional yeast and sugar at the end of the fermentation process. Champagne is a region, not a type of grape. Therefore any other sparkling wine is NOT champagne. The Italian version of this is called Prosecco.
Sauternes – a white sweet dessert wine
Port, Sherry, and Madeira – red sweet wines often served after dinner and/or with dessert.
A typical wine label would have the name of the producer, the name of the vineyard, and the type of wine either by region or grape. French wine labels tend to be a bit more complicated, because in addition they will have more detailed information about the region, such as the village and its classification. We will save this for a future article. The label will also have the alcohol content and the vintage. So let’s talk a bit about vintage.
Vintage means the year that the grapes were harvested. Older is not necessarily better. Sometimes older wines are rarer, which makes them more expensive, but they are not always better. That said, no one keeps bottles of bad old wine around. Some wines age better than others and are therefore best consumed after sitting in the bottle for years. Others will not benefit from aging and are best consumed rather soon. In addition, certain years, are just not as good as others for wine.
Recalling the concept of Terroir, some years may be very hot, or very wet, and will therefore influence the grapes flavor. There are charts that score wines for each year and also tell you whether you should drink them or hold them longer. Unless you plan on studying this and becoming an expert, I suggest you use one of these. Here is one from Wine Spectator
that can be printed out and folded to fit in your wallet. There is also an iPhone app
One last word on vintage. If you see something that says MV or NV, that stands for Multi Vintage or No Vintage. They both mean basically the same thing which is that grapes from different years were blended to make that bottle. This occurs mostly in Champagne so the product is consistent from year to year. If there is an exceptionally good year, they will bottle it with a vintage on it.
So, how to choose a wine? Well, you may have heard the old saying that white wines go with white food (chicken, fish, etc.) and red wines go with red food (steak, pasta, etc). That is a pretty good place to start. Typically a heavy red wine will completely wash away the delicate flavor of fish, but let’s not be too rigid, as a very light red, like a Pinot Noir, may go fine with a chicken that is in a heavier sauce.
We can build on this idea by also paying attention to whether the wine is fruity or acidic. You then pair accordingly to compliment the food, so a highly acidic red wine, like Chianti, tends to go well with the acid in a tomato sauce. When it comes to dessert, you want to pick something sweeter as anything tart would taste very tart after that piece of chocolate cake.
Combine that info with the vintage charts above and you are on your way to picking out a nice 2007 Barolo to go with that big dish of spaghetti Bolognese. As you can see, these are some good guidelines to help you out, but it can be complex and there are many different pairings that tend to work and surprise. When dining out, I tend to ask for help in choosing a wine to go with the meal, but at least the info above will help you when at home, and give you some direction when dining out. Look for my upcoming article on dealing with the wine list at a restaurant.