Beginner’s Guide to Wine
You face a long row of wine bottles and feel panic setting in. You have no idea what the difference is between a cabernet sauvignon and a Shiraz. Reaching the end of the aisle, you peek around the other side only to see that it is also full of wine bottles. Overwhelmed, you cross to the refrigerated area and grab a six-pack of your favorite beer. If wineries really wanted you to drink their product, they’d make it easier!
Here’s a secret: Even seasoned wine drinkers feel this way sometimes. There are so many vintners and, until you try it, you have no idea if you’ll like it. In reality, though, wine is no different from any other alcoholic beverage. Take that beer, for example. You have ales, lagers, IPAs, bocks, American, English, Irish, Mexican, Belgian, and more. So many choices, yet you manage to experiment your way through your options. It’s a sacrifice, but you make it willingly.
We’ll help you become a wine connoisseur with a few pointers on the different types of wine, some samples from each group, and some basic pairings for each type. Engage your spirit of adventure to try different wines; soon, you’ll walk the wine aisle like a pro.
A bit of a misnomer, white wines range from nearly clear, such as sparkling wines, to a deep gold. Served chilled, they have a lighter taste than red wines do. We look at five of the more common whites.
1. Sparkling Wine
Commonly called champagne, sparkling wines are naturally carbonated, fizzy wines that are nearly clear in color. By the way, only wines from Champagne, France may legally be called champagne. Taste ranges from crisp and dry to slightly sweet and fruity. Extra brut is the driest version, as yeast consumed all the natural sugars as the wine aged. Brut, the most common type of sparkling wine, is dry with a hint of sweetness to it. Extra dry is a bit sweeter still and most commonly found in Prosecco. Demi-sec is the sweetest sparkling wine and typically served with dessert.
Enjoy your sparkling wine with saltier foods, such as sushi, chips, and caviar. It also pairs well with fish and shellfish.
Chardonnay is a bit sweet and its grapes characterized by great versatility, as the location of the vineyard, as well as the vintner’s barreling process, play a role in its flavor. If grown in cooler climates, the grapes impart fruity flavors such as apple, whereas warmer climates give the wine tropical flavor. Oak barrels impart rich honey flavors, while steel barrels give chardonnay a fresher, crisper taste.
Chardonnay pairs well with all types of seafood.
Riesling is a sweeter wine, with fruity flavors such as pear, apple, and citrus. It acquires a sweeter, honey flavor with age. Although commonly associated with German wineries, French, American, and Australian vintners exist.
Although commonly considered a dessert wine, Riesling also pairs well with spicier foods such as Thai, as well as with poultry and pork.
4. Pinot Gris
As with chardonnay, location and barreling strongly influence the flavors of Pinot gris grapes. Vintners in France, Oregon, and New Zealand produce richer, slightly spicy grapes. The Italian style, called Pinot grigio, has a fresher, crisper taste.
Drink either Pinot gris or Pinot grigio with a variety of lighter fare, including seafood, pasta, poultry, and vegetarian dishes.
5. Sauvignon Blanc
Possibly the most versatile white wine, sauvignon blanc has a crisp, fresh taste with hints of fruit. Some of the better wineries for sauvignon blanc are in New Zealand and in two regions of France: Loire and Bordeaux.
Pair this wine with numerous dishes, including poultry, seafood, and vegetarian fare.
Red wines have much stronger flavors than white wines do, and they range from ruby to deep burgundy in color. Serving temperatures vary from slightly cool to room temperature. Let’s look at four of the more common, versatile red wines.
Merlot has a mellow taste with fruit flavors such as plum and blackberry. You also find merlots with hints of chocolate or mint. It feels soft and supple on the tongue and has a rich aroma. You find excellent vintners in Chile, California, and Washington.
Merlot pairs nicely with red meat dishes, such as beef or lamb.
2. Cabernet Sauvignon
Typically barreled in oak, cabernet sauvignon has a stronger flavor than merlot and usually requires more time to age. The grapes impart fruity flavors such as plum, black currant, and cassis, while the barrels add hints of vanilla, chocolate, or cedar. It is a rich wine with a full-bodied flavor, commonly grown in the Bordeaux region of France as well as in America’s own Napa Valley and Washington.
Like merlot, cabernets pair well with beef and lamb dishes.
3. Pinot Noir
Although it is one of the more difficult grapes to grow, Pinot noir is an exceptional wine with complex flavors. Initially grown in Burgundy, wineries in New Zealand, Oregon, and California also craft some wonderful Pinot noir wines. Flavors range from fruity hints of cherry and strawberries to an earthy hint of mushroom.
One of the more versatile food wines, Pinot noir pairs well with salmon, poultry, red meat, and vegetable dishes.
4. Shiraz or Syrah
The name depends on the region in which it is grown. Typically, Australian growers call it shiraz, while European and American vintners label it syrah. It is a rich, bold, dark wine, with a taste that becomes more complex with age. Shiraz includes dark fruit flavors with a hint of spice, while syrah typically has a slightly mellower flavor.
Pair either with any meat dish, but they work especially well with grilled meats.
Perhaps because so many people begin their wine education with rosé wines, these slightly sweet, fruity wines seem to garner little respect. That’s too bad, because rosés have grown quite a bit in recent years, with wineries experimenting and expanding beyond the most well-known rosé, white zinfandel. Even a good white zin (technically zinfandel rosé) has a nice, moderate sweetness that tastes great chilled, making for a refreshing summer drink.
1. Grenache Rosé
It is a fruity wine with a taste like ripe strawberries and orange. Grenache rosé also has a moderately high acidity with a brilliant ruby color and a full body. Serve it chilled with your favorite Greek dish.
2. Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé
A ruby red color, cabernet sauvignon rosé has flavors of cherry, pepper, and black currant. Its heightened acidity gives it a refreshing crispness, and it works well with lighter, slightly spicy fare, such as your favorite Thai takeout.
3. Tavel Rosé
With a fuller body and dryer flavor, Tavel rosé is salmon pink in color with a lot of the flavor and character of red wines. It has a bit higher alcohol content (perhaps this is why Ernest Hemingway liked it?) and pairs well with most dishes, including meats and poultry.
Corks vs. Screw Caps
Historically, wineries have sealed their bottles with cork. Everyone knows that screw caps are the province of cheap wine. No movie ever showed a sommelier handing a well-heeled patron a screw cap to sniff appreciatively. The reality, of course, is not so black and white.
Corks, even those made of alternative material (i.e., not cork), are meant to allow the wine to breathe as it ages. Screw caps work perfectly well with table wines (those meant to be drunk within a year of bottling). If your bottle goes from liquor store to glass within only a few days or weeks, or even months, aging is not an issue. What’s more, screw caps include calculated “oxygen ingress” rates. Most Australian wines feature screw caps.
Wineries began looking for cork alternatives in the 1980s, when cork manufacturing experienced decreased quality. Low-quality cork does not hold up well to the aging process, sometimes breaking apart or allowing the wine to seep past the cork itself. It also taints the wine, commonly called cork taint. What’s more, cork is expensive.
Alternative “cork” is either plastic or a plant-based polymer. This capping method is more affordable and stands up well to aging. However, some alternatives do not breathe as well as natural cork. Typically, you find cork in more expensive wines priced $30 or more. Some wineries continue using cork for all their wines, though, due to the prejudice against screw caps.
There you have it, a basic yet somehow thorough introduction to the different types of wine. When all is said and done, though, wine is no different from beer or whisky. Which wine you like is all a matter of taste, and just because the experts say that you should pair white with fish and red with beef, that does not mean you must do so. Try a variety of wines, or host your own wine tasting party and have fun experimenting!
Be sure to check back when you’re ready for your second wine lesson. We’ll talk next about proper pouring and decanting, as well as which wine glass to use for which wine. Cheers!