Alexis Lichine, a noted Russian wine writer and entrepreneur, once related the following story; a Persian King who was overly fond of grapes, took an entire harvest and stored them away in jars, marking them “poison” to keep others away. Sometime later, a beauty for his harem – now disfavoured by the King – came across a forgotten jar in a darkened corner of a storage room. Despondent and tired of life, she looked upon the warning sign and decided her fate. But as she drank from the jar, she found “the poison was so delicious that, much revived, she took a cup to the King. The King tasted it, took the lady back into favour, and ordained that thereafter the grapes should be allowed to ferment…”
While this mythical tale serves better to entertain than to educate, it does exemplify the oft mystifying qualities of wine. No doubt, in our younger years, many of us would approach the prospect of a bottle of wine with the same wariness as we would labeled poison. The truth is, for the grand percentage of people, there is a stigma about wines that they are the domain of the elitist, and an excellent opportunity to be sneered at by some condescending prig from an “old-boy” network.
This of course is true.
Or not. At least, it doesn’t have to be. The truth is that the art of wine appraisal is a wholly subjective one, meaning that any opinion beyond the basic truth of wine being “wet”, is yours alone to define. Forget the concept of making any kind of catastrophic mistake when it comes to buying or drinking a bottle of wine. Forget the concept of “missing the point”, or being ignorant of its subtleties. Whatever you get – or do not get – from the wine is absolutely correct, because it is your opinion that counts to you. And that’s the only thing that really matters.
That said, there are some helpful hints that may help you to appreciate wine more easily. And while no wine will ever ruin a meal, there are some pairings that may help to improve it. Take the following pointers as you will, but remember; observe only those that make the process more enjoyable to you.
The many types of wine
In the simplest terms there are two types of wines; red and white. Reds are generally made from “red grapes” and have the skins left on during part of the fermentation process. Whites are generally made from “white grapes”, and have the skins removed before fermentation. Rosé wines are a mix between either the two styles, or the two processes.
Sparkling wines (such as Champagne) are a result of significant levels of carbon dioxide. This is created either by a second fermentation (usually in the bottle) or by carbon dioxide injection (usually in a large tank).
Different types of grapes also make for different types of wines, and these are referred to as varietals. Different regions and individual wineries add their own characteristics (and these can differ widely to refined palates) but there are some common traits that can be attributed to specific varietals. There are also some basic food pairings – those provided here can help provide an easy frame of reference to begin with.
|Name||Color||Characteristics||Common food pairings|
|Barbera||Red||Hearty red wines with deep ruby colors, full body and low tannin (tea-like) levels.||Roast chicken, meat lasagna, veal|
|Cabernet Sauvignon||Red||Known for its depth of flavor, aroma and ability to age. Full-bodied and intense, with cherry- currant and sometimes herbal flavors.||Steak, lamb, hamburgers|
|Chardonnay||White||Flavors range from clean and crisp with a hint of varietal flavor to rich and complex, vanilla, butter and oak-aged wines. A balance of fruit and acidity.||Seafood, chicken, orange vegetables, potatoes|
|Chenin Blanc||White||Fresh, delicate floral characteristics. It grows well in warmer climates and produces light, well- balanced wines ranging from dry to off-dry (slightly sweet) styles.||Cream dishes, ham, BBQ chicken|
|Gewürztraminer||White||Distinctive wine, rich in spicy aromas and full flavors, ranging from dry to sweet.||Asian flavors, pasta salads, roasted asparagus|
|Malbec||Red||A “rustic” version of Merlot, with softer tannins and lower in acidity. Blackberry, raisin, tobacco flavors.||Beef with broccoli, Mexican flavors, pork chops, roast lamb|
|Merlot||Red||Medium to full body with black cherry and herbal flavors. Typically smooth, soft and mellow.||Tomato pastas, chicken soups, cheeseburgers, veal|
|Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio)||White||Low acidity that produces rich, lightly perfumed wines that are often more colorful than other whites.||Prosciutto, charcuterie, fish, salads|
|Pinot Noir||Red||A light to medium-body wine, pegged as one of the most difficult to grow and make. Delicate and smooth with rich complexity, Pinot Noir is a versatile dinner companion.||Duck, roast chicken, smoked turkey, mushrooms|
|Riesling||White||Known for its floral perfume. Depending on where they’re made, can be crisp and bone-dry, full-bodied and spicy or luscious and sweet.||Pork, satays, nuts, sushi|
|Sangiovese||Red||Best known as the Italian red wine, Chianti. Hearty and dry, it often displays a distinctively smooth texture with spice, raspberry and licorice flavors.||Pasta, pizza, cheeses|
|Sauvignon Blanc||White||Best known for its grassy, herbal flavors and is a popular choice for shellfish or as a refreshing alternative to Chardonnay.||Shellfish, fish, green beans, artichokes|
|Syrah (Shiraz)||Red||Syrah can produce giant red wines with strong tannins and complex combinations of flavors including berry, plum and smoke. It’s known as Shiraz mainly in Australia and South Africa.||Lamb, beef stew, wings|
|Zinfandel||Red||Medium to full-bodied red wine with berry or spicy, peppery flavors.||Pizza, BBQ Ribs, burgers|
Different varietals are often combined into blends, aspiring to take advantage of the combined qualities. “Old-world” wine regions (France, Italy, etc.) commonly define their wines by region, rather than varietal. These regions often have characteristic blends determined by the grapes native to the land. A few examples of these follow:
|Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone, France||Grenache, Syrah, others|
|Bordeaux, France||Red: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, othersWhite: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc|
|Champagne, France||Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, others|
|Soave, Italy||Garganega, Chardonnay, others|
|Amaretto, Veneto, Italy||Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella, others|
|Cava, Spain||Macabeo, Parellada, Xarello, Chardonnay|
|Rioja, Spain||Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Graciano, Maturana Tinta|
You can open a bottle, pour it into a couple of juice glasses and enjoy it with a couple of burgers from the BBQ – no problem. Your face won’t shrivel up, your nose won’t drop off, and no catcalls will rain down upon you from above (unless some condescending prig from the “old-boy” network lives on a balcony overlooking your yard, of course.) But there are some simple things you can do to make it a better experience.
For one; let your wine breathe.
This is also called aerating, and what it does in essence is open up the full-spectrum of the wine’s flavors. It does this by introducing air and warming the wine to room temperature, both of which release the aromas. Smell is a critical component of taste – as anyone who has ever had a sinus cold can attest to – and therefore an important factor to consider. Reds (typically served at room temperature) benefit the most from this process, but white wines (typically served at cooler than room temperatures) can also benefit from the process. 20 to 60 minutes before serving is a good duration for aeration, with younger wines needing the more time than mature wines.
You can both optimize and accelerate this process with a decanter and/or an aerator. Pouring wine through an aerator into a decanter will dramatically improve the aromas, and therefore the flavour and enjoyment of the wine. If you’ve gone to the trouble of choosing your varietal and matching it to your food, it makes sense to include this as the easiest last step.
And wine glasses? What about them?
Simple. As they act as a kind of decanter on their own, choose bigger glasses for bigger wines. Wines with “big” complex flavors (Syrahs, Cabernet Sauvignons) benefit most from big glasses, allowing the air to mix freely with the aromas and deliver them to your nose. More delicate whites (Chenin Blancs, Pinot Gris) are just fine in smaller glasses. Just remember that, no matter the size, you should only fill the glass to the one third mark to allow for a proper air-to-wine mixture.
And that’s it, really.
Oh sure, there are people who will espouse opinions varying widely to those presented above, applying thick layers of complexity and confusion. But unless you are aspiring to the pretenses of the “old-boy” network, this will provide a solid footing for the first few steps on your new adventure in wine appreciation. And remember; those steps can be traced all the way back in time to a simple jar.