From finally figuring out how on Earth wine names are pronounced (GewA?rztraminer comes to mind for unknown reasons), to knowing what you can expect from a particular vintage, it seems like you need a science degree in order to understand this beloved beverage and learn how to select the right bottle.
Alas, as majestic as wine-making is, us, mere mortals, only need a crash course to master our way through such vivid diversity, and successfully so.
Next time you throw a party or visit a restaurant, you will not shy away from opting for a Chardonnay with your salmon, or Cabernet Sauvignon with your beef steak. Finally, when you feel like uttering that famous sentence after a long day at work: “I need a glass of wine”, you’ll know exactly which bottle to reach for and what tastes to expect.
The Art of Tasting Wine
Without delving into the chemistry that causes different flavor finesses, you can still apply the basic rules of wine tasting to any occasion in order to determine whether or not you like what you’ve been served. For starters, your nose is your best friend ‘ practically half of the taste itself is hidden in the scent, so by giving your glass a good sniff, you’ll know what to expect in the glass.
And the posh swirling everybody does? It’s also there for a very good reason, to help the wine release its subtle aromas in contact with air, and then when you take a sip, you’ll be able to get a full idea of the intricate concoction in your glass. You might not be able to distinguish between all herbs used, or every fruit and aftertaste that follows.
How to Know the Good from the Bad?
Simply put, there’s no such thing as a bad wine. There are better and less successful vintages produced, depending on the weather conditions in which that particular batch of grapes grew, and furthermore, the conditions in which the wine is kept afterwards. Add to that the fact that pairing wines with the right food can often mislead you into thinking that you might have picked a bad bottle, simply because the taste and fragrance of your food will not agree with the wine you potentially love. And no, the price tag doesn’t guarantee that the wine is of excellent quality, or that you will like it.
You don’t have to memorize that wines made in Burgundy predominantly come from a grape called Pinot Noir, while their whites will come from the Chardonnay grape. Just don’t be confused by different labeling laws, since European wines mostly carry the label of the region they come from, unlike the wines made in the US.
This general rule may come in handy once you have a taste of enough wines to know that certain regions may be to your preference, while you’ll know to avoid others no matter their reputation.
When in doubt, go for a light-bodied white, because it’s easily paired with most dishes due to its light structure and mild taste ‘ that’s not to say that it cannot be equally delicious as your full red. Perhaps the most famous one in this category is Pinot Gris, but you can also go for a Sauvignon Blanc, Albarieo from Portugal and Spain, or Soave from the north of Italy. These tend to be refreshing, zesty and often with a hint of citrus.
On the other hand, warmer climates, such as Australia and sunny California, produce exquisite full-bodied whites that are an ideal substitute for red, especially if you have guests that prefer the latter, they’ll appreciate the rich warmth of these vintages. If you’re serving a chicken dish, for example, you can buy white wine such as Chardonnay that will add a smooth, creamy touch to your main course. Full-bodied whites often carry aromas of vanilla or melon, but still remain dry in taste.
Do you like that bitter taste of reds? Tannins are the key ingredients responsible for that rich, bitter taste of red wines, and since it predominantly comes from the skin of grapes, it’s much more prominent in reds than whites.
Light-bodied reds are also light in color, making them easy to recognize, and the most notable representative is Pinot Noir, although the Moroccan Cinsault and Gamay from France will also not disappoint, especially when combined with lighter red meat dishes.
Medium-bodied reds are every foodie’s go-to drink, because they are, much like those light-bodied whites, easily matched to almost any dish, no matter the number of ingredients. Sangiovese and Merlot are some of the well-known names that are easy to find.
Finally, full-bodied, deeply red wines are very tannic, and an equally full dish is a match made in heaven for this type of red. Think fatty barbecue ribs, pork chops and beef steaks, all of which pair perfectly with bold Australian Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinotage.
Another useful thing to know is that full-bodied reds also have a better tendency to age well, precisely due to their richness in tannins, because they help your wine stay fresh longer.
If you’re still uncertain what these particular wines are, they go through the same making process as the red wine, but they have a shorter fermentation process, so they don’t acquire the same level of redness that comes from grape skin.
Less color also often means a milder taste, while more color means a bolder aroma. What makes them so alluring is their versatility, as they have a whole range of tastes, from fully dry to incredibly sweet.
When you’re looking for a perfect rose, you can never go wrong with a classic French from Provence, but certain English grapes will also pleasantly surprise you with their light flavors. Due to their mostly crisp taste, with a variety of fruity aromas, they are considered as summer wines, although nothing should stop you from enjoying a glass of Tavel mid-winter with a slice of pizza. Yes, pizza!
In every sense of the word, because the more you ask, either your friend, the wine aficionado, or the local winemaker, the more you’ll be able to learn about which wines you enjoy most, and which dishes go well with them.
Of course, you can always have your go-to bottle of red, but with every year, wines become more interesting, and are packed with unique flavors ‘ so think outside that one bottle you love.
Experiment with new vintages, fruit mixtures and contrasting tastes, and you’ll likely discover a whole slew of wines that you’ll enjoy depending on your mood.
And remember, there is no such thing as a silly question. Cultivate curiosity in your wine-tasting adventures just like you do with your culinary skills. And in the same spirit of openness, don’t be afraid to ask the waiter to suggest a wine with your dish of choice, because chances are, they want to make you happy, and they know their cellar. Now that you’re armed with knowledge, go out there and enjoy heart-healthy sips!
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