Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wine 101: The Bartish Version

Okay, so apparently I'm a wine snob compared to some of my friends, and an ignoramus compared to others (I'm a total beer ignoramus, I'll 'fess up to that right now). But in case you're one of the folks who doesn't know Sauvignon Blanc from Chardonnay or a dry from a sweet, well, I'm here to offer a little help, if you want it.

You are free, of course, to ignore me or tell me to leave you alone, you're fine with your boxed wine and Boone's Farm. And you know what, you're right to do so. Ask John Cleese, who narrated his own DVD, "Wine for the Confused." As with any personal taste, it isn't for others to impose their tastes upon you. Of course if you ARE a serious wine snob, and know the difference, just by taste, between a Pinot Grigio and a Sauvignon Blanc, or which slope of the Sierras a wine was grown, stop reading. I will offend you with my ignorance and waste your time, unless you want to see how an amateur explains wine to other amateurs. 

Matter of fact, I'll give you a little background on my wine education so you don't think I was born to be a snob. First time I think I had wine (aside from communion, which isn't the same thing, though it's often Manischewitz, by the way) was when a grownup poured me a quarter glass of golden muscatel and said, "Okay, this is alcohol. You might as well know what you're getting into before you go out drinking with your friends."

After that, I spent a lot of time with beer or other beverages before I tried wine in college. And yes, it was that gold standard of middle-of-the-road wines, white zinfandel, which is a transparent, pink wine that is produced in mass quantities by Robert Mondavi, Sutter Home, and other grape-fermenting producers in California. It's not bad, but it's not great. Sort of a mix between Kool-Aid and a well-flavored cough medicine.

When I moved to Orlando, my dad liked to drink wine with dinner, specifically darker reds, so I learned to drink those. White Zinfandel is a "blush" wine (pink and translucent) rather than a red. Red wines are slightly translucent red to opaque burgundy or garnet in color. Red wines include Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chianti, Syrah, Shiraz, Pinotage, Burgundy, Chateauneauf de Pape, Saint-Emillion, Margaux, Pinot Noir, and others. Most red wines are called dry, though you could also call that tart, astringent, or salty. More on flavors in a bit.

The majority of wines on the other end of the color spectrum are white wines, which range from almost transparent to translucent yellow-green to a rich, golden, translucent yellow. The flavors of white wine can include crisp, tart, or fruity. Again, more on specifics in a bit.

Another genre of wines would be dessert wines, which can include everything from nearly clear, bubbly Champagne or Moscato to a ruby- or rust-colored port. Dessert wines, as the name implies, are often sweet. Different flavors go with different foods, and while I'm probably the wrong guy to give advice on that sort of thing, I'll give it a whirl before this blog is over.

All wines, red, white, or other, are the products of fermented grape juice mixed with yeast, which consume the sugar in the juice to produce alcohol, usually anywhere from 9 to 15 percent by volume (beer, by contrast, is 3-8 percent). Some of the heartier dessert wines, like port, can run upwards of 20 percent by volume. There are also "fortified" wines, which have a purposely high alcohol content, often at the expense of flavor. Again, whatever suits you.

Before the wines become juice, of course, they're those oval, rubbery bulbs on the ends of vines. For reasons that elude me, wine vines grow best when they're put in difficult climates, like the edge of mountain slopes or near deserts (notice that they don't grow wine grapes in tropical rain forests). The most important, best-quality wine-growing regions can be found in France, California, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Portugal, and Oregon. Note that I haven't included Japan here--that's because I'm not writing about rice wine. Nor am I writing about plum wine, pomegranate wine, or any of the rather nasty local wines one might fine domestically in antique shops throughout the U.S. (muscadine, elderberry, honey, etc.). I'm a grape snob. Deal with it.

Okay, so back to flavors. Red wines tend to run to the salty side, though some can have a lot of fruit in them ("fruit forward" is one wine-snob term I've heard). Some fruits mix better together than others. Merlot or Pinot Noir grapes don't have a lot of tannins (the red stuff in the grape skins that makes them red). Cabernet, Chianti, and some other "full-bodied" reds will have more tannins because more of the skins were left in the juice or the juice was left in contact with the skins longer (told you I was an amateur). Full-bodied reds also tend to be more astringent--that tart flavor that can make your lips pucker--and include stronger additive flavors, like leather, peppers, or tobacco. Red wines are served "room temperature," though this usually means room temperature in Norman France in the Middle Ages (which would've been around 60 degrees Fahrenheit), but today would probably run anywhere from 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And if you don't use air conditioning? Well, then your room temperature will be a little bit higher, won't it? But I wouldn't recommend letting your wines--any wines--stay in 85+ degrees for days at a time. Bad things will happen. Just trust me.

White wines, on the other hand, are clearer because they don't have as many tannins. They also include different flavors from reds (perhaps because those other additives would change the color of the wine?). Anyhow, whites tend to have lighter, sweeter flavors than reds. A "dry" white is tart, a "sweet" white, like a Riesling or a sparkling wine like a Champagne or Moscato, will be very sweet. The whites I'm fond of are greenish-yellow and nearly transparent--Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. These also tend to be "dry" whites and more on the tart side of things. Think of a less-sweet grape juice with a hint of grapefruit, citrus, or apple. I also enjoyed Moscato, which is a nearly transparent, slightly sparkling white wine with fewer bubbles than Champagne) after a trip to Italy. Other whites, especially Chardonnays, tend to get very experimental, and most of the experiments elude me: oak barrels, flowers, strange scents and flavors that just don't agree with me. Your mileage could vary.

Ports are also good, though sweet, and can range from slightly rusty and clear (like a Scotch) to deep, ruby red. Their flavors can include cherry and raisins. Their texture is almost like a schnapps or a syrup, depending on how thick they are, and they are higher in alcohol content than your average wine (though well below the average liquor).

Oh, yeah: food and wine pairings. Almost forgot. Generally, you serve white wines with lighter meats (chicken, fish), pastas with light-colored sauces, or salads; red wines go with pork, lamb, beef, or pastas with red sauces. Dessert wines, as expected, usually go with desserts, though sparkling wines can go with festive meals (weddings, for example) of any sort. At wine tastings, people can serve wine with cheese, apples, or fruit. It's tempting to eat sweet foods with sweet wines (whites) and salty foods with salty wines (reds), but apples are better to eat with all wines for getting their true flavor. Cheeses can block the taste buds for some reason (rather like you don't eat cheese before giving a public speech--it produces too much saliva). You want to taste the wine as it is.

So there ya go: the starter's guide to vino. It's very middle of the road, and no doubt I left out a bunch of stuff. But that'll do for now, yes? You have questions? I'll try to answer them. Otherwise, get out there, try some different types of wines, and find out what you enjoy.

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