You’re branching out and want to choose a more sophisticated wine, maybe a red wine. You wonder, What do all the terms mean? Is it better to buy a wine that has a specific name or are blends okay? If this is your time to step beyond $2 bottles of wine into the exciting “world of wine” –know that enjoying the “fruit on the vine” doesn’t have to be a frightening pursuit. Don’t be intimated by all the pretense! Learning about different kinds of wine should be a pleasurable experience! There are less rules then you think! Let’s discover a couple of terms.
What Is a “Varietal”?
It’s simple. The name of the wine is the name of the type of grape in the bottle. For instance, the grapes are called “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Zinfandel” or “Pinot Noir” and each grape has it’s own distinct flavor, color, size, and characteristics; these are different varieties. When speaking of a “Varietal” one is referencing the grape variety predominantly present in the bottle. To be distinguished as a Varietal, the wine label must contain the originating appellation (where the named grape was picked) and contain 75% of said grape. Although all wines/winemakers are not created equal, you can trust that varietals should be similar. Thus, there is a taste profile you can identify when planning your wines for food pairing.
A fun exercise you might try is to buy different labels of one varietal and do a “side-by-side” comparison to find their unique distinctions. Another fun side-by-side comparison is using the same Varietals from one vineyard but from different years and discover for yourself how they are different or how they are similar. Remember to use red wine glasses to give it the best possible performance. Try decanting, as well, and notice the difference it can make. (Most wines benefit from decanting.)
What are “Blends”? Are Varietals Better?
Winemakers will use grapes from different sources to make their best possible wine. They may blend a sweeter grape to offset a more bitter grape, bolder grape to accent a lighter one, etc. However, if they use less than 75% of one grape, they can no longer call it by a varietal name. Thus, they will call it a “Blend” , “Table Wine” or “Red Wine from (region/state/country)”. Some might look down their noses at blends, but if you think about it, if you’re mixing the best grapes with the best grapes, isn’t that a good thing? The only drawback would be when comparing because one “red wine” and another “red wine” can be vastly different. Start checking out labels and note the different varieties present in the bottle.
What is a Reserved Wine or a Library Wine?
When looking at a label, one winery may have two varietals from the same year, but one is called a Reserve ( usually a little pricier) and you wonder, “What’s the difference?” Often, winemakers make a “Reserve” wine from the same harvest or bottling (Reserving some) and treat it “special.” The wine may be aged longer, the grapes handpicked, etc.). There is no “set in stone” rules that make it a “Reserve”, just what the winemaker deems worthy. However, there is usually a good reason they call it a Reserve, so often it is worth a try.
A Library Wine is one where smaller batches of wine are set a part for a certain amount to be aged longer. This would imply that the quality of the wine has improved with the “laying down” (mellowing or becoming more full-bodied) and also will increase in cost (but hopefully in quality as well.)
Are More Expensive Wines Better?
Yes and no. Price is nearly a random thing. The economy, availability, hierarchy, vintage, among other things, all have a part to play. Sometimes higher priced wines are just higher priced for no apparent reason. That said, you can taste a difference in wines that have aged longer, have been picked at the right time or right climate, during better years of harvest or who have winemakers with great skill, this, and amount of aging, all factors into the price of wine. Smaller vineyards or boutique shops usually charge more because their own cost in making/purchasing is higher. However, some wineries have a great policy that wine should be affordable. Use price as a very loose parameter and experiment. Start with low priced wine and work your way up. Treat yourself once in awhile to something above your typical price range. Remember that the best judge is your mouth–the taste is what matters. A wine you enjoy may not be the one another chooses.
The palette is a fickle thing that changes, as well; a wine you adored two years ago may no longer taste good to you. The only true test is trying different kinds of wine, in different circumstances, with different foods, at different times and in different atmospheres (yes, it can make a difference.)
Always Red Wine With Red Meat and White With Seafood/Chicken?
Not necessarily. However, there’s a reason this has been a general rule. Most red meats and the way in which we prepare the meat demand a hearty, strong, and bold red wine to compliment.; Whereas white meats are mild in flavor and welcome a crisp, citrusy or rich buttery white wine as a companion. But what about a heavy garlicky chicken or spicy Cajun shrimp? What of surf and turf? (And what about our vegetarian friends, would they be stuck with white wine all the time? I think many would protest.) The taste of the dish and the taste of the consumer means more than the protein. The key is to drink what you like and experiment with different pairings.
Try different foods with different wines and you’ll quickly discover what you like with which food. Try a small taste of your wine and notice its complexities first. Then take a taste of the food followed with a taste of the wine. How has it changed? This is a fun exercise, too!
Common Red Wines
Here is a very short list of Red Wines for starters with common characteristics:
(Remember, these are general guidelines.)
|Barbera||Medium||Red fruit, Berries|
|Cabernet Franc||Medium-Bold||Raspberry, Cherry, Grassy, Herb|
|Cabernet Sauvignon||Heavy||Berries, Fruit, Plum, Cassis, Vanilla, Tobacco, Oak|
|Malbec||Light-Bold||Berries, Cherry, Plum|
|Merlot||Medium-Bold||Berries, Cherry, Plum|
|Petit Sirah||Medium-Bold||"Jammy", Spice, Pepper, Chocolate|
|Pinot Noir||Light-Medium||Raspberry, Cherry, Earthy(mushroom)|
|Sangiovese||Medium||Strawberry, Cherry, Nutty, Floral|
|Syrah||Medium-Bold||Spicy, Cinnamon, Herb, Pepper, Berry|
|Zinfandel||Light-Bold||Fruit -"Jammy" to Spicy|
Just as in life, don’t gain knowledge for knowledge’s sake, apply your information and enjoy the journey.
Here are a few tips for making the trip more fun.
- Ask questions. Especially of those more experienced. Others love to give advice.
- When choosing a bottle at a wine bar or restaurant, ask for recommendations. (They pay guys to figure this stuff out).
- Go to wine tastings. This is a fun way to try wines you wouldn’t normally pick up because of ignorance or price. Plus, most tasting room “pourers” love to educate (Bonus Tip: Ask them their favorites, what they like to serve, etc.).
- When you are in the tasting room, try not to read the tasting notes before you taste—think, what do I smell? What do I taste? Then look at the notes to compare.
- Write down what you like and don’t like. Use a wine journal (or use your smart phone) and take notes, take pictures; remembering what you enjoyed is harder than you think when you are standing looking at a bazillion wine bottles side by side.
- Have wine tasting parties and try the examples of side by sides above (one varietal but different wineries, same winery different varietals, decanting) or stage blind tastings.
- Don’t skip your seeing, swirling and smelling before sipping. Your mouth only gives you 4 tastes (sour, sweet, salty & bitter) the rest of the “taste” comes from your sense of smell, so make sure your red wine glasses give you ample nose room.
New to the journey or well traveled, savor memories most of all. Wine should be sipped with great friends, good food and whole lot of adventure.