Wine 101

Types Of Grapes

Different types of grapes make different tasting wines. There are a few types, or "varietals" that are commonly available.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon grapes make full, rich red wines that go well with hearty food. Wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes ages well, although it's often blended with other grapes such as Merlot, or Cabernet Franc, making it enjoyable to drink right now. Bordeaux wines are very often Cabernets.
  • Pinot Noir grapes also make full, rich red wines that are usually a bit softer than Cabernets. Burgundies are most often made from Pinot Noir, and classic Champagne and sparkling wine starts here.
  • Merlot grapes make lighter, softer red wines that many different people like. California and Chilean Merlots are among the best, and can be real crowd pleasers.
  • Zinfandel grapes are a California specialty. As a red wine, Zinfandel is a full, strong wine with a noticeably spicy taste. White Zinfandel is a sweeter blush wine that has become very popular.
  • Syrah grapes make a very full red wine which first gained fame in France. Lately, Australia has been making "Shiraz" with great success out of this varietal.
  • Petite Syrah grapes make a somewhat lighter, peppery red wine, and should not be confused with the similar sounding, but very different Syrah.
  • Chardonnay grapes are generally made to produce an elegant white wine that pairs well with food. White Burgundies are predominantly Chardonnay, and California is also well known for these wines.
  • Sauvignon Blanc grapes make a crisp white wine (often sold as Fume Blanc) that is a good choice for drinking on sunny days, as well as serving with picnic foods. White Bordeaux wines are often made with these grapes.
  • Riesling grapes make a very refreshing wine. Germany first popularized this varietal, and a German Riesling will be drier and crisper than it's California "cousin."

What are your wine needs?

Everyone has his or her own opinions about a bottle of wine. That's because everyone has a different set of taste buds. As you taste more wine and understand more about how wines differ from each other, you'll choose your own favorites. If your local wine merchant gets to know your tastes, he or she will be able to recommend bottles to you. In the meantime, here are some very general guidelines to help you make your first few selections.

Wine with food:

  • When eating heavier meats, such as beef and venison, choose a full red wine. Heavier Cabernets, Syrah's and Zinfandels are likely candidates.
  • For lighter meats, such as lamb and pork, a medium-bodied red is a good bet. Merlots, Pinot Noirs and Petite Syrah's are all good choices. These wines also pair well with tomato-sauced pastas.
  • Chicken and fish dishes can be overpowered by most red wines. Try a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc instead.
  • With no-meat dishes, try Chardonnays or a spicy, fruity red such as a Zinfandel. A dry white Blanc de Blanc should go very well with delicate fish and vegetarian entrees.

Wine by itself:

  • Many medium priced Pinot Noirs, Merlots and some Cabernets are made in a softer, more accessible style and can be very nice to sip while sitting in your easy chair at night.
  • When picnicking, try a slightly sweet blush, such as a white Zinfandel, or a lighter red, perhaps a chilled Beaujolais. If you're looking for a crisp white wine, Sauvignon Blanc is a good choice. Rieslings and Chenin Blancs are good for those who prefer sweeter whites.
  • Champagne and other sparkling wines are great for celebrating, store well, and can be a nice change when served with appetizers. A brut wine is the driest, extra dry is a little sweeter. The cheapest sparklers are best for mixing with juices or syrups. Choose a medium priced or more expensive bottle for special occasions.
  • The most important thing to remember is that wine is for enjoying. When you find a wine you like, drink it. Who cares if it's not considered appropriate for the occasion, or the food? This is not to say that it's not worthwhile to develop a sophisticated palate, because if you do, chances are you'll enjoy wine more than ever.

Understanding Pricing

When you go into a wine shop, you'll find a wide range of prices. In the United States that range is from about four dollars a bottle to more than thirty dollars a bottle. What makes one 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon worth twice the price of another?
  • The Grapes: All grapes are not created equal. Some vineyards produce better quality grapes than others, and wineries pay premium prices for those lots. As a general rule, wine that is made of juice from an ideal vineyard is more expensive than wine that is blended from the juice of many lesser quality vineyards.
  • The Method: Some methods of making wine are more costly than others. Storing wine in wooden barrels, for instance is more expensive than storing it in stainless steel vats. If the winemaker wants the wine to taste a certain way, certain methods must be used, and those methods often increase the cost of making the wine.
  • The Final Product: When a wine is ready to be bottled (and often before that), the winemaker will evaluate the wine. Each wine is judged by its characteristics, including color, aroma, acidity and overall complexity (what a great catch phrase!). A wine that has superior characteristics will cost more than a wine that does not. A wine that is set aside for additional aging before release will also command a higher price than one that has been released early.
  • Availability: If a wine is made from small lots of very good grapes, there won't be a lot of it. Similarly, if a winery has an excellent reputation, a lot of wine stores will want to carry that wine. Supply and demand means that those bottles will cost more than other bottles. Never, never underestimate supply and demand.

Wine Regions

Quite a few areas of the world are well known for producing good wine. Of course, they also produce some real stinkers, but the first indication of good wine is where it comes from; unlike beer (which can be made almost anywhere), quality wine can be made from grapes growing in relatively few places in the world. Here are a few:
  • The United States makes great wine. The best known regions are probably California's Napa and Sonoma counties, as well as Oregon. However, reputable wineries are developing on both coasts.
  • The French have been famous for wine for so long that it's not funny. Wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy regions are probably the most widely available, along with those from Champagne, of course.
  • Italian wines are marvelous. The Chianti region in Tuscany is the best known worldwide. Spumante, a popular Italian sparkler, is usually made from grapes from the Asti region in the province of Piedmont.
  • The Spanish make very good sparkling wines, called Cavas, along with their Rioja (reds) and Sherry.
  • Chilean wines are growing in popularity, and are known for being good values. The United States imports a lot of reasonably priced, but very good Chilean red wine.
  • Australia is an up and coming wine producer on the world market, and their Shiraz is generally a good bet.

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