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Updated 04.30.01


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Wine 101 (or things you always wanted to know about wine but were afraid to ask)

Few things, other than public speaking, strike as much fear into the soul of being as choosing the "correct" wine for an occasion or meal. Why is this? After all, wine, in its simplest form, taps all of our senses. Food, as well as wine, strums our senses in the same ways, yet wine imposes an unparalleled insecurity or uneasiness. Wine is sensual (or sensuous, depending on your choice of grammar or film director). Let us review…

Sound: A "clink" in the shopping bag, a bottle placed on the counter, more "clinking" as the glasses are readied from the cupboard, the winekey squeaking into the cork, the "pop!" of extraction, the "glug-glug-glug" into the glass, a sip and slurp, and finally the climax, "Oh! That’s Soooo GOOD!" (The interesting part here is that we’re discussing only on the first sense. Synergy would have it that the whole of the experience is greater than the sum of the parts, so we’re in for a real treat, and this is only the second paragraph of this section).

Sight: Pour some wine in a glass. (Try different glasses for experimentation. One glassmaker has made a comfortable living designing different glassware for different wines.) Take in the color (or examine for the left-brainers) - ruby, purple, black, rose, golden, straw, green, etc., are only a few of the descriptions available. Apart from color, how else does the wine appear? Clarity and depth are often mentioned. When you look into the glass, is it like looking into a dirty pond, a bright essence or a shimmering inkwell? (During a professional tasting or a casual get-together, write down whatever you see. There are no wrong answers).

Smell 1: After pouring, take a whiff. Swirl the glass and take another whiff. The difference should be quite dramatic. Swirling the wine in the glass releases more of the aromatics. Aeration bring these aromas out and into your nose. Tilt the glass and smell lightly and deeply. The descriptions of aromas are literally endless. Basic categories include fruits, herbs, flowers, wood and alcohol. Flaws appear as well in the form of rot, sulfur and "corkiness," to name a few - you’ll know. A more pretentious term for this is "bouquet." (Fascinatingly, women are more sensitive to discerning and identifying different scents than men are. This is continuing to be more apparent as female winemakers are gaining ground in what has mostly been a male-dominated trade.)

Touch: Take a sip. How does the wine weigh in the mouth? Heavy or light? Thin or viscous? Appealing or repulsive? Smooth or astringent? Silky or hairy? With wine, touch seems to be a very polar subject. It either is or it isn’t.

Taste: Technically, we only have four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty, detected on different parts of the tongue. Everything we classically "taste" we smell, which is why we can’t "taste" anything when we have a cold or are suffering through a bad allergy attack. So, after that first sip, what is tasted? Watch for the BIG THREE - sweet, sour and bitter (saltiness rarely enters the picture.) Swirl the wine around in your mouth. Write it down.

Smell 2: After taking a small sip, try to slurp some air through the wine that is in your mouth. (It should sound like a sucking straw in the bottom of a glass of ice water). Some tasters draw air through the sides of the mouth with relaxed cheeks while others draw through pursed lips over the top of the tongue. Either method requires a bit of practice. Now swallow or spit. More aromatics through slurping are being detected via the retronasal cavity in the back of the mouth and nose. Many "flavors" detected in Smell 1 are being reinforced through this action. The elapsed time these aromas kick around is the finish, as in short finish or long finish.

The major obstacle is that all of this is going on at the same time. How am I supposed to see, smell, taste, feel, and smell again all in a few seconds? Concentrate and take your time. The point is to have fun and learn something from the experience. Discuss your results with your friends. After all, you either like it or you don’t. The fun is in trying to determine why.

History and the press tend to make wine something that is enjoyable by those only of stature, breeding and culture. The experience of dealing with a pretentious wine steward or uppity wine merchant can be infuriating and degrading. If these people do not help you without making you comfortable with your decision, go somewhere else.

Wine 102 (or hosting your own Wine Tasting Throng)

So, you and your friends wish to hold a wine-tasting party. A small gathering is preferable so that each attendee may sample each wine. A simple plan works best.

  1. Set a price range. $10-$15 per bottle is a good start.

  2. Have the men bring red wines and the women white wines. Another twist is splitting the alphabet into domestic and imported. This plan provides the best variety and enjoyment.

  3. For more information on the wines, have your wine merchant give the guests some background and history on the wines they have chosen to bring for the event.

  4. Prepare light appetizers, or request guests bring appetizers and the host serve some sparkling wine upon arrival to get things started.

  5. The host should place the wines in plain, numbered sacks with corks and capsules (that metal or plastic sleeve around the neck) removed. (The host should clandestinely list which wine went in which bag and was brought by whom.) Sampling should proceed from light whites to heavy reds. Note your favorites and why.

  6. After the initial tasting, try different wines with the appetizers. Keep notes which wines you enjoyed, either on their own or with food (i.e., #3 with the smoked salmon was delicious, or #8, although delightful on its own, tasted bitter with the pigs-in-a blanket).

  7. Hopefully there will be some wine left in the bottles before steps 1-6 are complete. Remove the bottles from the sacks. Note on your sheet those you preferred.

Don’t forget to provide plenty of water. Also, it only takes an average person with two glasses of wine in their system to blow a .08 blood alcohol, legally intoxicated in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Be responsible for your guests and yourself.

Wine 201 (Food & Wine)

As was discussed in Wine 101, few things leave one prostrate than having to choose a bottle of wine at a restaurant that will harmonize well with your dinner. As with most any task, keep it simple, because matching wine with food is not nearly as complicated as it might sound.

  1. Address each of the senses of the food with the wine. The best alignment between food and wine most often (but not always) occurs when overall profiles of the two are closest. Acidic food=acidic wine. Heavy food=heavy wine. Rich food=rich wine. I think you get the idea. Balance is the key. Ex. Grilled Steak. How about a medium-bodied, slightly spicy, complex red with low acidity, medium tannins (astringency), and long finish? Now apply what was covered before. Sounds like a dry California Zinfandel our French from the Midi or Rhone Valley.

  1. Country of origin. Sangiovese-based Chianti pairs well with Lasagna not as a matter of luck, but as a beautiful example of how regional wine and cuisine have evolved together over the centuries. When in doubt, go with this philosophy.

  1. Unusual foods, dessert, etc. Fusion cuisine: wing it, but go with your instinct. If still in doubt, get whatever you like. Spicy Asian our Pacific Rim: off-dry German Riesling or Alsace Gewürztraminer. Dessert: the wine should always be sweeter than the dessert; I prefer dessert wine on its own to eliminate any question. (A Demi-sec sparkling wine is fun with yellow cake.)

  2. Whereas alignment in senses between food and wine is desirable, only one should have the spotlight. Simple food calls for complex wine, and vice versa. Do not place two ballerina divas on the same stage at the same time.

  1. None of the above. If you abhor Sauvignon Blanc, it seems silly to drink it at all.


Wine 202 (Serving wine)

Vessel: Generally, a large (8oz) goblet style glass should suffice. The large diameter of the glass provides ample surface area for aeration during swirling and collection of aromatics during placement on the table. (One exception is sparkling wine: the "sherbet" glass, plastic or otherwise, has too much surface area and quickly allows sparkling wine to lose its sparkle. A finely tapered flute enhances presentation, allowing the bubbles to train up the sides while maintaining freshness.) On the other hand, sometimes goblets are not available. Choose a water glass, the taller the better, allowing collection of aromatics and providing the your nose an ample sample.

Decanting: Especially with young wines, wine needs aeration to bring out the aromatics for thorough enjoyment. Decanters and carafes range in price from whatever glass the Paul Masson was in to hundred-dollar crystal paperweights. (I like the carafes.) For a young wine, just dump it in. For older wines that have thrown some sediment during aging, a complex method of holding a candle near the neck during gentle pouring to determine sediment entrance is beyond the scope of this segment. Consult your wine merchant.

Temperature: Few parameters influence wine more than serving temperature. Most white wines are served too cold, reds too warm.

White wines are to be served chilled. So, what is "chilled," exactly? For reference, the lighter the wine, the cooler the temperature. (Refrigerators are set at 38oF maximum.) Light whites, especially those that are cold-fermented in steel should be served well-chilled to enhance their refreshing enjoyment (40-45oF). Heavier, richer whites should be served warmer, 50-55oF, as excessive chilling suppresses complex aromatics.

Red wines are traditionally served at room temperature. Again, what is "room temperature?" Several hundred years ago, room temperature was, in the chateau, somewhere in the area of 60oF (quite chilly these days.) The same rule for white wines applies at elevated temperatures. Light reds around 55-60oF, heavier not to exceed 70oF. For example, I’ve found that red wines served cooler than "normal" enhances fruit and aromatics, softens tannins and provides silkier texture. (Too cold dulls the wine.) Similar effects are found with white wines.

Experiment with both white and red wines to determine your preference. After your next purchase of a red, follow this procedure. After reaching your abode, pour the wine into a handy carafe and place in the refrigerator for about an hour. Remove and pour a glass. Taste and note. Repeat as the wine continues to warm and aerate. Note any differences? (For a horrific experience, take a heavy, tannic red and refrigerate for sever hours and then taste. Next, place the wine next to a toaster oven until warmed through. Arghhh!! If you’ve been to some wine festivals in July where the red wines have not been kept cool, you’ve already experienced half of this trial.)

The end result is to find your preference and pleasure of enjoyment.


Wine 210 (in vino veritas)

It has been said and demonstrated (especially with European products) that the wine takes on the personality of the producer, from flamboyant to naturalist to structured to artistic. During your journey into the world of wine, explore different regions and their producers and varietals. The Old World has embraced wine as an natural component of cuisine and culture, and the New World is just beginning to tap that spring of enlightenment. A bit overly profound you might say. I rebut: The world of wine is not flat, and many treasures are to be found beyond the horizon.

Myth #1 - Only expensive wine tastes good

There hundreds of wines from lesser-known regions in Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Portugal that are both inexpensive and well-made. Check with your local merchant who specializes in wines from around the globe. Try a mixed case. You will be pleasantly surprised. Experiment, keep an open mind and find your style.

Myth #2 - All German wine is sweet

Well-crafted German wines are very fruity, but not necessarily sweet. It's all a question of balance.  For a change, try a dry (trocken) Riesling from the German Mosel. That should be enlightening.

Myth #3 - All French wine is expensive

With all of the press that Classified Bordeaux (Chateau Petrus 1995 at $1250/bottle!! Can you believe it??) has been getting lately, this myth has reached, well, mythical proportion. France is the second-largest wine producing country in the world, most of which is consumed inside the borders, at an average cost of about US$2/bottle. There are literally boatloads of quality wines at realistic prices that have been introduced to America by importers rooting out over-achieving producers from unknown regions. Look for estate-bottled wines from importers such as Robert Kacher, Eric Solomon, Fran Kysela, Rudi Wiest and Kermit Lynch. Try a bottle without a barcode.

Myth #4 - "Table Wine" is low quality

There are many Italian table wines (Vino di Tavola,now IGT) that do not fit into any controlled category, and therefore must be labeled as such. However, these "table wines" sell for upwards of $150/bottle. Table wine can also mean "still" wine, simply not sparkling.

Myth #5 - White Zinfandel is yucky

During a trade tasting last year, a bunch of us wine geeks were looking down our noses at the "white Zin" class of consumer. Comments such as, "How can anyone drink that stuff," etc., were heard around the table, at which one voice rose from the din and quietly stated, "At least they’re drinking wine." Regardless of what any professional says, no wine is "yucky" if it’s your favorite. You and you alone are your own best critic.

Myth #6 - White with Fish, Red with Meat

Yes, simply put, this holds true. But with today’s ever-changing cuisine, different ideas enter the arena. What about grilled salmon with a racy, fennel/peppercorn sauce? Veal with a delicate herbal reduction? Vegetarian??? Invite some friends over, try a few different wines and find your personal favorite.