Friday, October 30, 2015

Wine Demystified

For something that's just fermented grape juice, wine can be pretty intimidating. There are so many varieties to choose from it can be confusing at times.
Even if you don't drink it, you may want to bring a bottle to a dinner party as a gift for the host. I've had people ask me "What should I buy?" Well, that's a big question.
In the US, wine has somewhat of a stigma attached to it. Liberals are portrayed as effete Chardonnay-sipping elitists while conservatives are beer or whiskey drinking "regular guys". Yeah, I'm sure Donald Trump sits on his couch with a six-pack of Budweiser while watching the Knicks.
Really, why can't I like both? Why does even my choice of beverage have to be a political litmus test?
Nonetheless, wine can be considered a "snobby" drink in the US. Hey! It's just grape juice people! Truck drivers and construction workers in France drink wine - because that's what everyone there drinks.
Now I'm no wine snob mind you. I can never pick out all the things I'm supposed to taste in glass of wine. "Hints of apricot and tobacco" - I never thought tobacco tasted very good and not sure why I'd want to mix it with apricots. I don't get too spun up about that. If it's good, it's good.
Hopefully this will take some of the mystery out of wine buying for the novice.
Just keep one simple rule in mind. The best wine is the one that you like to drink.
The best wine to pair with a certain type of food? Also the one you like to drink, although some do work better than others.
And if you still don't want to drink wine? Great! More for me then!
Tell him the dinner party was last night? Are you kidding? Look at the bottle of wine he brought!
Standard disclaimer: drink responsibly. I've tried to avoid any humor that makes light of excessive or problem drinking. I don't want to generate any hate mail.
Wine is so simple that it's complicated. While it's just fermented grape juice, there are a lot of variables. The grapes themselves, the soil they were grown in, the weather and finally the winemaker's technique. The same exact wine from the same winery may be noticeably different from one year to the next because of the weather.
The three big categories are red, white and rosé. In general, what differentiates them is how long they leave the skin of the grapes in the mix during fermentation.
I don't know a lot about white wine. I tend to agree with whoever said "Wine's first duty is to be red". Since they say "write about what you know", I'm mostly going to talk about red wine.
If I'm not drinking red, it's probably summer when I tend to drink rosé. I happen to like the ones from France, Spain, Portugal and Italy (when I can find one). Back in the 80s we all drank this crap called "White Zinfandel" which is basically a sweet rosé. Don't drink that stuff. Seriously, you can do better.
"Champagne" is a sparkling (carbonated) wine from.......Champagne. If it's not from Champagne then it's "sparkling wine". Except if it's from Italy it's Prosecco and in Spain it's Cava. These also come in white or rosé and can range from dry or sweet. That's the extent of my knowledge of Champagne.
The other confusing aspect is wine labels. You see, different countries name wines differently. Here in the US, we tend to name the wine after the varietal (type of grape) used to make it.

attribution: None Specified
Go to a wine store, or your supermarket in some places, and you'll see wines from California with names like "Cabernet Sauvignon" or "Pinot Noir".
Walk over to the French wines, and they'll be called "Bordeaux" and "Burgundy".
Guess what, they're largely the same. The French just name their wine after the place it comes from. They call that "appellation".
A red wine from Bordeaux is probably Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. A red wine from Burgundy is Pinot Noir.
Italy and Spain can be even more confusing because they do a little of both. You might see a Spanish red called "Tempranillo", which is a grape. You might also see one called a "Rioja", which is a place. A red wine from Rioja is usually, guess what, Tempranillo.
Okay, back to California.
California has a Mediterranean climate that lends itself to growing grapes. Prohibition but a damper on wine making in California but they came back strong after it was repealed.  
At the high end, California winemakers can take on the best the world has to offer. There was a famous taste test back in the 70s where some home-town boys from California beat the snooty French at their own game. At least that's how it went in the movie I watched.
Personally I think the French beat them at the low end of the spectrum but that's personal preference. I've had too many $10 "fruit bombs" from California and now I tend to go European in that price range. They're just different styles. It's all in what you like.
Cabernet Sauvignon - this is the big daddy of California grapes. It tends to make very robust, full-bodied reds. This is one of my favorite wines to pair with a steak. It's hard to go wrong with a good "Cab" from Napa Valley.
Merlot - this is the other big Napa Valley red grape. Not quite as full bodied as Cabernet. I don't drink a lot of Merlot, but they make some great ones out in Napa.
Blend Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot together and you've got "Claret", "Meritage", or a "Bordeaux Style Blend". They can't call it "Bordeaux" because it's California. Just remember it's probably those two grapes and maybe a few others in small amounts.
Pinot Noir - Pinot Noir is generally a light-bodied red that has a reputation for being finicky. When it's good it's really good, but there are a lot of mediocre ones out there. Featured prominently in the Paul Giamatti movie Sideways.
Zinfandel - people once thought this was native to North America but it's actually related to an Italian grape called Primitivo. Some of my favorite red wines are the higher end "Zins" from California. At it's best this wine is full bodied, spicy and a bit fruity. A lot of the cheaper ones are "fruit bombs", however. This is my "pizza, burgers and BBQ" wine.
Red Blends - if you see a wine from California that says "table wine" or "red blend" they may or may not tell you what it's blended from. It's probably whatever fell off the truck on the way to the winery (I kid! I kid!). All I can say is try some and see if you find one you like.
Don't confuse these with the very high end California red blends like "Opus One" that cost way more than I normally spend on a bottle of wine. Speaking of which, if you've had one let me know how it was.
Chardonnay - I don't drink a lot of white wine but I have one now and then for a change of pace. California is known for making some great Chardonnay. At its best, these are often described as "buttery". Some of these are aged in oak barrels, which as you can imagine, will cause them to be described as "oaky". I find that some oak is okay but you can have too much of a good thing. If I want that much oak I'll chew on a 2x4.
Sauvignon Blanc - Not my drink of choice so I don't know a lot about these. I know they're generally lighter bodied than Chardonnay. The better ones are usually described as "crisp".
California gets all the hype but wine is made all over the United States. Oregon is known for its high quality Pinot Noir and Washington makes some great Cabernet. I've had some great reds from the Niagara region of New York (and Ontario). Virginia has a surprisingly big wine industry and I've had some good wines from Texas.
We even make wine here in Ohio but the ones I've tried were all are on the sweet side. Might make a good dessert wine but not something I'd drink with dinner.
Time to head across the pond to France. The French have been making wine for a very long time and they're very good at it. What throws Americans off is the naming. A lot of French wine labels don't even tell you what grapes are in it. "No no Monsieur. You don't need to know that. Leave that to us."
The French are big on what they call "terroir", which is a fancy term for "this here piece of dirt grows the best grapes".
Just remember that the French name the wine after where it comes from and you're good to go.
Bordeaux - A red wine from Bordeaux is either mostly Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. It may have small quantities of other grapes like Cabernet Franc. I think one side of the river favors Cabernet and the other favors Merlot. A white wine from Bordeaux will be mostly Sauvignon Blanc.
Burgundy - A red Burgundy is generally going to be Pinot Noir. A white Burgundy is, guess what, Chardonnay. See? Nothing to it. That stuff Gallo calls "Hearty Burgundy" that some of us grew up drinking back in the 70s? Well it ain't Burgundy because it's not from Burgundy! Not sure what it is actually.
Rhône - The Rhône region is in southern France. These are my favorite French wines. They make everything from reliable inexpensive table-wines to high end stuff like Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The main red grapes are Grenache and Syrah (Shiraz in some countries). I find the Rhônes to be good everyday wines for the price.
We used to deploy over there in the tanker and I think this is where I really started to take an interest in wine. I remember some wineries over there would have what looked like a gas pump, except for wine. People would bring their own jug from home and fill it up.
Some California winemakers have even started calling themselves the "Rhone Rangers" and making Rhone-style blends.
Those are what I'd say are the "big three" French wine regions. They have many more than I have room to go into here. This is just to whet your appetite. Just don't be intimidated by the French labels. It's still fermented grape juice.
Let's head across the alps into Italy. If you're my age your first exposure to Italian wine was probably the jug of cheap Chianti at the Italian restaurant. You know, the one in the straw basket?
Italian wines can be confusing because sometimes they name it after the grape and sometimes they name it after the place. They also have far too many varieties for me to cover here. I'll talk about the ones I'm most familiar with.
The big daddy of Italian reds is called Barolo. It comes from the region of Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) and uses the Nebbiolo grape. These are big honkin' expensive red wines. If you want to spend a hundred bucks on a bottle of wine this is a good place to do it.
Okay, I'm told that the other big wine from Piedmont Barbaresco, is not a cheaper version of Barolo. Thanks for the correction.
Cheaper, of course, is a relative term since they're both pretty pricey at my local wine shop. The low end for these seems to be around $40 and it goes up from there.
I'm told that they're just different styles and one is not considered better than the other. Barbaresco also uses the Nebbiolo grape.
Another red wine from Piedmont is Barbera, from the grape that's called.....Barbera. Like I said, Italian wine naming is hit or miss. These seem to be generally less expensive than Barolo or Barbaresco. I see a lot of them in the $15-$30 price range.
Mention Italian wine and most Americans probably think Chianti. This red comes from Tuscany and is mostly the Sangiovese grape blended with some other stuff. If you see a red from Tuscany that's called something else it probably doesn't exactly follow the Chianti "formula" but may still have a lot of Sangiovese in it.
If Italian wine wasn't confusing enough, Montepulciano is a place and a grape. So you end up with Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. One has the Montepulciano grape and the other doesn't. I like both so it doesn't matter.
Valpolicella - I personally haven't had many Valpolicellas that I liked but I'm told that they're out there. It may just be a matter of personal taste. I won't post any brands here (spam) but if you find one you like let me know.
They have a ton of others and I haven't even touched on Sicily. They've been making wine over there for a very long time and they're very good at it.
When we deployed to Pisa I remember even the cheap "house wine" at the restaurants as being fantastic. I have no idea what it was.
Time to head over to Spain. The Spanish wine industry languished under Franco and their wines used be a bit rough around the edges. Once Spain opened up to the rest of Europe, modern production techniques were brought in. They now make some great wines for the money IMHO.
Their two main red grapes are Garnacha, which is the same as Grenache in France, andTempranillo. If you don't know what to buy, grab a red from Rioja and you're probably good.
You may have heard of Sangria, which really isn't a type of wine. It's (usually) red wine mixed with brandy, fruit (traditionally oranges and lemons) and some sugar. It's good on a hot day, and they have plenty of those in Spain.
Portugal makes some fine reds but being a small country they can be a little tougher to find. At least I have a harder time finding them. Maybe I'm not shopping in the right places. I also thought the Douro Valley was their main wine region but I'm told that's incorrect. The few I have had seemed to be quite good for the price.
They make an odd white wine called a "Vinho Verde" which translates to "Green Wine". Except it isn't green, it's white. I suppose if you drank too much of it you'd turn green.
Port, of course, comes from Portugal except I'm told that the name comes from the town of Oporto and not the country. Port is what's called a "fortified wine". A fortified wine has had something like Brandy or another spirit added to it. Now wiki claims this was originally done as a preservative but I'm told this is incorrect. The real reason is apparently to stop the fermentation which preserves the desired sweetness.
Germany is best known for their beer of course but they make wine too. They're mostly known for white wines. The "Blue Nun" that my family always drank at Thanksgiving is a German white. There are German reds but they're hard to find.
Their two big grapes are Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Depending on the style their whites can be anywhere from bone dry to very sweet dessert wines.
German wine labels can be a bit tricky to read. They have a designation for how ripe the grapes were (Prädikat) but that doesn't always tell you if it's dry or sweet. I'd say assume the wine is sweet unless you see the words: trocken (dry), halftrocken (half-dry), or feinherb (off-dry).
This being Daily Kos I'm sure someone around here is an expert and can correct me if I'm giving out misinformation.
Being the francophile that I am, I like the whites from Alsace, where you have French winemakers working with the German grapes. Alsace is that region that's changed hands a few times between France and Germany with more than a little unpleasantness. Might at least get some good wine out of it.
Australia, I'm told, makes great wine. They seem to produce a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz) and Chardonnay. Personally I've tried a few and didn't care much for them. Maybe they keep all the good stuff for themselves. I hate to dis an entire continent here so Aussie wine lovers feel free to step up and defend your honor. If you sent me a case or two of your best stuff I might just be persuaded.
South Africa has pretty big wine industry. Their main varietal is called Pinotage. Sometimes you'll see it on its own and sometimes it's blended with more "traditional" grapes. I've tried a couple of these and liked them. That's about all I can tell you about wine from South Africa.
South America, especially Chile and Argentina produce some fine reds. The big one down there is the Malbec grape. This is a good "red meat" wine, which makes sense since they tend to be huge meat eaters down there. I'm told that the really good stuff comes from higher up in the mountains. You'll sometimes see the elevation of the winery listed on the bottle.
I'll lump the rest of the world into one category. Greece has been making wine since about as long as civilization has been around. I've had good wines from Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Turkey (yes really), Hungary and Georgia (the country). These can be hard to come by in the states but you may see them at specialty stores.
Time for a few general rules.
White and rosé are best served chilled. Dry reds are best at "room temperature" which I think means somewhere around 68 degrees. If it's a hot day, you can stick that bottle of red in the fridge for maybe five minutes before you drink it.
Some red wines do seem to benefit from decanting. That's what they mean when they say "let the wine breath". This tends to soften the tannins in some of the very dry reds.
If you see a red wine that says "unfiltered" on the bottle, watch for sediment at the bottom. It's gross if you try to drink it.
Only certain high end reds really benefit from aging. Odds are you and I don't buy these. If you do decide to splurge and buy a really expensive bottle of red wine, ask the wine seller if it's drinkable now or needs to age.
Wine pairing is a bit of an art and people will get really wrapped up in it. I tend to keep it simple: "If it grows there, it goes there". I drink French wine with French food and Italian wine with Italian food.
Red Zin seems to work well with burgers, bbq and such. Cab and Malbec work well with red meat. Rhônes seem to pair well with lamb.
Red wine with fish used to be a no-no but I find a light-bodied red like Pinot Noir or Chianti can work just fine. A full-bodied Cabernet probably wouldn't be my pick here.
I'm told that Chianti pairs well with liver and fava beans.
Spicy Asian or Indian food can be a really tough pairing. Some of the German whites seem to work - or just drink a beer.
Wine should be stored on its side in a cool, dark place. Storing it on its side keeps the cork moist. If you ever get a bottle that's "corked" (oxidized) you'll know it. That happened to me once with a rather pricey Barolo. Oh well, your worst wine is your best vinegar.
Don't buy the stuff marked as "cooking wine" for cooking. It's garbage. Just buy a cheap bottle of "real" wine.
Screw tops work just fine on the kind of wines that you and I are likely to afford.
If you're on a budget, some of the wines in a box are actually pretty decent.
More expensive doesn't always mean "better". It's all a matter of what you like. I tend to mostly buy what's on sale except for special occasions.
That's about all I know on the subject. As we speak I'm certain that somebody with a Doctorate in Oenology is going to write in and tell me what an idiot I am.

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