Fundamentals for Fun With Wine
© by Linwood Slayton

My wine journey began back in the mid-1960s when I went to college and had to choose between drinking beer or wine as that was all I could afford. Beer, I discovered, didn't get the job done fast enough. What job was that you ask? I wanted to get "high" and "feel" the effects of the alcohol. More often than not, I would get full and bloated drinking too much beer - not a good or special feeling.

Wine, on the other hand, was cheap and had a kick to it. The wine I drank in those days was either potent with a lot of alcohol content - Thunderbird, Wild Irish Rose, Catawba Pink, Mad Dog 20-20 - or it was sweet and syrupy and popular with the women - Ripple, Boone's Farm, Sangria. The common objective was to get a buzz and to drink it with friends and have a good time.

Some 40 years later, some things have changed and some have not. I still prefer wine over beer - a no-brainer for me - and for much the same reasons. I still prefer my wines with a kick and welcome that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with a good bottle of wine and good company. These days I do much more drinking with food; back in the day, we might have had a bowl of potato chips or some pretzels or peanuts - maybe.

Many people ask me for recommendations as they want to begin to learn about wine and develop an appreciation for it. Many of the men who ask happen to be long-term alcohol drinkers - lovers of Scotch, Bourbon, gin or vodka. Many of the women who ask are essentially non-drinkers who may enjoy a sweet cocktail, a mixed drink or a wine cooler from time to time. More and more people have come to recognize the inherent health benefits of drinking wine in moderation, especially red wine; and as we are getting older, some of us are trying to drink wiser.

This article is intended as a basic primer for the novice wine enthusiast. It contains a lot of information that I have tried to share over the years when people ask me to help guide them along the first steps of their wine journey.

What it is

Let's start with what wine is. It is defined by Webster as "the fermented juice of fresh grapes used as a beverage; something that invigorates or intoxicates." Unlike many words in the dictionary, this definition is simple and complete. Wine is fermented, meaning that it is made by using yeast to convert fruit sugars into alcohol. It is traditionally made from grapes, although other fruits can be used. It is to be drunk as a beverage. It is intended to invigorate or intoxicate - that's the "kick" part.

The types of wine

Let's look at the many types of wine and their characteristics, as this will influence the novice's initial preferences. The types of grapes used to make a wine are important when considering the taste of a wine. Taste, to me, is the most important factor in selecting and choosing a wine - whether you are brand new or a veteran. After all, if the wine does not taste good to you, it is of no value to you. One important variable is the kind of grape used to make the wine.

Some of the most common grapes used in wine include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Viognier. These grape types ("varieties") are not to be confused with geographical regions where fine wines are produced such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne.

White wines

Chardonnay

Wine made from the Chardonnay grape is among the most popular and most purchased. Typically Chardonnays taste of ripe figs and peaches, honey and butter, hazelnuts and spice. They can be bold and complex. Many Chardonnays are aged in oak and have a distinctive oaky taste and flavor. Most people enjoy lobster and seafood with Chardonnay.

Chablis

Chablis is a dry wine, sometimes described as "steely" or "stony." It is made from Chardonnay and is produced at the far north end of the Burgundy region in France. It can be as ageworthy as many fine red wines. Here in the states, though, the name Chablis has been used generically to describe dry white jug or box wine that really has no true resemblance to true Chablis perhaps other than the color.

Pinot Gris

This is a darker-hued white-wine grape, closely related to the Pinot Noir grape. Pinot Gris wines range from quite dry to slightly sweet and may range from light to medium-bodied. They tend to be crisp and work well with seafood and salmon. The dominant flavors and aromas are of almonds, minerals and peaches.

Riesling

Riesling grapes produce refreshing wines that tend to be high in acidity. They can be sweet, floral and fruity and often tend to be lighter in alcohol content. Many are light-bodied, but sweeter versions may be quite full. There are dry Rieslings too. Rieslings pair well with pork and other rich foods.

Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc

This is a crisp highly acidic light to medium-bodied wine. It is known for its grassy, herbaceous flavor and aroma. It can be fruity and melon-like and may also be used in late harvest dessert wines.

Viognier

Viogniers were originally grown and produced in the Northern Rhone Valley but are also being produced increasingly in California today, and Australia as well. Many tend to be crisp, aromatic and very floral, with hints of peach and apricot. Others have touches of fig, tangerine and anise in a spicy mix. Typically, they are best when consumed young.

Red wines

Cabernet Sauvignon

This grape produces some of the finest wines in the world - especially in the Bordeaux region. The wine is known for its flavor of deep dark fruits like black currant, sometimes with herbaceous overtones. Cabernet may be medium to full-bodied and rich and complex. Cabernets are usually aged in oak for over a year and the best deserve additional cellaring in in the bottle, as they are supposed to get better with time.

Merlot

Merlots have become extremely popular in the last 10-15 years. They tend to be quite varied in complexity and flavor, ranging from light and simple to full-bodied. They are deep in color and tend to be fairly high in alcohol content with typical flavors of cherry, plum, and chocolate, the latter usually being a sign of oak. They are being produced in Italy, California, Washington and Oregon.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir can make wines with a rich complex blend of cherries, red berries, earth and spice, with aromas that may range from herbs and cola to roses. They tend to be lighter in color than Merlots and Cabernets. The wine affords a winemaker an opportunity to be distinctive and different depending upon the character he wishes to present in the wine. Oregon and California are producing Pinot Noirs that are starting to rival the legendary French Burgundy wines.

Zinfandel

This is a "New World" grape that originated in Eastern Europe but has become the trademark variety of California. Zins are big, robust and concentrated. Often high in alcohol content, their trademark aroma is blackberry and raspberry, often with spicy notes. The color is deep and rich and go well with grilled red meat, not to mention casual fare like pizza, steak and barbecue.

Port

Port is a sweet fortified red wine made in Portugal from a blend of grape varieties. Vintage Port must be aged and has to stay in the barrel for at least two years before bottling and may be bottled for 15 or more years before release. Port wine goes well with walnuts, cheese and chocolates or can be enjoyed on its own as an indulgent after-dinner treat.

Other wines

White Zinfandel

This is a pink wine made from early picked Zinfandel grapes. The red grapes are separated from the grape skins before they impart much color to the juice, resulting in a wine that is very light pink and often made quite sweet.

Champagne/Sparkling Wine

Only sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France can properly be called "Champagne." The process used to make Champagne is called "Methode Champenoise." After the grapes are pressed and fermented, they are blended and the wine is temporarily bottled and capped while a second fermentation takes place in the bottle, filling the wine with the carbon dioxide that creates the bubbly effect.

Selecting wines

Three basic concerns are important when it comes to choosing a wine: price, preference and pairing. Depending upon your priorities, you may want to weigh them differently depending on the occasion. For example, if you drink a lot of wine and want to experiment and sample many options, price and preference will be more important to you than pairing. However, if you are planning a special meal or are dining at a fine restaurant, pairing is vitally important since a $100 bottle of wine poorly matched with your meal will offer far less pleasure than a $30 bottle that complements the food selection.

Price

How much are you willing (or unwilling) to pay for a bottle of wine? Price is a key factor in determining the right bottle of wine for you. It does not necessarily follow that the higher the price, the better the wine. In fact, a careful shopper can find bargains in the $15-20 range that far exceed wines in the $30-40 range. It always makes sense to talk with your local wine merchant and let him or her know what you like and what you are willing to pay. Their job is to suggest what they believe is the wine in their inventory that best meets your criteria, hoping that you will be pleased with their recommendation and will come back again.

Preference

Our preferences are just that - what we like and want. I vary my preferences depending upon the food I will enjoy with the wine, and the people with whom I will share the wine. I have certain friends with whom I share my very best wines as I know they share my enthusiasm for the "good stuff" and they will appreciate my special bottles. On the other hand, if I am drinking with people who don't necessarily like wine that much or who are just learning about wine, I tend to serve my everyday wines and allow the experience to be a social one. Also, there are "safe" wines that tend to work well with mixed groups for meals like Merlots and Pinot Noirs (as opposed to a special Cabernet or a bold Zinfandel).

Pairing

Selecting the right wine for a meal depends upon many factors such as the way the food is prepared and the sauces and accompanying dishes. The traditional rule of thumb still works well - white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat. However, this is a rule that begs to be broken and the joy in pairing lies in departing from the norm.

Some Parting Words of Wisdom

There are many more lessons to be learned as one undertakes a wine journey. It is a journey of discovery and one that should be personal and evolving. The best advice I can give anyone starting down this road is to be open-minded and willing to try different wines. Listen to those who know wine and whose opinions in other matters you have come to respect. Read. Keep a wine journal with your notes and be sure to write them down when they are fresh - not after you have consumed two or three bottles. Talk wine with others. Join a group and share the learning experience with friends and others who also want to learn. Remember, it's all about the "kick" ...

Wood

Aug. 14, 2005

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