When I was a student at Cornell University the most failed class was not some pre-Med Bio class or some advanced mathematics class, but a wines basics class! When I took the class, I found out why (though, for the record, I did not fail!). There is so much memorization involved when it comes to grapes, wine regions, flavor profiles, and the list goes on and on. Funny enough the textbook we used for the class was Wine For Dummies, which if you’re trying to educate yourself on wine is actually a great read. Note though reading it isn’t enough, to actually know wine you really have to force yourself to memorize..taste testing along the way helps… For a short list of the need-to-know basics I turned to industry experts to get the ball rolling.
Basic food and wine pairings
“When drinking big reds acid and salt are your friend,” says Lamar Engel, aka Wine Militia. “Acid based sauces like balsamic reductions or any citrus infused glazes make the deep dark fruits come out of hiding and take center stage on the palate. Salt based rubs and spices calm down the ‘hard-to-tame’ tannins and lower the ‘perception of pucker’ in a big bold youthful red.” Engel goes on to add that slightly sweet wines like some Rieslings or even Viognier go well with spicier cuisine like Thai or Indian.
Christine Bruce and John Hillard of Hillard Bruce add that a simple rule is to look for the similarities between what you’re drinking and what you’re eating. “A lean wine would pair with leaner, sauceless meats and fish. Likewise big chewy Cabernets complement hearty meat dishes in sauces. A lighter dry white works well with delicate dishes such as white fish, oysters or chicken breast. And if you’re a red wine drinker, never underestimate the versatility of Pinot Noir, perfect for everything from salmon to lamb.”
Budget wine finds
If want to enjoy Champagne on a beer budget, look for Spanish Cava, suggests Engel. “The flavors echo the same as Champagne and are made within the same productions style yet do not yield the notoriety (and therefore hefty price tag) as France’s region.” He also suggests looking at international wine regions like South Africa. “Some incredible single variety wines as well as blends can be obtained for under $20.”
Bruce and Hillard single out Costco as their go-to for budget buys. “It’s a fine place to discover wines of impressive provenance under the Kirkland label. What is in stock may be highly variable, but they are made by winemakers and establishments that are held in high regard.”
Jon McDaniel, the corporate beverage director and sommelier for Gage Hospitality Group, which includes Acanto, Beacon Tavern, Coda di Volpe, The Dawson, and The Gage, singles out French Muscadet and Argentinean Malbec. “Muscadet is a crisp, clean, mineral white wine from the Loire Valley in France that makes a perfect pairing with oysters or sushi and can also please any Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio drinker. You can pick one up for under $15. Over the last decade, no better value exists for fans of rich, full-bodied red wine than Malbec. Taste notes including black pepper and deep berry fruit with a dry finish will trick your tongue into thinking you’re enjoying Napa Cab. You can easily find a bottle for $12-$20.”
Decoding a restaurant wine list
Engel has four very useful tips for decoding a restaurant wine list:
Don’t just order a bottle because you can pronounce the name. There are so many great wines in the world to choose from and the majority of them have hard to pronounce names. Don’t be afraid to ask someone how to pronounce it and if it is light, medium, or heavy in body.
If wines are listed by grape varietal – it is a good chance that they are listed lightest in body to heaviest. If you see Bubbles or Pinot Noir near the beginning, be sure to know that the heavier red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are near the back.
If all else fails – Drink bubbles
Don’t be afraid to go cheap – if it’s on the list that means someone likes it (more than likely one of the wine buyers or sommeliers think it is amazing). Don’t be afraind to ask about it.
Basics you should know about the major wine regions
“The best way to look at wine regions is to break them into “New World” and “Old World” wines,” says McDaniel. “New World wines included the U.S., South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa – these wines are typically good on their own, are more fruit-forward, smooth and rich. Old World wines means Europe – whose wines typically are going to be drier, higher in acid and better with food. Europeans traditionally only drink wine with food, so the wines are designed to be great food pairings.”
Major white and red wines
Patrick Cox, partner at Brewport Tap House breaks it down for us:
Sauvignon Blanc: Look for newer vintages. These are high in acidity, earthy, and have grassy influence.
Chardonnay: Look for two to five year old vintages. They have balanced acidity and a more developed nose with floral and honey notes and are often aged in oak.
Rose: Look for fresh new vintages of Rose Pinot Noir or Rose Tempranillo. Dry, crisp with light floral nuances.
Pinot Noir: Look for three to five year old vintages. These are dryer, have an earthy nose, full mouth feel, and lingering pleasant finish.
Merlot: These are usually blended with small amounts of other wines (malbec, cabernet, petite verdot) and have a softer finish.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Look for three to seven year old vintages. They have a bigger style and a dryer mouth feel with long lingering finish.
In more general terms “white wine basically can be divided into three categories: crisp, floral, rich,” explains McDaniel. “Crisp examples are usually dry, mineral, lighter in body, and have apple and citrus notes and are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Floral examples can range from off-dry to sweet, but are usually Riesling and Gewürztraminer that smell like you’re walking through a florist or an Aesop store. Rich is Chardonnay – buttery, creamy, usually oaky and deep gold in color.”
Red wines can also be divided into three categories: light, medium, full in body. “Light bodied wines tend to be Pinot Noir – red fruits, soft, silky and are typically brighter and higher in acid. Medium bodied wines run the whole spectrum of flavors and characteristically are dry, more black and blue fruits – usually Merlot is a great example of a medium wine. Full-bodied are your big, burly reds that are dark in color, can be either dry like Cabernet or juicy and jam-like such as California Zinfandel or Australian Shiraz. Only full-bodied reds need be decanted or need a bit of air to show their best expression.”