Wine 101: Uncorking the Wine Genius in You

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    Imagine this situation: you’re on the way to a snazzy company party, and your boss calls you on the phone, asking you to pick up a bottle of some “real classy” wine for the party. You agree, hang up the phone and realize you are unprepared to face the towering walls of wines to choose from.

    Well, Cincy Chic is here to rescue you from that nightmare. What follows is a user-friendly guide to the world’s most complex drink. From a general overview of the most common wines to how to go about getting started on your wine discovery quest, curbing your fear of wine will no longer be a problem.

    Let’s Get Started

    Before you start running to the nearest wine bar, the first thing to think about is types of wine and the most common wine vocabulary you will hear used to describe the wine.

    The two basic categories of wine are white and red. Other than the obvious difference of color, the actual difference (and the cause of the color disparity) is the fact that red wine is the result of crushed fermented grapes, while white wine is the result of fermented grape juice that has been separated from the skins or meat of the grape.

    Here are some popular wines in each category:

    Popular Red Varieties

    • Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Grenache
    • Merlot
    • Pinot Noir
    • Sangiovese
    • Syrah (Shiraz)
    • Tempranillo
    • Zinfandel

    Popular White Varieties

    • Chardonnay
    • Gewürztraminer
    • Grüner Veltliner
    • Pinot Blanc
    • Riesling
    • Sauvignon Blanc
    • Semillon

    Now for the terms — so you won’t be too overwhelmed when the person next to you asks, “Do you think it’s a bit too woody?” We’re going to overview a few of the most common wine vocabulary words. However, remember there are a great many words used to describe wine, so research wine books, surf the web or grill your friends for the rest.

    General Wine Terms:

    • Acidity: Wines with natural fruit acids that give them a tart, crisp taste.
    • Body: The weight of the wine on the palate, ranging from light to heavy or full.
    • Corked: Bad corks can sometimes result in wine with a moldy smell or other flaws.
    • Legs: Teardrop impressions of alcohol weightiness visible on the inside of a wine glass.
    • Vintage: Year that grapes were harvested and fermented to make a wine.

    Descriptive Wine Terms:

    • Dry: A wine without sugar or sweetness.
    • Earthy: Flavors and aromas of mushroom, soil and mineral
    • Fruity: Obvious fruit aromas and flavors excepting flavors such as berries, cherries and citrus, which are considered sweet.
    • Oak: When barrel fermentation results in flavors such as vanilla, caramel, chocolate, smoke, spice or toast
    • Sweet: Wines with a higher concentration of sugar after fermentation.
    • Tannin: A drying, astringent impression on the palate generally associated with heavier red wines.

    Learning through the Grape Vine

    Once you’ve mastered the rudimentary terms and types of wine, it’s time for the fun part: hit the bar. Start with basic grapes, says Jane Wakerman, director of Public Relations at The Wine C.A.R.T. in West Chester. Then try selections of basic whites and reds, she says.

    But rather than aimlessly choosing a wine, Wakerman suggests newcomers to the wine world join a group or club dedicated to wine so that you can participate in their events and pick the brains of veteran members who can suggest wines or inform you on not-so-well-known wine trivia.

    Don’t get discouraged by the sheer volume of information out there about wine. “Learning just doesn’t happen all in a day,” Wakerman says.

    Something else not to get discouraged about is the development of your palate, Wakerman says. You may try a highly-praised wine and find it to be terrible, but in a few years your tastes may change. Starting out on the basic Vidal Blancs and such is normal, Wakerman says, and once your palate becomes more sophisticated, you will appreciate dryer or more complex wines as well.

    Also, don’t worry so much about whether a wine is “good” or “bad.” Bad is relative, Wakerman says. “All wine’s good I think, for anyone, it’s a matter of how they think or feel when they drink it.” Your friend may love one type, you another. And that’s fine.

    Keeping an open mind is also important to the learning process, Wakerman says. Cornering yourself with a wine or two you like without trying new ones is going to stall the path to wine knowledge. Try any wine that comes in your way, and you might surprise yourself.

    Tasting the Wine Flava

    Another great stop on your wine journey is the tasting, be it at a bar or winery. Tastings are great for extending both your general knowledge of wine and your palate, says Joe Henke, owner of Henke Winery on Harrison Avenue.

    “Look at the wine, look at the clarity, sniff the wine, and take a small sip. Then take a second sip. Let it linger in your mouth for a second and then swallow,” he says. This allows the taster to really sample the wine, and find out if that particular strain suits your palate.

    Start with a softer wine such as a Blush or a Riesling, Henke says, and then gradually move to the fuller-bodied wines. Wakerman also suggests starting with what she calls “basic grapes,” making slow progress from there.

    Wakerman asks would be wine-ites: “‘Why don’t I do a flight so you can evaluate with your mouth what to expect in each variety,’” she says. “They they make their own evaluation, what they like and start researching it.”

    Wakerman also suggests keeping a journal of your tastings to keep track of what you’ve tried and what you thought of them.

    Food and Wine, Oh My!

    The next integral step in your journey of wine is pairing it with food. Again, what goes best with what is relative, Henke and Wakerman say.

    The cliché rule is that white wines go well with fish, while red wines work best with hearty meats and meals. But that is not necessarily true. Henke has broken that rule himself and had a great meal, he says.

    “Pairing is another thing that is very personal,” Henke says. “It’s not up to a particular person to tell them what is right or wrong. Other’s experiences are not necessarily the answer.”

    Wakerman says pairing wines with cheeses is a good starting point. She recommends pairing a fruity, low tannic white with a creamy cheese, a crisp fruity wine for young and tangy tasting cheeses, a versatile white or red such as a Pino Grigio go with any salty or tangy cheese and dessert wines go best with very aged, salty cheeses such as a Stilton or Gorgonzola cheese.

    Experimentation is key to this process, and as Wakerman says, “It’s in the palate, it’s all in the palate.”

    Collecting and such

    Once you’ve found a few wines to call home, you may want to stock up on some of these favorites. But there are some things to think about first.

    Older is not always better. Some uneducated folks think the older a wine is, the better quality or taste it has. That belief can be problematic, Henke says.

    “Wines have their own particular life and certain wines are to be [consumed] young and fresh while other wines can mature gracefully,” he says.

    Not knowing the life of your wine can lead to disappointment, he says, especially when you’ve been saving your wine for a special occasion and uncork it only to find spoiled vino.

    Blush and Rieslings are generally meant to be drunk early, while Cabernets and Red Zinfandels have a longer shelf-life with the aging potential to sit back and enjoy year after year, Henke says. The best way to determine the life of your wine, however, is to ask the winemaker, who can give you the most accurate idea of when to uncork your prize wine.