The Grapes Of Wine
This Wine Selection Guide provides a basic understanding of wine, where it comes from, the process of winemaking and how to select the right wine for the right occasion. The Wine Selection Guide is intended to get the less experienced wine drinker the knowledge to better navigate a wine list. Understanding the basics of wine will help make your wine selection easier and add new dimensions to your wine experience.
The Wine Selection Guide is divided into three parts; Wine Basics, The Grapes Of Wine and Wine Selection. To get the most out of the WSG, it is best to read all three parts. Wine Basics provides a foundation on winemaking. The Grapes Of Wine provides information on the varieties of grapes used in wine. The Wine Selection takes the knowledge from the first two parts and gives some helpful advice on wine selection.
The Big Names
There are many different types of grapes that make excellent wine, however there are nine different varieties that have become the most popular and wide ranging varieties. So if you know these most popular varieties, you will be well on your way to becoming a wine expert.
Chardonnay is a white wine grape and will be on every wine list. Chardonnay is easy to grow in different climates. Chardonnay is typically light, crisp and refreshing with lots of acidity and great on any warm day. The flavors include lemon, lime, green apple and if aged in oak will have a hint of vanilla and buttery flavors.
Some of the Chardonnay from France will be labeled Burgundy or Chablis, which are places where the grapes are grown. So a bottle of white wine labeled Chablis will be a Chardonnay. Another interesting note is that in Champagne, France, Chardonnay is turned into notable sparkling wines. True Champagne comes from Champagne, France.
California grows more Chardonnay than any other grape and most noticeably in Napa Valley, Edna Valley and Sonoma wine country.
Sauvignon Blanc (So-veen-yawn BlahN)
Sauvignon blanc is a green-skinned grape variety which originates from the Bordeaux region of France. It produces a crisp, dry, and refreshing white wine with flavors that range from aggressively green to sweetly tropical, with emphasis on green. The scents will be more like herbs and vegetables than any fruit.
Sauvignon blanc, when slightly chilled, pairs well with fish or cheese. It is also known as one of the few wines that can pair well with sushi. Dry-style Sauvignon or Fumé Blancs can handle many different foods such as tomatoes, bell peppers, cilantro, raw garlic, smoked cheeses or other pungent flavors that would clash with or overpower many Chardonnays and almost all other dry whites.
Sauvignon blanc being highly acidic likes the cooler climates and are most popular from France, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and California.
Riesling is another white wine that range from very dry to sweet. The flavors can be peach, pear, lime and apple or all of the above. This wine is light with a strong acidity that can be used with many rich entrées like fish, fowl and red meat where red wines would normally be used. Riesling has a distinctive floral and apple-like aroma that frequently mixes in mineral elements from its vineyard and can be described as “racy.”
These wines have more sugar, more acid to balance the sugar, more flavor, and more complexity. These elements combine to make wines which are amongst the most long lived of all white wines.
Riesling comes from Germany , France, Austria, Australia, New York state and Idaho. It thrives in colder temperatures where many other grapes can not grow. The most expensive wines made from Riesling are late harvest dessert wines, produced by letting the grapes hang on the vines well past normal picking time.
Pinot Grigio (Pee-noe Gree-joe)
Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio is a white wine grape that is delicately fragrant and mildly floral with lightly lemon-citrus, pear and hazelnut flavors. Pinot Gris is usually tangy and light, but can be rich, round and full bodied. Pinot gris is considered an “early to market wine” that can be bottled and out on the market within 4-12 weeks after fermentation
In Oregon the wines are medium bodied with a yellow to copper-pink color and aromas of pear, apple, and/or melon. In California, the Pinot Gris are more light bodied with a crisp, refreshing taste with some pepper. The Pinot Grigio style of Italy is a light-bodied, often lean wine that is light in color with sometimes spritzy flavors. this wine can be sweet and will begin to lose its acidity when it is nearly ripe.
Best regions for growing are Oregon and Italy.
Cabernet Sauvignon (Cab-air-nay So-veen-yawN)
This red grape has perhaps the widest reputation for the production of red wines. The grape is rich black with thick skins and has the flavor of black currants. Cabernet Sauvignon is considerably tannic which lets it age well. The more expensive a Cabernet, the more tannic it is and the longer is needs to age before drinking.
Cabernet will be one of the most popular wines at any steakhouse. The tannins go well with high protein foods as in rare beef and cheddar.
It is widely planted throughout the world including Chile, Australia, California (most especially in Napa Valley) and Bulgaria.
The merlot grape makes a very popular red wine and grows well where the temperatures are not too cold or too hot. Merlot has a round, rather soft fruitiness and low tannins, maturing relatively quickly. Merlot has flavors of currant, black cherry and plum. An Oak aged Merlot can have vanilla or coconut aroma.
Merlot is lighter than Syrah and richer than Pinot Nior. Merlot has become a favorite red wine for many consumers, maybe because it is easy-to-drink or Merlot is easy-to-say.
The best Merlot grapes come from Bordeaux France, Washington State, Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
Pinot Noir (Pee-noe Nwahr)
Pinot Noir is another popular red wine, is hard to grow and thus can be expensive. Pinot’s beauty lies in its delicacy and grace. It’s skin is a pale burgundy. Pinot Noir flavor is a light black cherry, raspberry or currant with a pronounced spiciness. Ripe tomato, mushroom, and barnyard are also common descriptors for identifying Pinot Noir. Pinot can go well with fish, steak or vegetarian.
The wine is light to medium body with a color compared to that of garnet, much lighter than that of other red wines. The wine is high in alcohol, yet neither acidic nor tannic, with substantial flavor.
The most appealing quality of Pinot Noir may be its soft, velvety texture. Pinot does not have the longevity in the bottle of the darker red wines and tends to reach its peak at five to eight years past the vintage.
The best Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy, France, Oregon and New Zealand. Oregon especially makes an extraordinary Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley and Umpqua Valley regions.
Syrah (See-rah) or Shiraz (Shee-rahz)
Syrah or Shiraz (as known in Australia) is a grape variety widely used to make a dry red wine. The berry is thick-skinned and dark, almost black. Syrah forms rich wines, with nearly black color, with aromas that tend to be more spicy than fruity.
Shiraz is frequently blended with other grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Wines made from Shiraz are often quite powerfully flavored and full-bodied. Aroma characters can range from violets to berries, chocolate, espresso and black pepper.
In the United States, wine produced from the grape is normally called by its French name, Syrah. Many premium Syrah-based wines are at their best after some considerable time aged (10-15 years).
The most notable Syrah or Shiraz come from France, Australia, California’s Santa Barbara region and Washington’s Columbia and Walla Walla Valleys.
Zinfandel is a red-skinned grape that is used to make either red or white, usually pink, wine. Commonly referred to as Zin, it is known for its intense fruitiness, lush texture, and high alcohol content. It has a very fruity, raspberry, blackberry flavor. Zinfandel is probably best enjoyed in its youth, within three to five years of the vintage.
Zinfandel is high in alcohol, as much as 15 percent, has less tannins then a Cabernet and is rich from ripe fruit flavors. Zinfandel red works well with steaks or chops or meat.
California is the primary region for growing Zinfandel grapes. The best areas are Sonoma, Napa, Lodi and Sierra foothills.
Other Noteworthy Wines
Just to name a few, here are some regional specialties. Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat make for fragrant white wines. Chianti and Nebbiolo are two great red wines. There are 1000’s of grape varieties and the wines that come from these grapes, so learn the basics first, you can always find more information at places like the Professional Friends of Wine.
Sparkling wine is typically a blend of several wines with carbonation. Sparkling wines are defined by the grapes that went into the wine, level of sweetness and the method of carbonation. Sparkling wine is made from white grapes, red grapes or a combination of both red and white grapes; like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The skins are removed soon after being pressed to keep the wine white, the exception being a Rosé.
The sweetness categories are from the driest to the sweetest; Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Sec, Sec and Demi-sec. The Sec and Demi-sec sparkling wines can be used as dessert wines.
Sparkling wines also come as Nonvintage and Vintage. Nonvintage or multi vintage means it contains the grapes from different years, which is the most typical.
The most famous sparkling wine is Champagne from Champagne, France. Spain, Italy, California, Oregon and Washington state also make very fine sparkling wines.
Sparkling wine can be used on most any occasion and with most menus except maybe red meat.
Dessert wines range from light and sweet to dark and rich. Dessert wines are typically more expensive than regular wine since the grapes are left on the vine, late harvest wines, to ripen longer which adds more risk due to weather, birds, disease and frost.
Dessert wines come as both Sparkling wine and Still wine. These are called dessert wines, which implies for dessert but they can also be very good with many rich foods.
Next: Part 3 of Wine Selection