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Wine Basics—Tips for selecting and appreciating wine

Confused by the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sauvignon Blanc? Sooner or later you'll entertain a client at a nice restaurant, or you'll be talking to a partner who knows a lot about wine and you won’t want to appear totally ignorant. Here are a few tips to help you pick a wine or appreciate the conversation of a knowledgeable connoisseur. And who knows, you might learn that youreally like wine and develop an interest that goes beyond mere conversation.

A simple classification
Probably the easiest way to classify wines is by color—red or white—and by taste—dry or sweet. (There are also pinks, such as roses and white Zinfandels, but don't worry about them right now.) In general, red wines tend to be drier and have more body than white wines, although there are plenty of exceptions. White wines tend to be lighter and sweeter, but, again, there are many exceptions. Wines that are aged in oak barrels pick up some of the characteristics of the wood and tend to be more full-bodied and complex than wines that are not aged in wood.
Red wines get their color when the juice that has been extracted from the grapes is left in contact with the skins during fermentation. This process also produces a substance called tannins, which give red wines their mouth-puckering quality. White and red wines can have some of the same flavors: spicy, earthy, floral, etc. But flavors like apple, pear, peach and citrus are more common in white wines, while currant, cherry, blackberry and raspberry flavors are typical of reds.

It all starts with the grape
A bottle of wine is only as good as the grapes used to make it. The winemaker has a lot to do with the final quality of a wine, particularly in bringing out the full potential of good grapes. But even the greatest winemaker can’t make a great wine from poor grapes. In the U.S., wines are typically referred to by their varietal names—meaning the name of the grape from which the wine is made, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, for example. In Europe, wines are generally referred to by the region in which they are produced. In France, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are used to produce red Bordeaux and Chardonnay grapes are used to produce white Burgundies.

Four grapes to know
If you don't master any other grape names, remember Cabernet Sauvignon , Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay. The first three are used to make big, flavorful, often expensive red wines that age well. In France, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are often blended with Merlot grapes to produce red Bordeaux wines, while Pinot Noir grapes are used to make red Burgundies. Well-aged bottles of fine Bordeaux and Burgundy, such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Romanee Conti, can easily cost hundreds of dollars and often much, much more. Chardonnay is used to make big, flavorful white wines that age unusually well for whites, but nowhere near as long as the big reds.

California growers, as well as some in Oregon and Washington, have had particular success with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, producing wines that are competitive with the best French wines. After years of experimenting, they are finally producing some first-rate Pinot Noirs. If you saw the movie Sideways, you may remember the important role that Pinot Noir played in the film.

Merlot is an interesting case and illustrates what can happen to a wine if it comes into fashion. Long used in France to blend with cabernet, Merlot is the principal grape in some great French wines like Chateau Petrus and Chateau Cheval Blanc. When California vintners began producing Merlots that were a little lighter and fruity (more “approachable”) than most Cabernets, they had a runaway success on their hands. Unfortunately, these lighter-weight wines lacked the character of their French cousins and many in this country came to associate Merlot in this country (Again … think Sideways.)

There are many other outstanding grapes
Although The big four attract most of the publicity, there are many other outstanding wines made from:

The syrah grape has long been used to make highly thought of red wines in the Rhone region of France, such as Chateauneuf-Du-Pape. Australian imports, using the name Shiraz, have become very popular in the U.S., as have American versions, which may be called either Syrah or Shiraz. No matter the name, these wines tend to be big and spicy with a lot of fruit.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which are used in France to make dry white wines in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, is marketed as Sauvignon Blanc wine in the U.S. and other parts of the world. They have tended to be overshadowed by Chardonnays in the U.S., but they are currently enjoying a rise in popularity as vintners learn more about how to handle the grapes. They are an excellent summer wine and, due to their higher acidic content, go especially well with food.

Zinfandel, which is grown almost exclusively in the U.S., traditionally was used to make big, brawny, spicy, and full-bodied reds that attracted something of a cult following. More recent versions show a little more restraint and are very drinkable with food. Don’t confuse these wines with white or pink Zinfandels that are made by extracting the juice before it ferments on the skins and have little of the character of their red cousins.

Italy exports more wine to the U.S. than any other country. However, if you think only of a straw covered bottle of Chianti when you think about Italian wines, you are missing a great deal. Italy makes some of the finest and most expensive wines in the world, but the grapes are not as familiar as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Big red wines are made from the Sangiovese grape, which is used for Chiantis and Brunello di Montalcinos, and the Nebbiolo grape, used for Barolos and Barbarescos. Lighter reds include Barberra, Valpolicella and Bardolino. If you are familiar with any Italian wine outside of Chianti, it is likely to be Pinot Grigio, the light dry white that is very popular in the U.S. as a hot weather wine that is easy to drink on its own, but goes well with food.

Spanish wines are current enjoying a rapid rise in popularity due to their quality and relatively low prices. Spain is best known for its Riojas made from the Tempranillo grape. These are generally dry reds that have been aged in oak and will age well in the bottle. The Spanish also make wines using combinations of Grenache and Syrah grapes, which are similar to Rhone wines, but less expensive.

In the Southern hemisphere, Australia has gained an excellent reputation for both the quality and value of its wines, particularly Shiraz and Chardonay. New Zealand may be making the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world, as well as some excellent Pinot Noirs. Chile is producing excellent values in Carbernets, Merlots and Chardonnays, and look for Malbecs from Argentina.

Wine and food
There's a lot of confusion about which wine to eat with which food. The basic rule of thumb is that white wines go with lighter foods like fish, chicken and pastas with cream sauce, while reds are appropriate for red meats and spicier foods. The feeling is that heavier foods will overpower the lighter more delicate taste and structure of most whites. Another rule of thumb is whites before reds, light before heavy, dry before sweet, and simple before complex.

There are some whites, particularly Chardonnays that have been aged in oak, that have complex structures and a mouth-filling taste, while many reds are light, fruity, simple wines meant to be enjoyed on their own or with lighter dishes. The key is that tastes should complement each other. Ultimately, the best way to find out which wines go well with certain foods is to try them together.

Some useful vocabulary
You'll hear a lot of words related to wines. Here are 15 you should know.

Acidity – the quality of tartness or sharpness that gives a desirable crispness to white wines. It is the opposite of soft where alcohol or sugar tend to dominate the taste.

Aroma/bouquet/nose – these terms are often used interchangeably to refer to the smells associated with a particular wine. Does the wine smell clean, fresh, fruity (if so which fruits), spicy, floral, etc.

Balance – when all the tastes in a wine, such as sweetness, acidity, astringency, etc., work together well, the wine is said to be balanced—a good thing.

Big – wines that are very intense with a lot of taste and body. Particularly intense wines are sometimes described as powerful, or brawny in the case of really big reds.

Body – the feel of the wine in your mouth.

Complex – having multiple layers of aroma and flavor. In general, complex wines are thought to be of higher quality than simple, straightforward wines. Complex wines generally benefit from aging in a bottle, which adds further layers of complexity, while simple, less complex wines are meant to be drunk soon after bottling.

Dry – a wine that is not sweet.

Finish – the impression that a wine leaves on your palate after you drink it. Higher-quality wines generally have a longer finish.

Fruity – the aromas and tastes of fruit are readily apparent.

Full – related to body. Full wines feel large in your mouth.

Length – related to finish. Wines with length have a sustained finish.

Oaky – tastes or characteristics that are imparted from barrel aging, such as vanilla, toastiness and tannins. Sometimes oak flavors can dominate the fruitiness of a wine.

Soft – the opposite of acidic. Alcohol or sugar comes through more strongly, but soft wines are not limp.

Sweet – the opposite of dry.

Tannin – a substance that is passed on to wine through the skins, seeds and stems when grapes are crushed or through aging in oak barrels. It has an astringent taste that puckers the mouth slightly. Tannins are also present in tea.

Varietal – a wine made principally from a single grape.

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