We’ve all been there – you’re going to a dinner party, or preparing a meal for a big date, and you need a good bottle of wine. You walk into the store, find the wine section… and have no idea where to start. Overwhelming lines of bottles stare at you while you try to decipher the meanings of the vague, poetic label descriptions. While any bottle you haven’t tried before is going to be a gamble, here’s some wine basics to make making an educated guess a little easier.
Reading the Label
Wine labels are confusing. They don’t all contain the same information, and, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, they may not seem to contain any information at all. Usually a label will contain a brand name, and maybe a house name for that particular wine, something clever or poetic. It might also include the grape variety the wine is made from (i.e. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon) and/or the place the grapes were grown (i.e. Bordeaux, Napa, Barossa Valley).
Sweet vs. Dry
Some bottle also feature a brief, often vaguely poetic or playful, description of the wine. Look for descriptions of the nose (the smell of the wine) and palate (the taste of the wine). Describing a wine as “sweet” refers to the tactile sensation of sweetness on the tongue; a wine that is not sweet or somewhat sweet will be described as dry or off-dry. As far as white wines go, Riesling and “Late Harvest” wines will be on the sweeter side, while Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and the ever-popular Chardonnay will be varying degrees of dry. Red wine is very rarely sweet, with the exception of some sparkling reds, such as Lambrusco. Sparkling wines have their own descriptors, with “doux” and “demi-sec” referring to sweeter bubblies, and “sec,” “brut” and “extra brut” describing increasing degrees of dryness.
You may also see descriptions referring to a wine as full, medium or light-bodied. This refers to the weight and strength the wine as a whole leaves in your mouth, the “size” of the experience of drinking it. Yes, all wine has the same physical size, but some will seem big and robust while others are dainty and light. When it comes to white, you’ll find Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc dance lighter in your mouth, while Chardonnay, especially when oaked, carries more weight. Red wines tend to be fuller-bodied, especially well-known varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Tempranillo, and Merlot. The popular Pinot Noir tends to be slightly lighter. For a truly light, summery taste, ignore the snobs and enjoy Rosé.
Tannins and Acid
Tannins (prevalent in reds) and acidity (prevalent in whites) are other important tastes. Tannins (like those found in strong black tea) can be bitter, but when balanced make a red wine firmer or richer. A tannic-red like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, or Chianti will have a rich, strong, firm taste, while Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are low in tannins and have a lighter, softer feel. Acidity does the same for white wine that tannins do for red, with more acidic wines having a crisper, brighter taste.
Grapefruit and toasted oak and chocolate, oh my!
Other descriptors of flavor, such as references to stone fruit, berries, citrus, spices, or oak, are exactly what they sound like – subtle flavors that come together to color the taste of a particular wine. Try looking for words that are practical rather than poetic. You know what grapefruit tastes like. You can imagine berry flavors, or chocolate, or spices. You don’t know what “velvety” tastes like, or “flamboyant.” The things you understand will be enough.
Pairing Wine with Food
Wine and food can enhance or destroy each other. Part of the fun is that taking a stab at picking a bottle that will do the former and avoid the later is always a gamble. Look for complimentary flavors – citrus and fish for example – and always take into account the strength of the flavors in both the dish and the wine, so that neither overpowers the other. Light, summery flavors crave crisp whites and light-bodied reds, while rich flavors need strong, bold wines to compliment their intensity. Think of it this way – strawberries go great in champagne, but dark chocolate craves deep reds. For a great guide to beginning to pair food and wine, check out this fantastic chart.
The number one rule is this: no matter what anyone says, a good wine is a wine you enjoy drinking. If it tastes good to you, you’ve done it right! Happy sipping!