Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Wine School! (Class #1 -- Reds, the basics)

When I started this little endeavor, I wanted to provide a resource for basic, everyday people to find basic, everyday wine and make the world of wine a little less intimidating.

I was having a conversation with the Sweet Partner in Crime the other day, and she made a great suggestion: "Why not do some stuff on wine basics? If you give people a base to work from, they'll appreciate your regular columns even more."

There's a reason she's the smart one in the relationship.

My plan for the next several installments (although I'll sprinkle in a few other topics here and there) is to provide a basic overview of the major wine varietals, how to recognize them, and what to expect when you do a tasting.

Generally speaking, there are six or seven major grape varietals. There are three reds: pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah. There are three whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Merlot is the seventh varietal. Merlot was used largely as a blending grape until the last several decades, so it's usually left off the list. We'll focus on the main six for now. (But if you want some merlot information, go here.)

I'll do a brief overview of the grapes first, and I'll provide more in-depth coverage of the individual varietals as a follow up. I'll start with the reds.

For our first tastings, here are the wines I used:

Mirassou 2005 Pinot Noir ($7-8)
Rex Goliath 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($8-9)
Cline 2004 Syrah ($9-10)

You can, of course, use other wines from these varietals you may have lying around. Fetch three glasses, pour samples side by side by side, line them up, and proceed. Remember, if this process doesn't work as well as you'd like…simply refill the glasses and start again.

We begin with Pinot Noir. Pinot noir is the lightest major red varietal. Watch the wine as you pour -- almost translucent. As you swirl the wine (and the reason we do this is here), take a good look at it. It's very light, isn't it? Then take a big sniff. The nose of a pinot is generally soft and fragrant. You'll often smell flowers and cherries. Now a little taste. The taste mirrors the nose -- light and delicate. The finish (flavors left in your mouth after you've swallowed the wine) tends to be soft, especially in comparison to the other wines here. Wine folks (like those in Sideways) greatly appreciate this wine because the flavors are subtle and complex. Regardless of whether or not you're into pulling apart flavors, it's still a very pleasant tasting, drinkable wine. Pinot's flavors also change and intensify as you drink. After the first taste of the Mirassou, wait a minute or so and then take a second sip -- the flavor and finish becomes almost chocolaty at the end. If you're thinking about pairing pinot noir with food (or any wine, for that matter), the operative concept isn't the type of food -- it's the style of food that's more important. Light wines complement light food. A pinot, then, would go with poultry, pork, or fish. It will also work with a number of spicy or saucy foods, as it's an incredibly flexible food wine.

On to Cabernet Sauvignon. The first thing you'll notice is the color. The wine is a much deeper, darker purple. It looks much heavier bodied. When you take your first big sniff, you'll notice a smell sort-of-but-not-quite like blackberries. If you hear people talking about "cassis" or "blackcurrant" notes, that's what they're referring to (you can stick to calling it blackberry if you want). The taste is also immediately different. There's fruit and alcohol flavor is much stronger than the pinot when you take the first sip, but the real difference emerges a few seconds after. You'll feel your mouth start to "dry out" with this wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is known to be a very "tannic" wine. Tannin is a chemical naturally occuring in grape skin. Pinot noir is a very thin-skinned grape, thus the tannin concentration will be much lower than the thicker-skinned cabernet grape. The effect of the tannins is a sensation is called "astringency," which you'll also get from strong black tea. The finish of a cabernet is longer -- you'll taste the dryness for quite awhile after you swallow. Cabernet is the most tannic of the "major" varietals. That tannin is useful in pairing cabernet with fatty, earthy, or heavy foods. That tannin cuts through the heaviness, allowing the flavor of the wine and the food to complement each other. Grilled steaks, portabella mushrooms, big pastas and chocolates are classic cabernet pairings.

Finally, we arrive at Syrah -- the biggest of the reds. Not the driest…the biggest. You can see when you pour that the wine is the darkest and heaviest. The color is blackish purple, generally. (Wine folks call this "inky.") The nose of this wine is strong and fragrant, often full of plums and blackberries. When you taste, you'll immediately sense the "roundness" in comparison to the others. The flavor is usually full of berries, plums, and black cherries. The finish is fruity and not overly dry, and often has a licorice or chocolate flavor (which is why syrah is a fantastic chocolate pairing). You'll taste tannins in this wine, too -- but they're not as pronounced as the cabernet. A good syrah is generally defined as having "firm" tannins. Foodwise, syrah is best paired with just about anything you can put over fire. Grilled meats and vegetables, big stews -- anything with a rich flavor will go well with syrah's richness. Syrah is also a great wine for cool evenings. One other syrah note: you might see wines labeled Shiraz. The Australians called their syrah grapes "shiraz" after harvesting them for bit. Why? Who knows? Just know it's the same grape.

Differentiating between varietals is one of the keys to appreciating wine, pairing with food, or just finding something to fit your mood. Eventually, try side-by-side tastings with other varietals to see how they compare. You'll notice zinfandel, Chianti, tempranillo, malbec, merlot, etc. all have unique characteristics. For starters, though, stick with the basics. If you'd like, feel free to pass along what you find from your own tastings. I'd be interested to hear.

I hope this gives you a good starting point. Until next time…class dismissed…


JettieSatellite, The_Wizard of Covington said...

The Mirasou Pinot is a pretty damn good wine.

Of course, as far as Cabs go, the Root:1 can't be topped for the money.

And if you go to Liquor Direct looking for Root, pick up the RDLR Syrah. I just had it again the other night, and nothing quite goes with dark chocolate and gouda quite like this bad boy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post. I've always wanted to understand wines, but everything went way over my head. You've finally explained it in words a non wine snob can understand. I look forward to the rest of the series!

The Naked Vine said...

Listen to the Wizard...the RDLR is great -- just make sure you let it breathe for awhile before you drink it.

Chris, thanks so much. The kind words are much appreciated. Next up is the whites, then we start doing the grapes individually...or that's the plan, at least. It'll be fun. Good to have you along for the ride.

JettieSatellite, The_Wizard of Covington said...

Oh yeah. My bad-Let the RDLR breathe for at least 30 minutes,otherwise, it's pretty close to spike Welch's. But after that...its paradise.

I, too, would like to thank Mike for being a friend to me. I am fortunate enough actually sample many of these wines with him, and he is always willing to answer questions about wine. I've learned alot from him...

He's a good man-even if when he gets annoyed at my Friday night Zappa marathons...

Slainte, brother.

Renee Beaulieu said...

So glad to find you via the CinWeekly story. This was a wonderful piece... I already know that I love Bogle's Petite Syrah, but it was interesting to read your comparisons... Of course I had to try a Pinot Noir after seeing Sideways, but the one I picked was awful, and I've stayed away since, thinking I couldn't find a drinkable one for under $20. We'll have to try the Mirrasou... Hope you'll write about the new blended wines that are showing up. I tried North Coast's Cheyanna at Nectar and it was lovely.

JenJen said...

Nice star turn in CiN Weekly, Mike. ;-)