Wine Basics Part 1: Must Knows, Vocabulary & Pronunciation
Let's be honest, wine can be intimidating. My first foray into wine was through a bottle of Barefoot 'Blush' and ended with barfing up my alphabet soup into my roommate's fake ficus. No passing the barf-buck to someone else when you puke up (very intact) Ps & Qs. And to make it even more intimidating, I had friends who knew their shit. They sniffed, swirled, moaned and threw around words like terroir and finish more thana French porn star. How was I ever gonna pull this off? Let alone enjoy it? Well happily, the education in this case = more drinking (and some vocab). And I was a very good student.
So, pop open a bottle (or two) and follow along as I enumerate the basic 'must knows' that will make you a not-so-basic bitch at your next high brow soiree.
ABSOLUTELY MUST KNOW BASICS:
Wine: alcoholic beverage made from fermented grapes. And ONLY grapes. There are no cherries, no chocolate, no plums involved...even if it smells just like it, there's none of that shit in there. So do not ask what kind of cherries or chocolate or plums they add to the wine or you. will. fail. Remember that!
Glass : The vessel, with a stem, made of actual glass that holds your tasty liquid, and that should NEVER be filled to the top. I don't get it either, make a smaller glass right? But still, general rule of thumb is fill the glass only until the wine is slightly higher than the curve of the bowl.
Vintage: the year on the bottle which is the year the wine was harvested and made. Usually not the current year. Example: You: "Oh lovely, I heard that 1997 was a great vintage?" Sommelier: "Why yes it was, 1996 was a great year too if you had patience."
Varietal: the specific grape(s) that make up the wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc. are all different types of grapes (varietals) used to make wine. Sort of like Gala, Fuji & Pink Lady are types of apples.* Wine can be a single varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon. Or, it can be a combination of multiple varietals in which case it might be called a Red Blend or Meritage, or Bordeaux in France. Example: You: "What varietals are in this Red Blend?" Bartender: "Oh, great question! Its made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and some Merlot."
Terroir (Tear-wahr):A little deeper than basic info, but every French person I know would kick my shins if I didn't include this term, so say it, learn it, know it. Terroir is the most important component in French, nay worldwide, wine making and is in short: the grapevine’s total environment in a specific area. It takes into consideration soils, sub-soils, topography, exposure and all aspects of temperature along with rainfall, fog and other climatic conditions. Essentially, if the grapevine took a selfie, terroir would be everything in the background.
*WAY more on this later*
Sommelier (some-all-ee-yay) 'Somm' for short: The resident 'wine guy' or 'wine gal' who is a certified wine bad ass and can tell you all about things like terroir. Never be afraid to ask this person questions as most (some can be douchy) love to 'geek out' and share their knowledge with others. *Note: usually only 'upscale' and wine-centric places or steakhouses will have a Somm on staff, so if none is available then the bartender is your next best choice. Example: You: "I have a couple questions on your wine list, is there a Sommelier I could talk to?"
Wine pairing / drinking Spark notes: (WAY more on this later)
- Red wine with red meat or heavy meals, white wine with white meat or lighter style meals.
- White or sparkling before red.
- Always change or rinse glasses when you change colors of wine.
- White wine = smaller glass, red wine = BIGGER glass.
MOST COMMON VARIETALS & PRONUNCIATION
Because a not-so-basic B knows what she or he wants and how to say it correctly!
Common White Wines:
Sauvignon Blanc (Saw-vin-yawn Blonk)
Pale yellow, with bright acidity and citrus. In a Sauv Blanc from California, expect orange blossom, grapefruit, lemon curd or key lime. Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand however tend to have a more grassy smell and taste in addition to the citrus notes. Some people also get 'cat pee'. Not a great selling point, but it's the best cat pee you'll ever drink... especially on a sunny day by the pool! Also try Sauvignon Blancs found in California and France (called 'Sancerre' or 'Pouilly Fume').
A favorite of both new and long-time wine drinkers. Light yellow in color and varies from fruity and dry to fruity and sweet. Smells and tastes like nectarine, apricot, honey-suckle, apple, lemon curd, etc. and goes with almost anything light, white, or spicy (salad, fruit & cheese, Asian, fish, etc). Order a German or Alsatian Riesling for an extra classy option.
Cougar-juice anyone? Kidding #notkidding. Chardonnay gets a bad rap from the oakey, butter bombs that came out of Napa in the early 2000s, but as with any varietal, it can be delicious if made right. The Chardonnays that Stiffler's Mom would drink are big, oakey and popcorn buttery. They tend to have notes of pie crust, vanilla, cooked apples, or ripe pineapple and will getcha drunk. The (better) Chardonnays from California, or their French counterpart, Chablis (shab-lee) tend to be lighter, have a slight creaminess in the mouth, little to no oak, and brighter acid. Think green or Fuji apple, bright pineapple, pear, and just a hint of golden pie crust. When in doubt, ask the bartender: "Which is the least oakey and buttery Chardonnay?" or "Which is the lightest Chardonnay?" They'll hook you up.
Common Sparkling Wines:
Its all sparkling wine but it ain't all Champagne. Here's the 'Sparkling Wine Lowdown':
- Sparkling Wine: Generic name given to any bubbly wine. Looks and tastes like Champagne, but it's NOT Champagne. Mumm, Domaine Chandon, and Schramsberg are great California producers of the stuff and totally worth buying. Most producers adhere to the 'Methode Champenoise', Champagne method, of wine making, but per request from France, it is not allowed to be called or labeled Champagne. Why? See below.
- Champagne (Sham-pain): A region in France that happens to produce some of the finest bubbly around. So good in fact that it's sort of become its own brand, and as such, a sparkling wine can ONLY be called 'Champagne' if its made from this specific region. Made in Champagne = Champagne; not made in Champagne ≠ Champagne. This is very important and a sore subject among your French friends. Think of it this way: You wouldn't call any old handbag a Prada right, you'd just call it a purse or by its own label. Same here.
- Prosecco (Pro-seko): Italy's sparkling wine. Dry, delicious and definitely more affordable than bubbly from the US or Champagne. Great for mimosas!
- Cava (Ka-va): Spain's bubbles. Also inexpensive and good for mimosas. I personally like Cava better than Prosecco because I find more complexity, variety and depth in their wines. In Cava country (mountains outside Barcelona) wine makers use the traditional 'Champagne method' to turn their own local varietals (Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarello) into amazing sparkling.
Also keep in mind these following terms when deciding on a bottle of bubbles:
Brut (Brute): Think dry, bright, acidic and great with food. Granny smith apples, little bit of pie crust.
Rose (Rose-aay): Your princess dreams came true: pink and bubbly! Can be deceptively dry. You'll get strawberry, and tart cherry.
Demi-Sec (Demmy- sek): Sweet to Sweeter, but not the sweetest. Baking pie crust, cooked apple, pear, orange blossom and honey but usually with a burst of brightness so it's not cloying.
Common Red Wines:
Cabernet Sauvignon(Cab-er-nay Saw-vin-yawn)
Very common; on most wine lists. Big, bold, dark, red, wine. You'll find deep black fruits like cherry, cassis and plum mixed in with earthy undertones and baking spices. Usually not a favorite of new wine drinkers as Cabs often have that tannic (bitter) quality that takes time to appreciate. For the fruitiest options look to Napa, California or Washington state, but if you're feeling worldly and more earthy, order a Bordeaux from the left bank of the Gironde River In France (St. Julien, Pauillac, Haut Medoc and Margaux). Great with steak, red meat or heavy meals.
Also super popular on wine lists worldwide. Deep violet-red color, dark and rich, but fruitier and softer than Cabernet Sauvignon. Good for those who want to explore beyond white wine but are a little 'red-shy'. Imagine a lush, plummy, velvety wine with hints of black cherry and huckleberries and very little tannin or bitterness. Again, look to Merlots from Napa, California for fruitier options or go for another Bordeaux, but this time from the right bank of the Gironde (St. Emilion and Pomerol).
You can't talk about red wine without talking about Bordeaux. A Bordeaux is a red blend from the Bordeaux region in France (remember Champagne? Same concept.) Most often comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and is the benchmark of quality and price for red wines around the world. Bordeaux wines can be found mostly by the bottle rather than by the glass, and are always a great choice if you're looking to impress.
A few other important things to note:
- The Gironde River divides the region of Bordeaux into a 'right bank' and a 'left bank'.
- Wines from the 'right bank' are Merlot based blends with smaller percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
- Wines from the 'left bank' are Cabernet Sauvignon based blends with Merlot and Cabernet Franc pulling up the rear.
- A nice way to remember this: Merlot was right on time, but Cabernet Sauvignonleft early.
FYI: wines from Bordeaux tend to be earthier, lighter in body, higher in acid, and less fruity than Cabernet and Merlot from California. When I first tried a Bordeaux I was all kinds of pickle-face and thought it was 'funky', 'stinky', 'harsh' and really not my thing. Don't worry if these are your thoughts too; its just the terroir talking. With time, Bordeaux will begin to haunt your wet wine dreams... and deplete your wallet.
Pinot Noir(Pee-no No-ar)
Light to medium bodied red; translucent garnet in the glass. Amazing with food, but Pinot Noir can often be tough for new wine drinkers because of the acidity. Ripe red cherry, strawberry, cola, baking spice and a bright acid that might literally make your mouth water. Sonoma or Russian River are the best places for Pinot in California, but my favorite Pinots come from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and Burgundy in France (Finish the sentence: Pinot Noir is conveniently called X when it's made in Burgundy? *hint: see Champagne and Bordeaux*).
More to come so stay tuned...and stay buzzed ;)