Last month, on Best of the Fox, I rallied about the rights of wine drinkers. “Drink what you want and don’t apologize,” I cried, and I stand by that – power to the people - but let’s push out a little, and at the very least discuss some general wine selecting guidelines. I’m not looking to become snooty, but rather to share a couple tidbits of wine knowledge in the hopes it helps folks know what to look for when in the wine shop. Remember the goal: find more wine you like.
First, there is a general order to the styles of wine. Wine can be organized from big, robust, and challenging red wines to light, lively, inviting white wines. The order is kind of like colors of the rainbow. The profiles are very different but the differences don’t extend to quality.
Quality is linked to depth, intricacy, and balance: characteristics that can be found in any style of wine, from the inky, velvety reds to vino verde – which means literally “green wine” (it’s a Spanish style which is a very light, summer-night-on-the-deck superstar).
From big red to light white, the order of the world’s most well known grapes goes like this: Shiraz (Syrah), Cabernet Sauvignon/ Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Riesling.
If you learn this order, you can always ask a waiter or wine steward where the wine they suggest would rank, “bigger than this or lighter than that…” and their answer should give you a decent idea of what to expect. But even this list is only a general guide. A wine maker can make an “unexpected” wine style or flavor profile using any grape.
When buying a wine from Europe the wines are named for the region rather than the grape (places like Burgundy or Bordeaux.) Once you find a region you like, try some other wines from the same region. All traditional wines from the same region in the big wine countries use the same grapes. It’s tradition. It’s history. And, in most European countries, it’s enforced by law. No joke. Once you get the regions straight, you pretty much know what you’re getting in the wine. Just remember, often when you hear a European name for a wine you are hearing the region not the grape.
Don’t be intimidated. Wine is not that tough if you give it a little time. Here are some suggestions you can take to the wine store to do your own research.
If you like reds and want to go bigger, you can stay classic and ask for a left bank Bordeaux (pay over $15 to be safe unless you get a recommendation) Shiraz from the Barossa Valley of Australia, Italian Borolo, or as a real treat a Chateauneuf de Pape, from the Rhone Valley in France. If you want a little lighter red: try a pinot noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, or an Italian Barbera, or a mellow Syrah from the Colombia Valley in Washington .(Walter Dacon is a personal favorite.) If you like whites, there are many ways to go! If you like big, butter-bombs just stay with your run-of-the-mill Napa Chardonnay. Try whites from the Rhone Valley, Torrontes from Argentina, any Italian white that isn’t Pinot Grigio, or anything from the king region of white wine you haven’t tried but will go nuts for…Alsace in France. If you like more tart whites try, Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough in New Zealand.
There is so much to wine, as a subject, and it’s all very cool. I guess that’s my point. Drink what you like, keep trying new things, and feel good about it.
One last note: If you order wine in a restaurant and it tastes bad, send it back. Often bottles have been open too long, especially if it’s not a common choice. Don’t get stuck with bad wine. There is too much good wine to drink a glass you don’t enjoy!