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Selecting the correct wine

Varietals:
Red
White
Other Varieties
Which Wine?
Sourness
Sweetness
Bitterness
Saltiness
Tannin, Alcohol, Oak, and Fruit

About Wine Types

Varietal is one word you'll see applied to most non-European wines; it simply refers to the grape variety used to make the wine. In Europe, the finest wines are usually named after the region (the other is appellation) in which the grapes are grown; examples include Bordeaux, Chianti, Piesporter, Champagne, etc. In most of the rest of the world (including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and the United States) the finest wines are usually labeled with the name of the grape variety that the wine is made from (i.e.: Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc.). The Europeans have had hundreds of years to determine which grapes grow best in which regions, and Europe often have regulations controlling the wine labeling. For example, Pinot Noir is the only red grape allowed to be grown in most of the Burgundy region. As non-European countries establish reputations for the wines of certain regions, they often add the region's name to the varietal name; for example, Napa Valley Cabernet, Russian River Pinot Noir.

The types of grapes used to make a wine are probably the single most important factor in the taste of the wine. However, the flavors of a wine are also affected by how old the vines are, what types of soils the vines are grown in, exposure to sunlight, climates and microclimates, how the grapes are handled and fermented, types of yeast used, whether the wine is aged in wood, etc. Therefore, the same grape types can be grown in France, Australia, California and Chile, but various factors result in wines which taste different! Half the fun of experiencing wine is the incredible array of flavors available!

Many of the world's finest wines are a blend of varietals: almost all Bordeaux red wines contain Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc; almost all Champagnes contain Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A wine which is a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, for example, is often more complex than a wine which is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Exploring varietal characteristics makes for a richer wine experience. To that end, following are the descriptions of the varietals you are most likely to encounter.

Red Wines (ranked from lightest to most full bodied):

Barbera
Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet/Merlot Blend
Chianti
Dolcetto
Italian Red
Merlot
Nebbiolo
Red
Petite Sirah
Pinot Noir
Red Bordeaux
Red Burgundy
Sangiovese
Syrah/Shiraz
Zinfandel

White Wines (ranked from lightest to most full bodied):

Chablis
Chardonnay
Chenin Blanc
Gewurztraminer
Italian White
Muscat
White
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Riesling
Sake
Sauvignon/Fume Blanc
Semillon
Viognier
White Bordeaux
White Burgundy
Pink Wines:
Rose
White Merlot
White Zinfandel
Dessert Wines (from Spain and Portugal):
Madeira
Marsala
Port
Sherry
Vermouth

Also:

Bubbly (Champagne and Sparkling Wine)
Kosher wines Food Wines


Which Wine with Which Food?:

Sweets for the Sweet

The most important thing to remember, when choosing wine for food, is your tongue. It perceives the four basic tastes in food and wine both, and it's those tastes that govern the realm of food-and-wine matching: sourness, sweetness, bitterness and saltiness.

Sourness.

You may have heard people say that wine doesn't go with salad. The reason this wrong idea gets such wide play is that the acid in salad dressing can wreak havoc with some wines. But if you serve an acidic wine with that salad, the wine's sourness is negated by the salad's sourness--leading to a pleasant, successful match. Remember: Pick acidic wines, such as dry German Riesling, dry Vinho Verde or red Sancerre, for acidic foods. Acidic wines also are terrific for salty foods; briny French oysters are insanely good with crisp Muscadet, a dry white wine made near Brittany, and smoked salmon is a miracle with tart Mosel Riesling (made in one of Germany's most northerly regions, the Mosel).

Sweetness.

During the main part of your meal, and at dessert time, the same like-with-like principle applies: Sweet food makes sweet wine taste less sweet. If you have, say, a California Chardonnay that's a little sweet, as many of them are, it may taste oddly sweet with a piece of grilled swordfish. But put a little mango-red pepper salsa on the fish, and the wine will now taste miraculously dry. At dessert time, a mildly sweet wine can be wiped out--turned to disagreeable lemon juice--by a very sweet dessert. But if you make sure the dessert wine is at least a little bit sweeter than the dessert itself (such as Sauternes with a light pound cake), the wine will retain its sweetness (desirable at dessert).

Bitterness.

Once again, like-with-like is the key: Wines with a little bitterness make foods with a little bitterness taste less bitter. Let's say you love charred steak on the grill but don't love the slight bitterness that the grill imparts. Young Cabernet from Bordeaux or California also has bitterness from tannin, a substance found in grape skins, seeds and stems that finds its way into many young reds. The solution is at hand: Serve them together and watch the bitterness of each one disappear.

Saltiness.

There are no salty wines, but there are plenty of wines that relieve the saltiness of salty food. Serve acidic, un-oaky (see below), low-alcohol wines, such as Vinho Verde from Portugal or Galestro from Italy, with salty food. It's the same principle you see around the world in the service of fish: The classic mate for briny stuff from the sea is lemon, because acidity cuts salt.

Tannin, Alcohol, Oak and Fruit

There are a few elements in wine (not in food) that also contribute to the roster of principles: tannin, alcohol, oakiness and fruit. Tannin, a bitter, astringent substance in wine, is good with fatty, grilled meats. Alcohol is not a friend of food; generally lower-alcohol wines, such as German Riesling and the Basque Tyokali, are flexible with food (heaven is a dry white below 12% alcohol). The taste of new oak turns up in many wines today, because the wines are stored in new oak barrels that impart flavor. Oaky wine, however, is rarely a friend of food. Lastly, "fruit" is an important concept. All wine comes from fruit, of course, but some wines taste "fruitier" than others. Wines are fruitiest when they're young, then lose that fruit as they age. The fruit of white wine can be almost oppressive--sometimes it tastes like fruity bubble gum--and can get in the way of food. Young New World white wines tend to be very fruity, young European white wines less so. But the fruit of young red wines, which is subtler than the fruit of young white wines, is often a boon in food-matching. In young reds, the fruit tends to cover up some of red wine's food-difficult elements (like tannin and bitterness), actually making the red wine even better for food.

If All Else Fails

One question remains: How can you tell which wines are high in acid, low in tannin, free of new oak treatment? It isn't easy, and labels don't give you any help. With experience, you will intuit which wines have which profile. Until then, a good wine merchant can be a fine guide.

If all else fails, choose a young, fruity, crisp, low-alcohol, un-oaked red wine to go with your food. It will go with practically anything but dessert. Consider a young Beaujolais or a young, inexpensive Pinot Noir.

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