Wines: Understanding That Shit

I love wine. No shame. If I could live on a winery, I probably would. There’s nothing about wine I don’t enjoy (except sometimes the morning after drinking it), but I really loathe people who consider themselves connoisseurs. Most of the time when discussing wine, they just sound like they’re speaking their own pretentious language, and I think they give wine a bad name. But I’m here to change that. Wine can be accessible, and delicious, if you just know what you’re looking for! I’m here to give you the down low, so you would-be-winos can select wine for yourselves stress-free.

The easiest way to break down the wine world is into four categories: WHITE, RED, ROSE, and SPARKLING.

All four categories have sub-categories—types of wines that are determined by factors like how long the grapes are fermented, whether they have skin or not, what region they come from, etc. And like how much salt you like with your food, finding which ones are your favorites is definitely going to be a matter of taste. Generally speaking, white, rose, and sparkling wines are all going to be much lighter than red wines, which have a much bolder and denser flavor. But that’s not a fool-proof guide to picking your favorite.

So, let’s talk specifics.

Whites

White wines are generally served chilled and in a narrow glass and are often paired with poultry and seafood. I usually reserve my white wine drinking solely for the summer time because it is great to have a cold glass of wine in the heat, but I know people who drink it all year round. Which brings us to kinds:

My least favorite (but the most popular) white wine is Chardonnay. It is a medium bodied wine that is frequently dry and oaky and pairs well with a wide variety of foods including chicken, pasta, seafood, etc. The oaky flavor occurs if the wine is aged in an oak barrel. I tend to lean towards wines that are aged in stainless steel, which are crisper. There’s just something about most chardonnays that have too much of an earthy taste for my palette, but I know a ton of people who love it. I think this is mostly because you can find a good tasting chardonnay at any price. Despite the quality of the wine, it usually has good flavor.

This is the opposite with a Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio. This white wine is super light and I find it delicious, but a higher quality pinot gris is the way to go. I think it’s the perfect blend of sweet and tartness, and drinking it reminds me of summer and sunshine. I find that the cheaper ones are either too watery or too acidic, and frequently leave you with a bad headache.

Next on the list to try—Sauvignon Blanc—another light-bodied wine a slightly spicier flavor. It’s sweeter than both Chardonnay and Pinot Gris/Grigio, but it has a dryness that I find really appealing. People either love or hate this wine because of its strong citrus undertones, which leave an interesting aftertaste.

Riesling is the sweetest of the whites, so if you’re looking for something fruity, this is the way to go. I find it’s a really good introduction wine because the flavors are familiar (grape, apple, pear), but it’s not the most complimentary with foods. I’d pair it with salad or fruit.

Reds

Red wine is a little more complicated. It’s served at room temperature and is put in a larger glass, so it can “breathe” or aerate before drinking to help soften the flavor. If the bottle is extremely aged, you’ll need a decanter to really help the flavors settle and breathe before serving, but that’s a bit more advanced drinking. For those new to red wine, let’s talk basics:

The most popular red wines are the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot—two medium to heavy wines with similar taste profiles. They’re often described as tasting of currants and blackberries and chocolates, but I really think they are just good, dependable red wines. They’re the stepping stone into red wines because of their well-rounded flavor. People frequently talk about tannins when talking about these two wines as well because of how heavy they can be, but what the hell is a tannin?

Tannins are the protein that helps age wine during fermentation, but people who talk about it referring to wine are actually talking about the slightly dry aftertaste. I think people like to talk about tannins because it makes them feel fancy, but it’s another factor that will determine if the wine is your “taste”.

Another wine heavy in tannins is Syrah (or Shiraz), which I think of as the red equivalent to Sauvignon Blanc. It has a spicy, peppery taste that pairs well with red meat and ethnic foods. But be forewarned, you light weights, this might not be the wine for you. It’s got a kick to it, though. So, be prepared for a strong flavor.

If you’re new to red wine but you like whites, I’d recommend a lighter one like a Pinot Noir. As opposed to the darker fruitier taste of the above red wines, Pinot Noir is significantly easier to drink. It’s my favorite to pair with cheese and crackers and makes a great daytime picnic wine.

Honorable mention for my favorite wine – Malbec. It’s not in everyone’s red repertoire, but I am a big fan of this red wine. I find it has the perfect amount of sweetness (kind of plumy) and dryness (there are those tannins again!), but it does take some sampling to find a good one. I’ve found that even within Malbecs themselves, the flavors differ greatly from region to region.

Rose and Sparkling

These two types of wine are exactly what you think they’d be, and they frequently get overlooked.

Rose is simply pink wine, also referred to as Blush. It’s significantly closer to white wine than red in taste, and I find that it’s the perfect drink for a summer evening. I’ve never had a rose that I didn’t enjoy.

Similarly, sparkling wines are carbonated wines that most often derive from white or rose. They range from sweet or “doux” to drier “brut” varieties. Of course, the most popular form of sparkling wine is Champagne. Personally, I think it’s impossible to have bad champagne, and it’s always fun to celebrate with something that pops when you open the bottle. My cheapey favorite? Andre Blush for a whole $3 a bottle. I really know how to class it up, don’t I?

Obviously this isn’t an extensive list of every wine ever created, but it’s enough to help you fake your way through a wine menu with ease. So, now that you have a preliminary guide, how will you know what you like? Experiment, of course!

I’m partial to places like BevMo and Trader Joes that have really helpful staffs. They often have great recommendations, and now that you have a basic wine vocabulary, you’ll be able to articulate what you’re looking for a whole lot easier.

Pro Tip: BevMo is especially concerned about your drinking satisfaction and will let you return an opened bottle. Sounds crazy, right? No joke, one friendly BevMo employee happily reminded my friend this weekend that she could exchange her bottle for something else should it not be to her taste. I don’t think there’s a better deal out there than that!

Now, what are you waiting for? Grab a friend (and a corkscrew) and start drinking! The world of wine is yours for the tasting.

Photo by Meaghan Morrison

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