by D. G. Stern
I have put together the following glossary to provide guidance and support for those who like to drink wine, as opposed to the wine connoisseur (oenophile). It is divided into several sections: wines, grapes and where they come from and terms used to describe the wine you taste. Sit back…sip…and have fun.
Wines and their Grapes
Beaujolais (Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais Cru) is a light, dry, fruity wine from the hilly region of Southern Burgundy (near Lyon), using the Gamay grape, which by law can only be picked by hand. Beaujolais Nouveau (the new or first picking in mid November) has become a popular wine in the United States, and its arrival marks the beginning of the holiday season. Beaujolais works well with heavy poultry (turkey and goose) as well as with red meat.
Cabernet Franc is the predecessor to its more famous “cousin” Cabernet Sauvignon. It is lighter and has less tannin, but is very full bodied and often used as a component in many of the wines of Bordeaux. Recently, the grape has been planted in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. Cabernet Franc’s lightness makes it very drinkable with red meat, pork or game.
Cabernet Sauvignon is probably the best known grape in the world. Not only is it the backbone of the great Medoc (Bordeaux/Grand Cru) wines, but it can be (and has been) grown everywhere-Napa Valley to Chile to Australia. This wonderful grape has a distinctive black currant taste and is high in tannins, which aids aging and is associated with fine dining featuring red meat. In England, a Bordeaux wine is called Claret.
Chianti is synonymous with Italy and its cuisine. There are eight Chianti zones in Tuscany each producing its own unique wine. Classico, Rufina, Brunello and Montalbano are the most recognized Chianti wines. Sangiovese is the primary grape used to make the region’s wines. Chianti is well-served with tomato-based pasta dishes and red meat.
Chardonnay grapes make the premier white wines of Burgundy. In California, where the grape was used originally in inexpensive blends such as Chablis, the wide-bodied, citrus flavor of Chardonnay has easily adapted to oak barrel aging, which gives it a buttery tone. Both still and sparkling wines are made from this grape. Chardonnay can be sipped by itself or enjoyed with chicken and fish.
Gewurztraminer is associated with the Alsace region of Germany but like many other grapes has found a home in California as well. This aromatic grape with hints of allspice and rose has a very fruity flavor and is often paired with Asian foods, pork and sausages.
Grenache is planted exclusively in Spain and is a heat-loving grape. It often stands alone, but is also used in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Grenache is very high in alcohol and is rich in spicy flavors that compliment red meat.
Malbec has become the darling of Argentinean and Chilean wine producers. In France, it is used as a blending grape because of its tannin and color, but it lacks aroma and richness. The Andean soil has given the Malbec grape a new stand alone quality. Malbec is usually served with red meat or pork.
Merlot is considered easy to drink because it is less acidic, tannic and softer than Cabernet Sauvignon. The Merlot grape is now grown worldwide and is used as an important component in many blends because of its black cherry taste. Merlot can be served with any type of food.
Pinot Noir grapes are difficult to grow, are infrequently blended with other grapes because of their subtle aromas and are generally divided into two styles: Old World (light-bodied and complex) or New World (full-bodied and fruit-driven). Usually paired with chicken, lamb or salmon, Pinot Noir is fruity and fresh.
Riesling is the classic German grape from the Rhine and Mosel districts and is somewhat sweet. Lighter than Chardonnay, Riesling smells of fresh apples, but retains an acidity which balances the fruitiness and is served with chicken, fish or pork.
Sauvignon Blanc is a major component in the dry white wines of Bordeaux, including Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre. In the last twenty years, New Zealand has begun to produce quality wine from this grape, which is both herbal and fruity and is paired with chicken, seafood or salads.
Shiraz and Syrah are both names for the same grape. The latter name is used to describe the huge and powerful grape of the Rhone Valley which is now enjoying great success in Australia as Shiraz. Paired primarily with beef and game, the taste has a hint of black pepper.
Tempranillo, together with Greneche is the primary grape used in Spain’s Rioja wines, which are high in alcohol and produce a very spicy and earthy flavor. These grapes are especially juicy and compliment both shellfish and pork.
Zinfandel is probably the most versatile and abundant grape, and is used to make wines from blush to deep reds. It is related to the Italian Primitivo but is now associated with California. Although often maligned as a pink wine, red Zins are full bodied and are excellent with tomato based pasta dishes and beef.
Terms used to describe wine
Acerbic describes a wine that is harsh or raw as a result of excessive tannins and acidity.
Acidity gives wine its crispness. Creating a proper balance of acidity is the difference between a wine that is too sharp or biting (high levels of acidity) and one that is too flat or lifeless (low levels of acidity).
Aroma is the combination of primary odors in a young wine as distinguished from Bouquet which is the odor acquired during the aging process. (Specific odors will be discussed in a section below)
Balance is the relationship between the various components of wine-acid, fruit, tannins and alcohol.
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced exclusively within the Champagne region of France and the use of the term Champagne is controlled by law. Champagne is usually served in a flute, a long stem glass with a tall, narrow bowl and thin sides
Color varies with age, varietal and time spent in a barrel. White wines vary from almost clear to gold, while reds can be magenta, purple, ruby red, eggplant or brick red. Unless you are drinking Sherry or Madeira, brown is not a good color.
Dry (sec) wines have virtually no residual sugars and are the opposite of sweet wines, whose grapes are left on the vine longer. However, in sparkling wines (Champagne) dry means sweet, extra dry means slightly sweet and brut means dry.
Legs are the tracks of liquid that cling to the side of a glass after swirling and reflect the amount of alcohol or glycerol content of the wine.
Proof refers to the alcohol content of a beverage. In the United States proof is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. Most wines are described in % of alcohol by volume (usually 12-15%) whereas liquor is described by proof (80 proof equals 40% alcohol by volume).
Reserve is a term associated with a wine of a higher quality than wines of the same/similar variety and is often produced in limited quantity.
Sommelier is French for wine steward. The job of a good sommelier is to help you find a wine you like and can afford, not to make you feel stupid.
Sparkling wines, including Champagne, contain significant levels of carbon dioxide which gives the wine effervescence (bubbles).
Split (1/4 bottle) and magnum (2 bottles) are two terms to describe bottles (smaller and larger) than the standard 750 ml bottle, which contains about four servings.
Stand alone generically defines a wine made from one type of grape.
Tannin is found in the skin, seeds and stems of grapes and the quantity of tannin gives a wine its distinctive character. Tannin can also be absorbed from oak barrels in which wine is stored. The astringency of tannin gives a dry taste to young wine, which fades over time. Tannin acts as a preservative and consequently wines with high levels of tannin improve with age.
Vintage is the year during which the grapes used to make the wine were harvested. The vintage year is listed on the label and because grapes, as with any agricultural product, are subject to climate conditions, there are “good years”, “bad years” and “great years”.
Hopefully this article will make the wine drinking, not merely wine tasting, experience, more enjoyable by making it less stressful. Drink what you like, not what someone tells you to like, unless of course, he/she is buying the wine…only kidding.
Wines and their smells (odors)
Primary or varietal aromas already exist in grapes and they give their distinctive fragrance to the wine. These are a few examples:
Cabernet Sauvignon has a green pepper fragrance.
Muscat has a wild fruit and orange fragrance.
Pinot Noir has a raspberry, black current and cherry fragrance
Sauvignon Blanc has a boxwood and even smoke fragrance.
Secondary aromas (fermentation aromas) are produced by yeast and include odors of bananas, wheat, butter and even candles (wax).
Tertiary aromas (bottle aromas) are referred to as bouquet, are a function of aging and include chocolate, truffles, mocha, honey and even musk or leather.
Wines and their Regions
Since regional wine tends to reflect regional cuisine, the best pairings are those where food and wine are from the same region, unless you don’t care, which is half of the fun. Since most American, South African, Australian and New Zealand wines find their origins in European vines, one can simply apply varietals as wanted. For example a French Syrah is comparable to an Australian Siraz and is paired accordingly…or not.
Whites: From Piemonte, Pinot Bianco, Soave, Pinot Grigio with shellfish and fish; the sparkling Prosecco from the Veneto.
Reds: Franciacorta Rosso (Cabernet Franc, Barbera, and Merlot) with meat; Amarone (Molinara, Rodinella and Corvina), Barbera, and young Nebbiolo with lamb and game.
Whites: Verdicchio, Orvieto (Trebbiano and Garbanega), Vernaccia di San Gimignano with lighter pastas, vegetables and seafood.
Reds: Sangiovese, Morellino, Rosso di Montalcino, Chiantis, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino for heavier pasta, beef and sausage Valpolicella (Corvina, Molinara, Rodinella), Barbera, Dolcetto and Ruffina for hams and cheese.
Sicily and the South:
Whites: Greco and Fiano from Campagna and Vermentino from Sardegna for salty fish, tomato dishes and garlic.
Northern and Central France:
Whites: Loire Chenins (Vouvray and Montlouis), Loire Sauvignons (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), and Champagne for fish or vegetables in light cream sauces, escargot, and oysters.
Reds: Loire Cabernet Francs (Saumur, Chinon, Bourgueil) and the Gamay wines of Beaujolais for veal, pork, and white meat birds. Bordeaux and red Burgundies for red meat and game.
Provence and Southwestern France:
Regional Rosés and Whites: Ugni Blanc from Cascogne for salty fish, tomato sauces, peppers, olive oil, and herbs
Whites: Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc, Condrieu, and Hermitage Blanc for light meats and heavy seafood.
Reds: Cahors (Malbec), Madiran (Tannat), Bandol (Mourvèdre), and Syrah-Grenache (blends from Châteauneauf du Pape, Gigondas, ,Minervois) and northern Rhône Syrahs (Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, and Hermitage) for heavy goose liver pâté and duck.
Whites: Alsace Pinot Blanc, Tokay-Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer for traditional potato/goose/sauerkraut dishes.
Whites: Mosel Rieslings, Rhine River wines, Rheinpfaltz (Pfaltz), Gewürztraminer for meat and starch, fatty and bland dishes.