The Art of Appreciating Good Wine
Vintage advice on making it part of a healthy diet
Like a glass of wine with dinner? You're in luck, healthwise: Wine has been linked to lower blood pressure and higher HDL ("good") cholesterol, less decline in brain function, better insulin sensitivity, and a reduced risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. While the research is still new (and mostly from studies on mice), it's promising. Of course, if you don't already drink wine, most experts say there's no reason to start just for presumed health benefits.
Wine's advantages depend on how much you drink. Go overboard and you negate any benefits. Generally speaking, men should drink no more than two glasses a day while women should stick with one. A 5-ounce glass has about 120 calories, almost all from alcohol (not carbs), which are generally stored as fat. It's also important to note that any type of alcoholic drink can lower blood glucose and may interact with diabetes medications.
Once you've taken all of that into account, you come to the next question: How do I pick a good wine? We tapped four wine experts to find out.
Types And Varietals
There are five main styles of wine: red, white, rosé, sparkling, and dessert. Each is made from grapes and fermented with yeast in either a steel tank or, for higher-priced wines, an oak barrel. What really sets each apart is how it is produced.
Red wine grapes are fermented with their skins, seeds, and pulp to create a wine high in tannins, which create the drying sensation that you can feel on the roof of your mouth as you drink. Winemakers increase or decrease the amount of tannins during fermentation or when choosing which grapes to use. Pinot noir grapes, for instance, produce a soft wine low in tannins and lighter in color. Petite sirah (also called petite syrah) grapes, on the other hand, produce a dark wine with plenty of tannins.
Unlike red wine, white wine is produced by separating the grape juice from the seeds, skins, and pulp. With those absent, white wine doesn't have tannins or the characteristic bitterness of red. Because of how they're fermented, white wine grapes produce fruity, floral, herbal, or spicy wines with a higher acidity than found in reds.
Somewhere in between reds and whites are blush, or rosé, wines. The most famous—or, more accurately, infamous—of all is the white zinfandel. The light pink wine is sweet and rather simple. But other blush wines are dry and range in color from soft pink to ruby. Rosés are made from red grapes, though the wine doesn't spend much time in contact with the skin.
Sparkling wines like champagne start with grapes that have a lower sugar level, which creates a wine with plenty of acidity and fresh flavors. Once the grapes are pressed and have been fermented, the winemaker adds sugar and yeast until the liquid bubbles. (Despite the added sugar, sparkling wines aren't any higher in sugar than other wines. That's because the sugar is consumed by the yeast as the wine is fermented.) It's bottled and stored for a second fermentation, which is when the trapped carbonation forms the wine's distinctive bubbles.
And then there are dessert wines. Grapes used to make dessert wines are picked late in the season, which results in concentrated sugars and acidity. (Other methods produce sweet wines as well, such as freezing the grapes before processing.) The resulting wine is sugary—even sweeter than grape juice—and usually drunk with, instead of, or after dessert.
Wine is made from either red or white grapes, but anyone who has ever tasted wine knows that flavor varies widely depending on the grapes used. Chardonnay and Riesling are both white grapes, but chardonnay grapes produce a rich, buttery wine while Riesling grapes make for a light, fruity one. Since American vineyards name their wines after the grape variety (in Europe, a wine is named for the growing region, like France's Bordeaux, which is a mix of red grapes), knowing their characteristics can help you buy a wine you'll love.
- Chardonnay: Known as the king of whites, chardonnay is the most full-bodied white wine. It is described as being buttery and creamy, with hints of apple and pear. When chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, the flavor imparted to the wine is described as oaky. "It's a wine that gets enhanced by aging in barrels," says Phillip Titus, a winemaker with Chappellet Winery and partner in Titus Vineyards, both in St. Helena, Calif. Because of its rich flavors, chardonnay can stand up to heavier foods, like pasta or chicken in a cream-based sauce or seafood laced with a bit of butter.
- Gewürztraminer: The gewürztraminer grape is prevalent in the Alsace region of France and in Germany, though it's becoming more common stateside. The grape produces a wine with flavors of lychee, spices, peaches, and apricot, and it can be either sweet or very dry. The crispness and acidity of gewürztraminer pairs well with spicy foods.
- Pinot Grigio: Because pinot grigio grapes are less ripe than others when they're picked, the wine is highly acidic, light, and crisp. You'll taste muted floral notes and citrus. Pair the wine with chicken, pork, seafood, and pasta dishes.
- Riesling: Most common for producing wines in Germany and the Alsace region of France, Riesling grapes result in a wine with a lot of acidity. Depending on how it's made, the wine can be either dry or sweet. Floral, citrus, peach, apricot, and pear flavors and aromas characterize Rieslings and result in a light, crisp taste. Because it's so light, Riesling pairs well with shrimp and crab. Sweeter Rieslings balance spicy foods well.
- Sauvignon Blanc: This wine is often produced in the Loire Valley of France as well as California. But one of the largest producers of sauvignon blanc is New Zealand. The grapes make for a light, crisp, and acidic wine that's usually dry. The flavor has hints of grass, hay, citrus, and grapefruit. Sauvignon blanc goes well with fish, oysters, and light foods.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Just as chardonnay is king of white wine, cabernet sauvignon is king of the reds. It's the top wine created in California, though it's produced around the world. The wine is known for its bold flavor, full body, dark color, and strong tannins. Most cabernets are aged in oak barrels, introducing a toasty or oaky flavor to a wine already heavy with notes of blueberries, currants, raspberries, and spice. Because the wine is so heavy, it pairs nicely with steak and even chocolate.
- Merlot: Consider merlot a lighter version of cabernet sauvignon. While the latter is full in body, merlot is a mellower, medium-bodied wine. It is herbaceous with flavors of blackberry, chocolate, vanilla, currant, and plum, and it's good with meat, especially barbecue.
- Pinot Noir: Originally a product of grapes from the Burgundy region of France, pinot noir is a light- to medium-bodied American favorite that pairs well with pretty much anything. Because the pinot noir grapes only grow in cool climates and because it's a difficult grape to manage, good bottles are on the expensive side. Still, it is a popular pick for white wine drinkers just learning to like reds. Raspberry, cherry, currant, and hints of spice round out the flavor, which is perfect for salmon, lamb, chicken, pork, and ham.
- Syrah: This medium- to full-bodied wine originates in France's Rhone Valley, but it's a major product of California and Australia (where it's called Shiraz). Syrah is dark and complex with flavors of black cherry, pepper, spice, blackberry, and cinnamon. Spicy and heavier meals—think barbecue chicken, steak, or lamb—pair well with this wine.
- Zinfandel: Don't be confused between zinfandel and the pink wine called white zinfandel. While the blush version tastes sweet and fruity, zinfandel is deep red with a spicy flavor punctuated by black cherry, raspberry, plum, and jam-like flavors. The wine goes well with red meat, pasta, and even pizza. Plus, it's usually inexpensive.
Store a bottle on its side so the wine comes in contact with the cork. Skip this step and the cork could shrink over time, spoiling the wine.
Buying Great Wine
Sure, you could head to your local wine shop and randomly grab any bottle in your price range. You could also ask for a basic red or white when dining out. But part of the fun of wine drinking is finding the best bottle to suit your taste.
The first step: Learn what you like. If you can't get to a winery or a wine-tasting class, trying new wines by ordering them at a restaurant is a good way to taste test without committing to a full bottle. If the restaurant has an open bottle of a wine you'd like to try, ask for a taste. According to Virginia Philip, master sommelier and wine director at The Breakers Palm Beach, the server usually won't have a problem letting you sample before you order a glass.
Or you could shop at a wine store, where experts can guide you in choosing among hundreds of bottles. "People should be more willing to ask for help," says Alexis Kahn, director of beverage education at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. "Everyone who works at the wine shop or the restaurant is waiting for people to ask a question. That's what they're there for." If you know a little wine lingo, you can better express what you like in a wine: Do you enjoy light, crisp whites like pinot grigio or rich, oaky chardonnays? Do you prefer fruity flavors or smoky, berry ones?
And trust yourself. There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to which wines you like. "Sometimes people feel unsure about their tastes, that initially they could make some faux pas when talking about wine," says Titus. "I've rarely met someone who does not have a good palate. They seem to be able to describe what they like and don't like."
Once you've experimented a bit, you'll start to understand which wines you prefer. "When you're first learning, the idea is to find out what your palate likes and doesn't like," says Philip. "[You might say,] 'Oh, I really love that Shiraz. Oh, it was from Australia?' Then try other Australian wines."
Remember: Your palate will probably change over time. "You may start out drinking Riesling and only drink Riesling. And then you'll say, 'You know what? I'm tired of Riesling,' " says Titus. "Follow what you like and experiment. It helps to have some place to buy wine where you have a retailer who can give advice that you agree with."
When it comes to cost, don't assume you have to pay big bucks for good wine. "We're seeing more and more good-value wines coming into retail and restaurant settings," says Kahn. Expensive wines indicate limited production or a vineyard's meticulous work during production, she says. "There are many, many delicious wines that are under $20."
Storing It Right
Wine is a temperamental drink, so that's why proper storage is important. Store your bottle in a cool, dark place without motion (so skip the top of the fridge, which slightly vibrates). A basement is an ideal storage space, but if you don't have one, pick a room with a consistent temperature between 58 and 66 degrees.
If you're going to drink your wine shortly after buying, there's no need to store it someplace special. Reds can be left on the counter for a week before you drink them. As for whites: "If you're going to drink it within the first week, in the refrigerator is OK—even for a month," says Philip. But don't expect an open bottle to last long. "Once opened, the main enemy of the wine is oxygen," says Kahn. To prolong the life of a wine, you can use a vacuum wine pump, which removes the oxygen from the bottle.
Even if you store open wine bottles (both reds and whites) in your refrigerator, they'll last a matter of one to five days—though the latter is pushing it. Sparkling wine or champagne lasts a short amount of time before it's flat. You'll know a wine has gone bad when its flavor tastes "off," it has lost flavor, or it smells like vinegar.
|Did You Know?
True champagne is produced in the Champagne region of France. Wines from other areas that are produced in the same fashion must be called "sparkling wine."
Yes, there are rules for pouring a glass of wine. But they're easy to follow and ensure a better-tasting sip. Sparkling wine should be served cold, straight from the fridge to get the crisp, bubbly taste and texture it's known for. Most people serve white wine chilled, too. But to really taste its complex flavors and aromas, let it sit first. "Your refrigerator is at a much cooler temperature than traditional storage," says Philip. "Temperature can mask flavor. Fifteen minutes before [I want to drink it], I'll pull it out."
Serving reds is trickier and depends on your personal preference. Kahn likes hers on the cooler side—as if it came from a wine cellar—but many people enjoy it at room temperature. Try it each way and decide which yields a wine you most enjoy.
As for those fancy decanters you see filled with red wine? They're optional. "Many wines can benefit from decanting, but it's a personal preference," says Kahn. "Decanting is a very fast way to introduce more oxygen into the wine." Most of the time, aged or full-bodied red wines need to be decanted, but decanting a light red won't do any harm. Another way to introduce oxygen to the wine and improve the flavor: Run the wine through an aerator, a small, relatively inexpensive device available at most wine shops.
Understanding which foods taste best with your wine (and vice versa) may sound complicated. And, yes, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration: whether you're eating meat or fish, how creamy a sauce is, how salty your meal is, and whether your meal is light or spicy.
The experts have a few tips for newbies. First: "The general rule for pairing wine and food is to keep the wine and food in the same weight class," says Kahn. That doesn't always mean you should pair reds with red meat and whites with fish, as conventional wisdom says. (Kahn says the reason red meat works so well with red wine is that the meat's fat blocks taste receptors for tannins. The result: The steak seems less fatty and your wine feels less tannic.) Instead, look at the meal as a whole, including its preparation. "If you're pairing chicken with a heavy Alfredo sauce, it's different than chicken piccata," says Philip. "You need to look at the sauce. When you change the sauce, you change the wine. If I say, 'We're having chicken Parmesan,' you're thinking red."
It may be counterintuitive, but wines and foods with the same flavors pair nicely together. Acidic wine and food, Kahn says, downplay each other's tartness in the same way sweet and fruity wines and foods cancel out overly sweet flavors. "Sparkling wines are really the best to pair with foods because they have the fruity character but they also have the acidity that goes well," says Keith Hock, head winemaker at Schramsberg Vineyards, a Calistoga, Calif., winery that focuses on sparkling wines.
Spicy foods are balanced by light, sweet wines. "If you're eating Asian food or foods with a lot of Asian spice, wines like Riesling or gewürztraminer go great with that," says Philip. But, she says, you don't necessarily have to stick with whites. Some dishes, like Peking duck, go well with reds, like a Côtes du Rhône.
"Everyone's palates are so different, so what I consider a great pairing, you might not like at all," says Kahn. "There's no reason to get stressed about food and wine pairing. If they're that bad, eat first, then drink, or vice versa." And if you're really at a loss, wing it. "If I'm at home and I brought something to eat at home and I only have one type of white wine in my fridge, I'll just drink it," Philip says.
It may be intimidating—after all, wine lingo can sound like a foreign language at first—but understanding the ins and outs of wine drinking will come to you, in time. By talking with experts and trying new wines, you can easily learn what you like. And the best part? There's no wrong answer.