Monday, April 18, 2011

Diversify Your Wine Tastes -- You'll be Glad You Did

If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you live in the United States. If you do, and if you are a wine drinker, there is a pretty reasonable chance that when you look at a wine list in a restaurant, you go immediately to either the Chardonnay section if you like white wines, or to the Merlot section if you like red wines.

Shame on you.

They are both nice grapes, but don't you get bored sometimes. Isn't it about time you branched out a little bit. Try something different. Experience something new.

For starters, there are about a gazillion wine varietals in the world. A gazillion is a big number, or at least for the purposes of this post, I am claiming it is. In some cases, the grapes that you see listed on a bottle, while different, are really the same grape (for example, Zinfandel and Primitivo, or Mourvedre and Monastrell). But, most of them are different and have their own unique characteristics.

Here are some examples (by no means an exhaustive list), off the top of my head, with some of their common characteristic flavors or aromas. Do you know which ones you like? Which ones have you tried?

White Wine Varietals

  • Chardonnay (green apple, citrus, melon, quince, honey) ... if it has too much butter or too much oak, you lose the real flavor
  • Sauvignon Blanc (tropical fruit, mango, peach, honeysuckle, light citrus) ... well made, it should have a very clean, refreshing taste
  • Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio (Grapefruit, bigger citrus, lichee, apricot, nectarine) ... the mass produced usually have somewhat overbearing citrus, look for the ones with subtler fruit
  • Semillon (Lemongrass, lemon, key lime pie, pear, honey, smoke, cut grass, gooseberry) ... not grown much in the US, but one of the two staples of Sauternes
  • Riesling (White flowers and light fruits, white peaches, jasmine, honeysuckle, passion fruit) ... the reputation is that Riesling is a sweet wine and some rieslings are, but the combination of its natural sweetness and its minerality make it perfect with spicy foods (Thai, etc.)
  • Gewurtzraminer (Think of the baskets of potpourri that women like to adorn powder rooms with, lavender, rose petals, mango, guava, another grape that cuts through asian spices well)
  • Viognier (often a bit effervescent and refreshing, think violets, irises, and apricot marmalade)
Red Wine Varietals
  • Cabernet Sauvignon (the king of all red grapes, often big and bold, craving flavorful meats and stinky cheeses, chewy, think dark berries, tobacco, eucalyptus)
  • Shiraz/Syrah/Sirah (very different depending on where it comes from, in Australia tendency toward jammy wines with the very best having cocoa and chocolatey notes, American wines tend more toward licorice and fennel or even leather and tar, in France they are more refined with red berries and currants)
  • Pinot Noir (Spice, red berries, red and purple flowers, difficult to produce well, a classic food wine)
  • Merlot (the grape that tried to give a bad reputation to American red wine when at its worst, at its best it is a melange of red blue and black fruits and goes with most any meats)
  • Zinfandel (the American grape, pepper, spice, dark fruit, earth tones and raisins)
  • Tempranillo (the noble grape of Spain, many characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon, but typically less tannic, dark berries earth tones and leather galore)
  • Cabernet Franc (along with Sauvignon Blanc, one of the two genetic parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, more often a blending grape, think black fruit, mint, graphite and dust)
  • Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais, refreshing, youthful, strawberry, raspberry and cherry)
  • Malbec (to the nose and palate a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, think blackberry, plum and chocolate)
  • Sangiovese (the king of Tuscany, nothing describes it better to me than rhubarb pie with a hint of tobacco)
  • Nebbiolo (the northern Italian grape, with chestnut, mocha, tobacco, tar, earth notes)
  • Grenache/Garnacha (earthy, meaty, peppery and spicy, take a sensory trip through a briar patch)
  • Petit Verdot (the Bordeaux grape rarely used as a single varietal that hits the mid-palate hard, perfect with wild game, earthy, yet bold, do not drink it young)
  • Mourvedre/Monastrell (the nose is gamey, but the fruit is much softer red, it's a versatile food wine young and a great blending grape for a winter wine in front of the fireplace)
  • Touriga Nacional (the key grape of vintage Port, very intense raisiny flavors, very tannic, give it time, give it time, give it time)
I'm sorry if I've left out your favorite grape, but like I said, this was all off the top of my head. 

In any event, whatever you do, try some diversity in your wine drinking, you'll thank me later.

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