Monday, December 26, 2011

Learning About Wine One Grape (or so) At A Time

It was while preparing study materials for my first formal wine class that I realized the industry makes learning about wine much more difficult than it should be. Most people who are interested in wine do not care about how it is made or what type of soil makes for the best Merlot. They care about how it tastes, what they like, how to buy it and what to choose from a wine menu.
It did not take me long to notice that, even though I had made a conscious decision to take my wine knowledge to greater heights, while in class I found myself watching the clock through lecture waiting for the time when we put the books away and started tasting. While it is certainly important for someone in the trade to know about regions, climate and soil, most people just want to get down to the business of discovering their own tastes - likes and dislikes.
What I also found is that nearly every wine course, whether it be formal classroom or via the “over-the-counter” book, is organized by region, not by grape variety or type of wine. However, when a customer goes into a shop looking for wine, nine times out of ten they are asking, “where are your Malbecs” or, “can you recommend a good Malbec,” versus, “where are your wines from Mendoza?”
I am not saying it is a waste of time to learn that a Pinot Noir from California is going to taste more like red fruit and less like earth than the same grape from Burgundy. Once you find that you like Pinot Noir, this is an important distinction. If, however, you find that you just don’t care for Pinot Noir as you much prefer the fuller-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, the difference between a Pinot from Paso Robles and one from Oregon means nothing.
The characteristics of the grape itself are much more important when it comes to pairing with food as well. For example, most of us know that Chianti is present on nearly every Italian restaurant menu in the country. You may think that is because Chianti is an Italian wine. This is only partially true. Chianti is made from the grape, Sangiovese, which has a high acid level. Tomatoes, which are a staple ingredient in many Italian sauces, also have high acid level. This complement is why they work. Now, if you are stopping at the market to pick up ingredients for tonight’s spaghetti and they don’t have Chianti, or any Italian wines for that matter, what do you do? You are inclined to grab a Cabernet, because you read they are also being grown in Italy, but the match up will be a disaster. The high tannin levels of the Cab will clash with the high acid of the red sauce. If you know, however, that Pinot Noir also has a high acid level, you will be much happier with your pairing.
So get out there and start learning about wine one grape (or so) at a time. Get to know your wine merchants and, “get thee to a tasting.” Find what grape you like first, then start exploring the regions they do well in. The next step is to take note of the key words on the bottle that will tell you what is inside. If you find that you like a French style of Merlot, know the names “Pomerol” or “St. Emilion.” If you find that you don’t care for Merlot at all, don’t waste the brain space.

Photo Credits:
One grape at a time -
Girl confused -

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