Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wine 101

I'm a wine slut. I'll admit it right up front. I've never--well, practically never--met a wine I didn't like. So I've been wanting to blog about this for a while, even though I know this has absolutely nothing to do with writing. Still, it seems like such a huge topic that I'm not sure where to begin.

At the beginning, I suppose.

My interest in wine all started close to fifteen years ago when my father-in-law passed away. He was a wine connoisseur way before wine became as popular as it is today. This was a guy who bought wine futures, he knew so much about the market. I never even knew there was such a thing as wine futures until meeting him. He basically paid for most of the wine he drank by trading out either the futures or cases of wine that had appreciated in value for newer, cheaper wines.

He had a very good relationship with one of our local wine shops and actually stored his cellar with them while he was traveling. If a wine he held in his cellar appreciated too much, he wouldn't drink it. He traded it out for something less expensive. Because you know what? You don't have to spend an arm and a leg for a nice bottle of wine.

When he passed away, my dh and I bought about half of the wine in my father-in-law's cellar, even though we didn't know much about wine at the time. It's been a fun thing to have, especially for my husband. I've been happy to learn a lot about wine as a result.

I could probably write several blogs on the whole topic of wine, but I thought I'd start with some basic information. If you already know all this, sorry to bore you. It was all very confusing to me in the beginning. And if I get my facts mixed up, I apologize up front. I'm going mostly from memory and we all know how accurate that can be for a woman "of a certain age."

Merlot, Cabernet Savignon, Shiraz/Syrah, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and such, are all types of red grapes. Savignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Reisling, and Grenache, and such, are all types of white grapes.

On the other hand, Chianti, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Sauterne, and Rioja, to name a few, all refer to the region in which the wines are made.

Don't be afraid to try lesser known types of grapes. There are often great deals. Reds like Carménère, Malbec, Tempranillo, Sangiovese/Brunello, and whites like Pecorino and Muscat (sweet) are all great wines. You may just find a new favorite.

Personally, I think you should stay away from the gimicky labels. I've tried too many of them that, well, suck. But you don't need to spend more than $15/$20 for a nice bottle of wine and for every day stuff $10 oughta do it. Did you know that women are the big wine buyers in the U.S., so a lot of the labels are directed toward us? Try stuff, but don't fall for all that marketing crap. Sometimes the best wines have the most simple labels.

There is no doubt that certain types of food go with certain types of wine. Generally speaking the stronger the flavor of the food, the stronger the wine should be, simply because it needs to hold up against the power of the food flavors. But absolutely do not worry about it. You like whites, order a white even if you're having prime rib. You like reds, get a red, even if you're having shrimp or fish. You'll see for yourself what wines hold up with what foods.

Red wines, given optimal conditions, stored on their side at a cool temperature, will last for decades - we're talking fifty years. Whites, not so much. Except for Sauternes. They last for a very long time and will actually improve with age. If there's a cork you have to turn the bottle every so often to keep the cork moist.

A common misconception is that a normal screw top on wine means it's a cheap bottle. Used to be. Not anymore. Cork is expensive and believe it or not, they're beginning to discover that the safest way to store wine, in other words keep oxygen away from the wine, is with a screw top.

Box wines aren't what they used to be. Try one of the better brands and you may be pleasantly surprised. The box wines don't let oxygen at the wine, so an open box can last much longer than an open bottle.

Some other stuff I've learned through the years.

Sauternes, the sweet desert wines, are made from moldy grapes. They call it the "noble rot." One of the most famous Sauternes is called Chateau d'Yquem and is, of course, made in the Sauterne region of France. My father-in-law used to say it should only be drunk on bended knee. He also used to say in a self-deprecating way that the only difference between a wino and a wine connoisseur was about $10 a bottle.

White wines generally have a higher alcohol content than reds.

If you don't like the first taste of the red wine you ordered, let it sit a few minutes. Oxygen interacts with the wine and may help to smooth out the flavor.

Pinot Noir grapes do better in colder climates, so chances are that a Pinot from Oregon or Washington will taste better than one from California.

When they say one glass of wine a day is good for your heart, they mean red--white doesn't work the same way--and only 6 ounces. I know. Dang.

Do you like wine? Was this this useful info? Should I do a second installment of Wine 101? What's the most interesting thing you've ever learned about wine?



Michele Hauf said...

This was VERY interesting, Helen! Yes, to part 2!

I don't like wine, or really, any alcohol. Wine all takes like oak to me. But I did try a Zinfandel I liked a while ago. It was the Vampire brand (go figure). BUt usually one glass out of the bottle is enough for me, so after that it either sits in the fridge or I dump it out.

I like sweet stuff, wo what would you recommend would be the sweetest wine I could try?

Helen Brenna said...

The sweetest wines are the Sauternes. You can find reasonably priced labels and can also buy them in half bottles, a little more than two glasses, so you and the dh can have a glass and nothing goes to waste.

I tried a Moscato -- a rose -- wine a little while back that I loved. It was lightly sweet with a bit of effervescence. I think they're generally less expensive than the Sauternes. Another nice thing about this wine is it's very low alcohol.

If you like sweet with a nice tartness, try a Tokaji, which I believe is Hungarian, (white desert wine) num-nummy!

Was it a red Zinfandel that you liked? If so, that's interesting. They can be pretty heavy and rich. Pinot Noir's are a type of red that's a bit fruitier, but I'd wouldn't call it sweet like the desert wines.

Helen Brenna said...

Oh, and Sangria, Michele - wine punch. Red or white wine mixed with fruit and sweeteners with ice. You might like that!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Vampire Zin, Michele? Funny! Would red have been just too obvious?

I've always enjoyed wine. Way back when I belonged to a women's club that did a wine tasting party every year, which was fun.

The best wine tasting I ever went to was put on at someone's home by a ND monastery that had a label on wine from a CA vineyard. (Interesting practice, that.) Anyway, the monk who was in charge of the wine business came with another monk, who was the designated driver. Fascinating dynamic between the brothers and a bit of insight into monastic life.

The driver turned out to be a potter who had started a pottery business for the monastery. He was really good. I met him at a craft show later and bought a gorgeous bowl. (I like pottery more than wine.)

Still stands out as the best wine tasting ever because I learned about wine but so much more.

You know me. It's all about the story.

Cindy Gerard said...

Love all this info Helen and I'm SOOO impressed that you not only know the different names but that you can spell them :o)
I find that I LOVE a good white wine but other than being confident in ordering a Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio - which I love - I'm lost. Most of my wine drinking is done when I'm at a conference or in NYC when I'm with my agent or my publisher. I always bow to their expertise as they all seem to know wine. BUT, having said that, I'd love to be able to go to a good restaurant and order a specific glass or bottle of wine because I KNOW what I'm asking for. I don't see that ever happening because I can't remember the names.

GunDiva said...

I never really drank wine until I went to Italy, where it was the only reasonably priced drink. So I learned to appreciate it on two levels: for taste and price. I'm still not a big fan of reds, but I appreciate them a lot more than I used to. I tend to like the lighter, sweeter wines more.

I loved this post, thanks.

Kathleen O said...

Thank you for this lesson in wine.. Some things you just don't know you want to learn and then "poof" you want to know more..
And what a nice legacy from your father in law...
"Wine Slut"... I love it..

Keri Ford said...

Helen this was fascinating! I'm making a list. I would love to drink wine, but I can never find something I like. Everything is always too heavy or too dry. I'll check out the ones you listed above.

What's up with pink (blush?) colored wines?

Cindy Gerard said...

Forgot to mention - Sangria! YES! Love, love, love a good sangria. Goes down like punch :o)

catslady said...

Oh I just love red wine and we have a glass (or two lol) with dinner every night. My favorite is a cabernet. My husband was born in France so he thinks he thinks he has an edge lol. And my family is Italian so I think I do too lol. Actually my husband's uncle has taught us a lot. He does the cork sniffing wine sipping bit and has an entire cellar. Of course he can afford to buy the top end wines and we get to enjoy some too! He worked in Spain and learned a lot about their wines. But I agree, boxed wine can be extremely good and also the screwed on lids. Viva la vino :)

Virginia C said...

Brava, Helen! A wonderful post, to which I will toast! Every Country has its own version of a short toast. Here are a few:

America: Cheers!

Austria: Prosit!

Brazil: Soede. Viva!

China: Ganbei (literally, "dry your cup")

France: Sant! (Health)

Germany: Prost! (Cheers)

Hebrew: Le'chaim! (to Life)

Italian: Per cent 'anni! (for 100 years) and Salute (Health)

Japan: Kanpei (Dry your cup)

Russian: Vashe zdorovie! (to health)

Spain: Salud! (health)

Wales: Iechyd da! (health)

I am a native Virginian. I am very proud of my state for becoming a top wine producer! It's always been a dream of mine to own a vineyard with a little inn serving wonderful food and wine. Here's to you!

gcwhiskas at aol dot com

Helen Brenna said...

Kathy - those monks make some great vino!

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is marvelous, Cindy. That's a mildly sweet wine, btw, in case the Sauternes prove to be too heavy.

Helen Brenna said...

GunDiva - I'd like to go to Italy JUST for the red wine!!

Michele Hauf said...

Oh yes, I have tried Applebee's peach sangria. I love it.

It was a red zin, Helen. For some reason it just didn't taste like wine to me, and was more interesting. Hmm...

I also have a Vampire syrah, but am afraid to try that.

Helen Brenna said...

Exactly, Kathleen!

Keri, I never used to like the rose, blush, pink wines. It seems they tend to be sweeter than most whites, except the Sauternes. But I've noticed they're gaining popularity. If you like sweeter, check them out.

Don't be afraid to go to a small wine shop and ask questions. They'll tend to know a LOT more about wine than a regular liquor store and just because they're a specialty shop doesn't mean everything is expensive. They'll have many reasonably priced bottles.

Helen Brenna said...

Sangria's great in the summertime!

Helen Brenna said...

Catslady, I can imagine the Italians and the French argue just a bit over who has the better wine!! Very cool that you have those connections.

Helen Brenna said...

Thanks Virginia! I love all those ways to say Cheer! And yes Virginia state has some wonderful vineyards. It would be fun to own a vineyard, but you know you can make wine out of just about any kind of fruit. One of these days, I'm think I'm going to give that a shot.

Anyone here made her/his own wine?

Helen Brenna said...

Michele - I think the average syrah is softer than the average Zin. Maybe not so fruity, though. Hmm. I like 'em all!

KylieBrant said...

Now I know who to come to for wine recommendations! I'm not much for wine, but have a couple kids and daughter in laws now that like to drink it. It's hard for me because I never know what to buy.

When we went to meet one set of prospective in-laws, their daughter told us they liked wine. And I sort of knew of them through *my* kids, so this didn't come from way out of left field. As a joke, we took some nice wine, but we also brought a bottle of Bitch wine (yes it's a real label!) They thought it was pretty funny and the next times we went there she had it on a little table on a tray with faux grapes. It's a conversation piece...I'm told it isn't the greatest tasting.

Terry Odell said...

The most interesting thing I learned about wine was when my brother worked for Jordan Wineries, and I found out what a bottle of Jordan cab cost when it left the vineyard, and how Florida distributors gouged the heck out of us poor consumers. (And at the time, he couldn't send me any because it was a felony to ship wine to Florida)

Helen Brenna said...

Kylie, I think I will blog next time about buying wine. What to look for, etc... I'm not an expert. Self taught, but might be useful info.

Terry, I'd be so curious to learn what the mark up is on wine. I hope the vineyards make some decent money because it seems to me they're taking an awfully big risk.

Anna Dougherty said...

I love this post! Definitely do another. Maybe one that has food pairings. I'm always confused about stuff like that. I'd love to know what to serve guests on those rare occasions that I entertain.

Wine is my drink of choice but I don't have it all that often anymore. My favorites are cabernet savignon, pinot noir and syrah. I just try different brands until I find the ones that I like- so I guess that means I'm not too discerning:) My husband did buy me an ice wine a few years back because I really wanted to try one, but I couldn't drink that all the time. Too strong for me.

I try to buy wine from each place that we are stationed and from each vacation spot. Since we are in Virginia I am looking for a couple of good wines. Any recommendations?

Christie Ridgway said...

Helen: I think we'll be talking wine around here for the near future because my next trilogy takes place around a winery! So I'm a "swirl girl" too.

Surfer Guy and I were just talking last night about a winetasting party we're going to have in March. A friend is a real expert. We're trying to decide format. May do a tasting to see how price matters, or even a real "blind" tasting (blindfold) to see if people can guess which is red, which white. Or Napa v. Sonoma.

Helen Brenna said...

Anna, that's basically the way I buy wine. I love experimenting. And if I remember correctly, the ice wines, are similar to Sauternes only they come from Germany. So, yeah, I get the heavy part. And sweet.

I remember having some local Virginia wines when I was with my husband on business some years back, but I don't remember the names of the wineries. Maybe Virginia C can help with that?

But you're in luck. Virginia has a lot of wineries and you could plan out a tasting tour! Check it out:

If you do, you'll have to fill up all in!

Helen Brenna said...

Christie, I would love to set a series of romances around a winery! So fun! Can't wait to hear about yours.

And do the blind tasting!! They're a hoot. We did one once with ports and everyone was surprised with the findings. We all picked the middle of the road one for taste.

We didn't blindfold the people, though. We covered the bottles so no one could see the labels.

Paula R said...

Hi Helen, I don't know much about wines, so thank you for the lesson. I didn't drinking wine, white, until my late 20s/early 30s, and I discovered that I like the taste of Pinot Grigio...I am don't reds that much, but I do like the taste of some Reislings.

When I started reading your blog, my mind simply went to France when you started discussing those wines. And, who says wine has nothing to do with writing? Come on...LOL!!! It is a great point of research, which will take you to many different settings, that could end up in a book...you know what I am saying...hahahaha!!! Thanks again. Have a great rest of the day.

Peace and love,
Paula R.

Helen Brenna said...

Hi Paula.

Wine and writing. I know, and I thought it best not to go there! So if I'm understanding correctly, you've put your stamp of approval on me doing research? Lol

Actually, I should do more research about the names of the wine regions. I probably listed mostly French simply because they're the most familiar to me, but there are so many more.

Next blog.

I didn't drink wine at all, until I met my husband and his dad opened up his cellar. Of course, I had no clue what I was drinking. Wish I knew then what I know now!

Betina Krahn said...

Helen, you clever thing, you! I'm a big fan of wines, too, but I never thought about blogging about it! Cool.

I love wine, too. One of my favorite memories of all time was a trip I made with my sister to Sonoma County CA and the Kendall Jackson Wineries. Actually, it was a free trip-- I won it at the I-MAX at the Minnesota Zoo! It was September and I remember stnading in the vineyards full of grapes almost ready to harvest. . . walking along the rows and touching the lovely ripe bunches of fruit. . . feeling somehow spiritual and connected to everything good and right with the world. It was such a profound feeling that I long for it again.

I want another trip to Sonoma County or Napa. . . I soooo love to taste the wines and soak up the sweet air of the vineyards.

Paula R said...

Um, how many slips would you like that stamp on? Research to your heart's content....LOL!!!

I still don't drink much wine. It is really once in a blue moon that I will actually take a very small glass since a full one makes me very loopy...Hahahahahaha!!!

Peace and love,
Paula R.

Debra Dixon said...

Helen-- I didn't arrive until late today. Wish I could blame it on the wine, but we've been slammed with the lovely results of the Kindle program.

Hubby loves wine. Poor thing often has to buy by the glass because I don't like most drinks and wine. Not my thing.

But I feel very knowledgeable now! Great info.

Virginia C said...

Hello, Ladies! Here are some fine Virginia Wines & Wineries:

Chateau Morrisette


Virginia Wineries and Vineyards


Virginia Wine Country Tours


To your health : )

Helen Brenna said...

Betina, we took a quick trip up into wine country before the RWA conference in San Fran a while back. My first time. Loved it! Want to do it again!

Helen Brenna said...

Paula, I'll take as many slips as your writing hand can handle!

Deb, we're all still excited about BelleBooks Kindle results. Keep it going!

And thanks VC!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Helen, the monks don't make the wine--at least not in ND. All they do is make a deal with the CA winery to put their label on it and sell it, which is apparently a common practice for monasteries.

Pamela Keener said...

I am a bit late to the party but here's a toast to you. Helen this was a very informative blog. I knew some but not all. I am a wino from way back. I love my glass of merlot nightly but unfortunately for my health and diet it is way more that 6 oz *wink*. Oh well it is what I love and you only live once.

I'd love to read more on the subject.
Love & Hugs,