The Basics of Enjoying Wine 101.3

(This is the third installment of a four-part question and answer series about wine. To read part II, click here.)

by Jeff Siegel*

What does it mean when someone says a wine is oaky or tastes like grapefruit? A grapes tastes like a grape, doesn’t it?

Yes and no. Keep in mind that a grape is a fruit, which means that it has many of the same chemicals that influence flavors in other fruits. Tomatoes are the same way – some can be very sweet, some can be beefy, some can be more tomato-y – yet all are tomatoes. Grapes are the foundation the winemaker builds on (and remember that chardonnay grapes are different from cabernet, which are different from sauvignon blanc), and he or she can change the flavor by how they make the wine. What kind of barrels (steel, French oak, American oak) do they age it in? How long do they age it? When do they pick the grapes? What was the weather like?

Generally, white wines taste lighter and more like citrus fruits; red wines are heavier and have flavors that include dark berries. Having said that, keep in mind that most inexpensive wine won’t taste much like the label description. Too many wineries and winemakers insist on intimidating consumers by claiming that an $8 cabernet tastes like black pepper and spice when the label should suggest wine and food parings.

Boy, you can say that again. How can I figure out what wine to serve with what food?
That’s easy. Serve what you want. If you want to drink sweet wine with prime rib, that’s your choice. I might not approve of it, but you aren’t me.

There are traditional pairings – white wines with chicken and fish, red wines with beef – but there are no wine police to arrest anyone who does it differently. One rule of thumb: the heartier the entree, the heartier the wine, which means a light red wine goes well with roasted chicken or salmon, and a dry white wine might be perfect for a pork tenderloin. The goal is for the wine to complement the taste of the meal, not to obscure it.

You just used the term dry. What does that mean?
Most red wines are dry, because they aren’t very sweet. (There’s also a chemical explanation, involving something called tannins, but that’s way too complicated.) White wines are less dry than red wines (they have less tannin), and there are many sweet white wines.

*Jeff Siegel is the wine columnist for the Star-Telegram newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, and Advocate magazines in Dallas.

(To read Part IV, please click here.)

(Photo by ralphunden of Stuttgart, Germany via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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