If your New Year’s Resolution is to be a little bit less afraid of wine, this post is for you. You should also keep reading if you are stuck in a rut, afraid of leaving your cozy oenophilic comfort zone. Do you always find yourself asking for a glass of California Cab (or Zinfandel, or Pinot Grigio - insert your default choice here)? There is an amazing world out there waiting to be explored!
A big part of the fun is getting to know the grape personalities. Spicy, brooding, animalistic Syrah; juicy, fun Grenache; flowery, sensual Viognier… I am personally very fond of Pinot Noir, - the fickle, elegant grape with fantastic food affinity and beguiling aromatics, which comes to the pinnacle of its expression in Burgundy, France.
Just like with learning a new language, there are some basics that you need to get out of the way first, such as the framework for explaining what you like or do not like about a certain wine. Even more importantly for foodies, you will need it to understand and describe the relationship between food and wine. Let’s take a look at a couple of those concepts.
I think of acidity as a flavor sparkplug. Ever thought about why you put lime and lemon juice on your food and even in your beer? It is the so-called “strategic” use of acidity: it makes food taste better, more focused. That is precisely why restauranteurs love crisp, clean, acidic wines. Acidity in wine helps to stimulate your appetite by setting your digestion into motion and it also helps to break down the fattiness in the food you eat (the same way we use the acidity in vinegar or citrus to marinate different foods). It creates a magic chain reaction of wanting a little more food, then a little more wine, then a little more food… you get the idea. It is useful to remember that higher acidity is typically found in wines that come from a cooler climate, as grapes do not get physiologically mature as quickly and do not get as ripe as in the warmer parts of the world.
New World vs. Old World
The term "New World" wine is used, quite literally, to describe wines from New World wine producing countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, etc. If we look at the statistics of what people are drinking in this country, we will see that sales of reds are dominated by bigger, fruit-forward wines that taste of sweet oak and ripe fruit. Whites include plush Chardonnays and other wines that tend to have a touch of sweetness to them. In general, the New World is dominated by international varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.).
Old-World wine-making has a different philosophy: it is about subtle, earthy, mineral flavors that make one focus more on the place where the wine was made, and less on the grape. Terroir is a word that gets thrown around a lot (and also happens to be the name of my favorite wine bar in NYC :-)); it is used to describe the unmistakable sense of “placeness”, unique soil composition, climate, etc. of the wine’s birthplace.
There are definitely proponents of both styles out there as demonstrated by global wine sales. Neither one is necessarily more valid than the other; it is a matter of individual taste. I personally have a preference for European wines for several reasons. First, because I like my wines “lean and mean” (as opposed to the “friendly”, easy-to-quaff wines of the New World). Second, because I find a great deal more values in the $12-20 price range among European wines (which is what I typically spend on a bottle of wine, and I always look for more flavor bang for my buck). And last but not least, because oaky, alcoholic, and fruity New World wines are on average less food-friendly and versatile; it is hard for them to stand up to the more zingy, complex flavors I enjoy so much. On the other hand, I find that earthy, highly acidic Old-World wines set me up for a high pleasure payoff with a wider variety of foods.
Depending on your personality, feel free to dive in and enjoy the wild ride, or build a solid wine foundation step by step:
- You should consider taking a class at the Capital Wine School.Too few people know that they have the expertise of Master of Wine Jay Youmans right here in DC (Master Sommelier and Master of Wine are the two highest and most recognized certifications in the world. The "Wine Basics" and the "Essential Wine Tasting Skills" classes are perfect if you are looking for "the big picture" perspective. Jay's classes are fun, informal, and unpretentious.
- Most quality restaurants understand that the dining experience is incomplete without wine, and work hard to create food & wine pairing “magic moments”. Part of that process is putting together an exciting but reasonably priced wine list and training the staff to be able to pass the excitement on to the consumer. Cork, Grapeseed, and Dino are just a few of my local favorites that boast nice by-the-glass programs (and offer other formats such as flights, 3oz pours, wine madness) that make it easy for anyone to try something new without taking out a second mortgage.
- For “do-it-yourselfers”, I recommend two of my favorite wine books written by women who are incredibly passionate about wine and equally passionate about sharing their wine knowledge. “Wine Bible” by Karen McNeal is a collection of compelling stories about grapes, winemakers, and terroirs. “Great Tastes Made Simple” by Andrea Immer contains practical advice on how to get started with food & wine tastings at home. Both were extremely inspirational for me, as I was getting started in the wine world, and I had the privilege of meeting both of them in person at Saveur Magazine events. (Actually, one of the biggest inspirations was Andrea Immer’s son Lucas who asked his Mom for smoked duck for his 8th birthday :-)).
My last piece of advice to you: whatever mode of exploration you end up choosing, remember not to take wine too seriously. Cheers!