Last night I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend Kate to a wine tasting at Just Grapes, a fun, upbeat wine shop in River North. The event was the shop's "Second Annual Holiday Extravaganza", and featured appetizers by Michael Taus (executive chef of super-trendy Zealous restaurant), as well as over 50 wines for tasting.
Wine is something I'm trying to learn more about, while developing a more discerning palate. When I finally taught myself to like dry white and red wine, I discovered just how much a good wine/food pairing can enhance the flavor of the food, and really the whole dining experience. [Sidenote: Zealous apparently has AMAZING five-and-seven course menus complete with wine pairings for each... something I'll have to try the next time I get a healthy raise or a rich boyfriend!] And yet, a good wine can also be tasty all on its own-- the trick is to learn which varieties of wine you like, and build out from there.
I don’t know much about wine, but what I do is derived from the following. Kate and I took a wine tasting class last spring, taught by a portly and quick-witted man named Mark Gruber. Kate took a lot better notes than I did though, so I ended up buying a book after the class was over, called Windows on The World: Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly. I'm still working my way through it, but it's been VERY helpful in teaching me the basics of wine so far. Another good book Mark Gruber recommended, which I purchased, was Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book -- it gives information about the quality of the vintages for the past several years in different wine growing regions. So for instance, if I was at a store looking at a 2003 Napa Valley Chardonnay, I could look in the Pocket Wine Book to see if 2003 was a good year for Chardonnay in Napa Valley. Pretty helpful if you don't keep up on the annual wine harvest news!
So, from these meager learnings, here are the basics of what I know about wine:
First, old wine does not necessarily mean better wine. Mark Gruber's rule of thumb was for whites, drink them as "young" as you can-- the closer the date is to the present, the better they'll be. As for reds, they often need the time to "mature" that whites don't. Reds have these things called "tannins" in them that give them a bitter, even sour taste that wine aficionados will call "full bodied", but that make many of us lower beings crinkle our noses. But while a red wine ages, its tannins break down, so after a few years you get a smoother, more complex taste than you would otherwise. So in short: Whites: Drink 'em Young. Reds: A Few Years Older Won't Hurt Ya.
Second, getting back to the first book (Windows on the World: Complete Wine Course) Kevin Zraly gives us a very helpful chart of the basics of light-to-dark bodied wines, via the major white and red grape varieties:
Whites (in order of lightest to heaviest in body and color)
Champagne / Sparkling Wine
Reds (again, in order of lightest to darkest)
Of course, with these scales comes the disclaimer that there are exceptions to every rule, considering the vast differences between different geographic wine-producing regions, between vintages year-to-year, and given the fact that many wines use a blend of different grapes rather than just one alone. That said, this scale is a pretty good indicator of how light or full bodied a wine made from each grape variety will be.
All of this knowledge in mind, Kate and I strutted into Just Grapes last night poised and ready to swirl, sniff, and swig. We hit the appetizers first (rule three: never drink on an empty stomach!), and my favorite by far was the Sweet Potato, Duck & Exotic Mushroom Risotto. Of the 25+ wines I tasted, here are the ones that came out on top:
*Henschke, Sauvingnon Blanc, Adelaide Hills, Australia (2005)
*Ferrari-Carano, Fume Blanc, Sonoma County, California, USA (2005)
*Catena, Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina (2004)
*Ottimino, Rancho Bello, Russian River Valley, California, USA (2002 Zinfandel)
*Folie a Deux, Menage a Trois, California, USA (2005)
*Guenoc, Petite Syrah, Lake County, California, USA (2003)
*Donausonne, Blaufrankisch, Hungary (2005)
*Foley, Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, California, USA (2005)
*Carlo Rossi, Cabernet Sauvignon, California, USA (just kidding. gross.)
Hope this entry has been moderately helpful to anyone who’s just about as clueless about wine as me. Well, a little less now. Hopefully.