If Andy Cohen and the Real Housewives have taught us anything—and really, they haven’t—it’s that women coast to coast love their wine. Statistics back up the anecdotal evidence, showing that wine consumption continues to rise in U.S., and 55 percent of those drinking it are women.
But loving wine and understanding wine are two very distinct things.
Wine can be a deeply intimidating topic—especially if you’re enjoying a glass with self-proclaimed wine snobs. Still, if you’re go-to wine is the second-cheapest on the menu because you don’t know your pinot noirs from your pinot gris, don’t worry. Armed with an arsenal of wine terms, you can easily fake being a wine expert.
So uncork a bottle of your favorite red, white or rose and get studying.
Varietal is a fancy world for a specific wine grape. Common wine grapes include cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, pinot grigio (or pinot gris) and chardonnay. Varietal wines are those that are made exclusively, or almost exclusively, from one type of grape (e.g. Joel Gott Chardonnay). Blends, which are incredibly popular these days, usually list the types of grapes that are used to make that wine.
Use it in a sentence: I know red blends are all the rage, but I’m really a fan of varietal wines. I think you better taste the essence of the grape.
Now here’s where it can get confusing. Pretty much every wine region in the world has some sort of appellation system—regional designations of similar wine-growing and winemaking practices. In the U.S., we call them AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Some countries are more stringent in defining their appellations—France, not surprising, being the strictest. The French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée) regulates the boundaries of a growing region, what grapes can be planted, how much can be planted, how the wines are made and more. Why? To ensure consistency year in and year out. Because of these tight regulations, French wines don’t include the names of the grapes on their label the way American wines do. (Leave it to the French to make things extra challenging.)
So if you’re purchasing a French Chablis, you’re getting a chardonnay. A French Vouvray is a chenin blanc. Beaujolais is made from the gamay grape.
Use it in a sentence: American appellations lack the restrictions of the French AOC, allowing for more experimentation and exciting breakthroughs in the wine world.
Ever drink a cabernet sauvignon that made your mouth pucker? That’s the tannins. Tannins occur naturally in the grapes’ skins, seeds and stems, and are also found in the wooden barrels that age wine. Tannins aren’t a bad thing. They are more present in red wines and add bitterness, astringency and structure to a wine. They also help preserve wine for long-term aging. In fact, tannic wines are generally intended to be “cellared” until the tannins mellow. Tannic wines include cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and petit sirah.
Use it in a sentence: This young cab needs to breathe a bit to mellow out its bold tannins.
Acidity can also be described as a wine’s crispness, and is inextricably linked to wines partnership with food—wine’s with good acidity tend to better with what’s on your dinner plate. Wines that are low acid (or smooth) are often meant to be enjoyed on their own. Wines with good acidity include gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc, and gruner veltliner.
Use it in a sentence: I think the acidity in this Champagne is a good complement to the fattiness of this smoked salmon.
Wines, like people, want a good body. Of course, body in the wine world refers to its fullness or overall feel on the palate. It also links directly to its alcohol content—the higher the alcohol content, the fuller the body—oak aging and the type of grape(s). Full-bodied wines are big and bold (think petit sirah), while light-bodied wines are more delicate (think moscato), with medium-body wines falling somewhere in the middle (think chianti). Body does not equate to quality.
Use it in a sentence: This sushi will be overpowered by a full-bodied red. I think we need something with a lighter body.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our primer, when we learn useful does and don’ts of wine drinking.