Wine School! (Reds, the basics)
I'm going to provide a basic overview of the major wine varietals, how to recognize them, and what to expect from a tasting. I'll provide more in-depth coverage of the individual varietals as a follow up. I'll start with the reds.
There are six or seven major grape varietals. Three reds: pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah. Three whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Merlot is the seventh, but it gets lumped in with cabernet in the "taxonomy."
For our first tastings, I used: Mirassou 2008 Pinot Noir ($7-8); Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon ($8-9); Cline 2007 Syrah ($9-10). Fetch three glasses, pour samples side by side by side, line them up, and proceed. Remember, if this process doesn't work as well as you'd like…simply refill and start again.
We begin with Pinot Noir, the lightest red. Swirl and take a big sniff. The nose is generally soft and fragrant. You'll often smell flowers and cherries. The taste mirrors the nose—light and delicate. The finish tends to be soft, especially in comparison to the other reds. Wine folks greatly appreciate pinot because the flavors are subtle and complex. Pinot's flavors also change and intensify as you drink. After the first taste of the Mirassou, wait a minute and then take a second sip—the flavor and finish becomes almost chocolatey at the end. If you're thinking about pairing pinot (or any wine, for that matter) with food, the operative concept isn't the type of food. The style of food is more important. Light wines complement light food. A pinot would go with poultry, pork, or fish. It will also work with a number of spicy or saucy foods, as it's an incredibly flexible food wine.
On to Cabernet Sauvignon. The first thing you'll notice is the color—a much deeper, darker purple. When you take your first sniff, you'll notice a smell sort-of-but-not-quite like blackberries. If you hear people talking about "cassis" or "blackcurrant" notes, that's what they mean. The taste is also very different. The fruit and alcohol flavor is much stronger than the pinot, but the real difference emerges a few seconds after. You'll feel your mouth start to "dry out." Cabernet Sauvignon is known to be a very "tannic" wine. Tannin is a chemical naturally occuring in grape skin. The effect of the tannins is a sensation is called "astringency," which you'll also get from strong black tea. The finish of a cabernet is longer—you'll taste the dryness for quite awhile after you swallow. Cabernet is the most tannic of the "major" varietals. That tannin is useful in pairing cabernet with fatty, earthy, or heavy foods
Finally, we arrive at Syrah (also called Shiraz) —the biggest of the reds. Not the driest…the biggest. The color is blackish purple, generally. The nose is strong and fragrant, full of plums and blackberries. When you taste, you'll immediately sense the "roundness." The flavor is full of berries, plums, and black cherries. The finish is fruity and not overly dry, and often has a licorice or chocolate flavor (which is why syrah is a fantastic chocolate pairing). You'll taste tannins in this wine, too—but they're not as pronounced. Syrah is best paired with just about anything you can put over fire or anything with a rich flavor will go well with syrah's richness.
Differentiating between varietals is one of the keys to appreciating wine, pairing with food, or just finding something to fit your mood. I hope this gives you a good starting point. Until next time…class dismissed…