Wine 101: Pick a kind, any kind

Published 9:38 pm Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wine has been a favored drink since 6000 B.C., but it intimidates many people who don’t know where to start when selecting one.

“There are so many things to learn about wine,” said Brenda Gillihan, owner of Bon Vivant. “How to open a bottle, how or why you would decant a wine, why you swirl and sniff wine. The list just goes on.”

With thousands of years of history, it is no wonder it is a complex subject. Many people walk into a wine aisle and don’t even know where to start. For women, it’s like shopping for tires. For men, it might be like shopping for shoes. With so many to choose from, how do you find the one you want?

Email newsletter signup

“The best thing you can do is go to a tasting,” said Gillihan who hosts tastings and wine classes at Bon Vivant. “We can help people put words to their likes and dislikes and point them in the right direction.”

For first-time wine tasters, Gillihan recommends a Riesling – a popular white wine that originated from Germany.

“It’s a well-balanced wine,” she said. “A pleasant surprise for some people is that they’re not all sweet. Some can be a little dry, too.”

The dryness or sweetness of a wine is due to the residual sugars in the wine after fermentation. A dry wine has smaller amount of residual sugars, whereas a sweet wine has more. A dry wine can taste sweet, however, if it contains the taste of ripe fruit.

A popular white wine for beginners that is characterized as being fruity but dry is the Pinot Grigio, also known as Pinot Gris.

If you’re looking for something with a little more body, however, Chardonnay is the next rung on the ladder. The wine varies from fruity if it is unoaked to buttery and creamy if it is oaked.

Oaking is a process conducted during the fermentation of the process when oak — whether in the form of free-floating chips inside the barrel of wine or oak wine barrels in which the wine is stored — is introduced to the wine. Chocolate, vanilla and coffee flavors are also popular flavors to introduce to a wine through oaking.

If you are looking to move to a red wine but are worried about the strength of the flavor a Dornfelder or Sangue di Juida are non-conventional options.

“I always try to keep a Dornfelder on the shelf,” Gillihan said. “It’s fruity with a nice soft finish – a good crowd pleaser.”

If you want a little more body to your red wine the next step would be a pinot noir, followed by a merlot, which tends to be a bit juicier, and finally a cabernet sauvignon, which has the reputation of being a full-bodied, dry red.

Anyone could spend a small fortune testing dozens of bottles but don’t judge a bottle by it’s price.

“Price doesn’t guarantee you’ll like it,” Gillihan said. “You can have a $10 bottle that tastes like a $20 bottle or vice versa. Ultimately, if it’s not to your taste then it’s not a good value.”

Asking questions and offering descriptors to vendors and learning what gives a wine it’s flavors can educate you to pick a bottle to suit your tastes.