We’ve seen them holding court in restaurants: the proud, self-proclaimed wine connoisseurs who appear to know everything about wine and even manage to pronounce “Pouilly Fuisse” correctly (pu-EE-FWEE-say). They slowly peruse the wine list and duly impress everyone. But here’s a well-kept secret: A lot of those people know only the basics and a few buzzwords. Some basic wine knowledge will take you a long way to meeting them halfway, so here’s your chance to join the circle of chic posers. We’ll start with the most obvious element, the main grapes.
There are hundreds of varietals, but six are the most widely known. White wine grapes include Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. These grape types — most of which you’ve seen on labels — have different characteristics and flavors that will either tempt you or turn you away. Get ready for some basic wine knowledge coming your way.
Chardonnay (shar-dun-NAY) is one of the hottest white wine varietals out there. It’s grown just about everywhere in the world, and is the grape found in White Burgundy. It’s often described as oaky (an oft-used wine-geek word), meaning that during the fermentation or aging process, the oak barrels (or oak chips) add a woody characteristic to the wine that can be smelled and tasted. People also adorn Chardonnay with fluffy buzzwords: buttery, vanilla, melon and honeysuckle. These subjective flavors and aromas are what your nose smells and your tongue tastes before, during and sometimes after the wine is in your mouth. But remember: What one person tastes will rarely be what another tastes, so if you find yourself saying, “Huh? What butter?” you’re OK.
Sauvignon Blanc (SO-vin-yon BLAHNK) — or Fume (FOO-may) Blanc as it is sometimes called — yields a “lighter” wine than Chardonnay, meaning the flavor isn’t as strong. It’s often acidic, a characteristic that makes you pucker when you sip it, but the better wineries have found the balance between acidity and fruit. Buzzwords for Sauvignon Blanc: citrus, apple and — this is a good one for “snoot appeal” — herbaceous. An “herbaceous” wine reminds you of a meadow or a mouthful of fresh herbs. Some people like this and some don’t.
Cabernet Sauvignon (cab-er-NAY SO-vin-yon) reigns as the king of red wine. A primary grape in the Bordeaux region of France, “Cab” — as the wine world affectionately calls it — is produced and consumed all over the world. Full-bodied, these wines are flavorful and can have more tannin (the substance that makes your mouth feel dry and like sandpaper) than other red wines. Good, trendy throw-around words are: oak, tobacco, leather, cherry and currant.
Merlot (mur-LO) is another red grape that originates from the Bordeaux region of France. This grape produces smoother, less tannic wines that are easier to drink than its sibling Cabernet. Cabernet is often blended with Merlot to smooth out the rough edges of a young, robust Cab. Merlot continues to grow in popularity among the up-and-coming wine snobs because of its fruitiness (some of them taste like grape juice) and softness on the tongue. Buzzwords: chocolate, black cherry, coffee and plum. Merlot makers of note:
Pinot Noir (PEE-no NWA) represents the rising star in the wine world and sits on the expensive end of the spectrum. Pinot forms the foundation of Red Burgundy, the high-class wine from southeastern France, and carries an expensive reputation. The expense is not without reason. Because of its sensitivity to weather, this grape is difficult to grow and prices reflect this effort. Lighter in flavor than Merlot or Cabernet, Pinot is normally “fruit-forward,” meaning that the first thing you taste is the grapeyness of the wine and not tannin, and can vary in quality from bottle to bottle. Buzzwords: raspberry, spicy, fruity and earthy (smells like dirt).
Red Zinfandel was born in the U.S.A. (although its origins have sparked many debates). Americans have laid claim to this grape and created the best-selling wine in the States: White Zinfandel. White Zin, a blush wine made with red grapes, was created in the 1980s by M. Trinchero to use the huge quantities of red Zinfandel in the vineyards. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that red Zin became a player in the wine world. Red zinfandels can be tannic or fruity, and are great food wines, meaning they can be consumed with just about anything. Buzzwords to describe Zinfandel: peppery, blackberry, spicy and jammy.
Now that you know the first step in basic wine knowledge, the grapes, you have ammunition to go forth and wage snobbery with the pretenders. Rest assured the people at the next table will never know. And it’s always fun to give snobs a run for their money — and their limited knowledge.