Ming: On Wine
We've all been there: at a nice restaurant trying to decipher their wine list, in a liquor store trying to pick an appropriate wine to bring to a party or to complement a dish at home - and you're having trouble making the right choice.
Ming has put together the information below to help de-mystify the different varieties of wine. This should provide a short primer about which wines mix well with which foods and about what to possibly include in a starter cellar at home.
What usually differentiates Chardonnays from other white varieties is the special fermentation and aging process used in making this wine. Special oak barrels give Chardonnay wines their unique nutty, toasty, buttery, smokey, and creamy aroma and can taste like pineapples, pears, green apples and vanilla. The special aging process can deepen the color of the wine which explains the beautiful golden color of many Chardonnay’s. The most sought-after Chardonnay’s from France include Montrachet, Chablis, and Pouilly-Fuisse. I personally adore the 1997 Byron and Kistler California Chardonnay’s. I recommend serving Chardonnay’s with all seafood, poultry and even lightly seasoned pork.
The Sauvignon Blanc grape is extremely fragrant with grassy, citrus aromas. It is more spicy and acidic than that the creamier Chardonnay blend. Originating from the Bordeaux region in Southwestern France, this is the white counterpart to the rich red Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Sauvignon Blanc grapes are also grown in the Loire Valley and are often made into wines called Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. Many California producers have followed Robert Mondavi’s lead and refer to their Sauvignon Blancs as “Fume Blancs”. I recommend serving Sauvignon Blancs as an aperitif or with salads and seafood.
The Semillon grapes are blended with Sauvignon Blanc to create white Bordeaux. Semillion wines on their own have soft, mildly dry characteristics. I personally serve these with slightly spicy foods.
This is the most well-known grape from Germany, but it also thrives well in cool climates in the Eastern United States. Riesling wines can range from bone dry to intensely sweet and are characterized by a unique fruit/acid balance. Oak is rarely used in the preparation of this wine making it adaptable to many different types of food. Rieslings also tend to have lower alcohol levels than many other wines. As a result, they blend well with hot, spicy foods that often require large gulps of wine!
Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris
The famous Italian Pinots are always light and crispy with a hint of spritz and lemony, citrus flavors. Pinot Grigio grown in Alsace and America is often called Pinot Gris. Consider trying the Pinots from Oregon. They are delicious, light wines that are sometimes aged in oak making them an excellent Chardonnay substitute.
Even novice wine enthusiasts will recognize the aroma and taste of this wine from the Alsace region of France. It is inherently sweet and infused with the tastes of vanilla, tropical fruits like lychees and mangoes. This is actually one of the best food wines because of its versatility: A superb match with all sorts of East-West foods, especially the bolder flavored ones.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape is the main component of the red Bordeaux. Cabernets owe their full-bodied complexity to the dark berry fruit and the oak barrels they are made in. Infused with strong cassis and blackberry characteristics, Cabernets are often blended with other grapes to make the wine drinkable at a younger age. The French red Bordeaux wines are made with a Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot and sometimes Cabernet Franc. The Merlot serves to soften the tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon. In the United States, this Bordeaux style blend is called “meritage”. The wine must be made with at least 75% Cabernet grapes to earn the Cabernet Sauvignon label. It is often blended with Syrah grapes from Australia and Sangiovese grapes from Italy to give those wines a softer, fruitier taste. I recommend serving meats, game and cheese with a Cabernet.
This is a very approachable grape that is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but with a less tannic finish. The dry, smooth taste of Merlot has made it one the most requested wine in American restaurants and is the critical component of a fine Bordeaux. Usually a bit softer and more approachable than the cabernet. Great with game and grilled meats.
This thin-skinned, lighter colored grape has softer tannins than Cabernet. All red Burgundies are made from the Pinot Noir grape. It thrives particularly well in cooler microclimates such as Santa Barbara, Napa, Sonoma, and Oregon. Pinots may include aromas of cherry and strawberry mixed with an earthy hint of clove and cinnamon. This delicate and delicious wine does not stand up well to hot, spicy food.
This grape can vary in taste according to the Producer; Californians take pride in calling this their own. It may have rich spicy flavors or lighter, fruity flavors. Zinfandel is very adaptable to many types of food, but compliments garlicky or tomato based dishes and roasted meats especially well.
Syrah or Shiraz
The Syrah wine originates primarily from the Rhone region in France and has tremendous flavor. Cote Rotie and Hermitage wines are made in the Northern Rhone region using Syrah grapes exclusively. In Southern Rhone, the Syrah is mixed with other varietals to make Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape and Cotes-du-Rhone. The predominant characteristic of the Syrah grape is the raspberry and white pepper aroma. Australian producers frequently blend Shiraz grapes with Cabernet Sauvignon to make fabulous wines. Try fowl or duck with this grape.
Sangiovese makes up to 80% of the varietals in most Italian Chiantis. This dry wine is light to medium bodied with an earthy aroma. California wines produced with Sangiovese grapes have a bit more fruity structure. Go for pasta, pasta, and more pasta with this one!