Ratchet Up Your Wine Knowledge

Ratchet Up Your Wine Knowledge

Ultimately, wine is there to drink. But wine is complicated, and book learning helps sort it all out. The hardest hurdle in wine learning is geography, since wine encompasses the entire known world. This is best approached in easy chunks.

Starting at home, though every one of the United States has wineries and a number of states—New York, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Virginia, Michigan and others—have important wine industries—California is by far the most important force. Step one is to gain a broad general knowledge of the state's wine geography: north, central and south. Step two is to dig a little deeper into these regions, say, Napa, Sonoma, and Carneros in the north, or the Santa Ynez valley in the south. Each of these areas has climatic issues which determine the types of grapes that work, and those that don't (nearly every combination of dirt and grape has been attempted in California.) The student should pay some attention to labeling issues (for example, a wine labeled “Coastal” may be produced in areas so far inland that the Pacific may well be hours away, traffic permitting.)

Australian wine names are easy to pronounce, but there are so many of them that they can get a bit confusing. The best course is to try to distinguish a few of the major regions, like the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Barossa Valley in South Australia, or Margaret River in Western Australia. South Australia is one of the country's states, with many fine wine regions (Barossa for Shiraz, Eden Valley for Riesling, Coonawara for Cabernet, the Limestone Coast for Chardonnay). “Southeastern Australia” is a catch-all term for mostly bulk wine coming from a region as vast as a third of the United States.

The other southern hemisphere countries—New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Chile—cover a good deal of territory, but can fairly easily be broken down into major regions. In New Zealand, for example, Hawke's Bay is known for its Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet and Merlot, Gisborne produces quality Chardonnay, Marlborough excels at Sauvignon Blanc, and Central Otago and Martinborough are making names for themselves with their Pinot Noir.

The only way to make any sense of Italian wine is to first zero in on several areas that may be confusing, which then leaves the subject merely complicated. We will begin in the northwest, in Piemonte (Piedmont), and delve into some of the “Bar” wines. Barolo and Barbaresco are villages, each of which gives its name to a red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape. Barbera is a type of grape widely used in the same region. A Barbera d'Alba is a red wine made from Barbera grapes from the town of Alba, which happens to be right between Barolo and Barbaresco. A Barbera d'Asti is a red wine made near Asti, which also produces the popular sparkling wine called Asti, which is white. Try not to get any of these confused with Bardolino, a totally unrelated wine from the Veneto.

Another possible confusion: Brunello di Montalcino is a Tuscan wine made from the Sangiovese grape. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is another. Both wines are named after villages. But Montepulciano also happens to be the name of a grape, giving its name to wines from several other parts of Italy. Also note that the famous Tuscan wine Chianti is based on the Sangiovese grape (though Chianti itself is doctoral study).

Italian wine is so much more, but enough language for the time being. Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello are so expensive, that these three alone will exhaust most budgets; you can console yourself with the affordable Asti, and move on the France.

The easiest way to “chunk” France is to isolate the major regions that are associated with the international grape varieties known so well worldwide.

Bordeaux red wines are based on either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, with a few common blending partners like Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot.

Burgundy red wines are almost entirely Pinot Noir. Burgundy white wines are generally Chardonnay (though a Chablis, from north Burgundy, a Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet from central Burgundy and a Pouilly-Fuissé from southern Burgundy all show different manifestations of this adaptable international grape). South of Burgundy proper, Beaujolais uses the Gamay grape.

In Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes are used but elementary-level study dictates you also learn how the bubbly is produced, and how it is imitated worldwide.

The northern Rhône favors Syrah, the southern Rhône Grenache (with many other blending partners in either case). The Rhône white Viognier grape is becoming increasingly international.

In the Loire, the white grapes Chenin Blanc (in the center) and Sauvignon Blanc (eastwards) make the biggest splash. Red Loire wines favor Cabernet Franc.

The rest of France, the south, the southwest, Alsace, the Jura and Savoie are worthy of higher level study, but have less international effect. The same can be said of Spain and Portugal; don't ignore them, but study them next semester. Germany gives us the international grape Riesling, which you must know in order to claim to know anything about wine. Read about Riesling, and drink varieties from Germany, Alsace, California, Washington State, Australia and elsewhere.

The obvious next step now that you've learned the geographic and historical context of the international grapes is to learn how they differ across the world. This is when you put away your reading glasses, and dust off your wine glasses. Sauvignon Blanc may be the most enjoyable first test for this; try one from France (Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé), California, South Africa, and a few from New Zealand. A Syrah-based Rhône wine, a California Syrah, and an Australian Shiraz (same grape) from the Barossa Valley, will have similarities and differences. Comparing Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy, Oregon, and New Zealand may make for a similarly enjoyable learning experience. Of course you should compare wines from Bordeaux (and here it can get expensive) with Cabernet and Merlot offerings (especially blends) from California, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and do the same thing with oaked and unoaked Chardonnays from around the planet. The best way to pace yourself is by drinking when you've had too much to read, and of course reading when you've had too much to drink.

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Wine isn't meant to be gulped, nor is wine knowledge. Savor both.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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