Mastering Wine Basics
This is the first of a three-part series on mastering wine basics. Many people love wine but feel awkward ordering it at restaurants or buying it at the store. Unfortunately, wine is perceived as complicated. Relax. There’s no need to feel intimidated. Wine is all about having fun. You don’t need an oenology degree from UC Berkeley to enjoy it. But, if having a bit more knowledge gives you added confidence when ordering at restaurants, then all the better.
After reading the topics presented in this wine basics series on white wines, you will no longer feel self conscious. You will be:
- more familiar with wine terminology
- less intimidated when talking about wine
- able to ask questions that make the wine selection process easier for you
- able to identify and discuss the top international grape varieties
White Wine Basics
The top three international white grape varieties are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio. This discussion begins with the most popular white wine, Chardonnay.
When someone orders a white wine at a restaurant, it is understood by bartenders and servers that the person is asking for a Chardonnay. It’s this kind of popularity that has made Chardonnay the Queen of White Wine.
Chardonnay’s ancestral home is Burgundy, France. Burgundy is considered the benchmark for Chardonnay producers. It is common in France to refer to a grape variety by its geographic region. Since Chardonnay is from Burgundy, it is commonly referred to as white Burgundy or white Burgundian.
The French believe that “terrior” (tar-wah) meaning an area’s soil, weather and topography heavily influence a wine’s flavor profile. The famous Kemmeridgian limestone soil is a large part of what makes Burgundy wines so treasured. A white Burgundy is unlike any wine in the world because of this unique terroir. It also explains why Chardonnay from Burgundy is considered the best in the world. The two most esteemed Chardonnay regions in Burgundy are:
- Chablis – This region produces Chardonnay that is not aged in oak barrels. The famous Kemmeridgian limestone soil gives the wines a chalky, minerally taste.
- Côte de Beaune – The best Chardonnay in all of Burgundy is grown here. Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet, Pommard and Meursault are four of the eight most-prized villages. They were given the top designation of Grand Cru vineyards.
Chardonnay is easy to grow, making it popular in nearly every wine region. However, it prefers a cooler climate, where it grows especially well. The following are wine regions that are well-regarded for their Chardonnay.
- Sonoma, California – There are 17 sub-American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in this highly regarded region. The top AVAs for Chardonnay include Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros.
- Champagne, France – The Chardonnay produced here is used for making Champagne. A Blanc de Blanc Champagne uses only Chardonnay grapes. However, Chardonnay is typically produced by blending it with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, both red grapes.
- Hunter Valley, Australia – Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape variety in Australia. The Hunter Valley is located northwest of Sydney in the New South Wales province. Aussies use oak barrels and produce wines that have a fruit flavor like peaches or pears.
On the Nose
On the nose is a term used by wine professionals when sniffing a wine’s aroma or bouquet. Chardonnay is usually aged in oak barrels so it will smell like vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, toast, coconut and/or honey. Chardonnay can be produced using no oak. Instead, a winemaker can elect to age the wine in stainless steel tanks. Wines aged in this manner will typically smell like pears, apricots, pineapple or tropical fruits.
In the Glass
If you want to become better at identifying the various flavors in wine, you must be true to yourself. DO NOT claim to smell or taste a flavor just because one your friends says she smells or tastes it. When drinking a glass of Chardonnay, you can expect to taste lemon, lime, mango, banana, peach, and/or apricot. You may also taste the same flavors that were picked up on the nose, which were listed above.
Pairing wine with food can be intimidating. Just like peanut butter goes well with jelly, there are food and wine pairings that are natural together. However, when in doubt, pair foods with wines made in the same geographic region.
Chardonnay is a full-bodied wine, allowing it to hold up to food. This means it is not overpowered by the food. Chardonnay has a good amount of acidity, which helps it cut through creamy or fatty foods. The acidity cleanses the palate with each sip. Chardonnay pairs wonderfully with:
- seafood, chicken, pork
- cream sauces, vegetarian faire
- Gruyére, Parmigiano-Reggiano, brie cheeses
Hopefully, you have learned a few tidbits on Chardonnay. This newfound confidence can guide you in correctly selecting your preferred choice on a wine list between an unoaked Chablis or an oak-aged Russian River Valley Chardonnay.
Check back for part two in this white wine basics series for the next topic, Sauvignon Blanc.