“And what would you like to drink?” is a commonly heard question in restaurants. “A glass of white wine,” or “A glass of red wine,” are frequent responses, but that’s as far as it gets. What kind of white wine? What kind of red wine? There is a difference, besides color.
More and more 20-somethings are opting for wine these days, and it’s a natural progression to learn more about the characteristics and differences between wines. So stop buying the boxed wine just for the convenience and forego the $5.99 bottle of “vino” just because it’s cheap. Buy and enjoy a wine for its distinctive aroma and flavor profile instead.
White wine is a misnomer. A pure white color wine does not exist. Depending on the grape varietal, the weather conditions where the grapes were grown, and the age of the wine, differences in color between one white wine and another can range from almost clear, to dark yellow, or even golden. The whites are a great starting point for beginner wine enthusiasts because they tend to be easier on the palate.
Three white wine grape varietals planted around the world and their range of aroma and flavor profiles are:
Chardonnay. Imagine you are in a fruit orchard with the fresh smell of apples and pears in the air, or on some tropical island eating mangoes, pineapple, papaya, peaches, or other tropical fruits. Maybe you’re at the seashore inhaling a minerally scented sea breeze while you taste the lemon juice you squirted on the seafood you’re having for dinner. A Chardonnay can smell and taste like all of what you just imagined and more. Some Chardonnays can echo the taste and smell of honeysuckle, butter, butterscotch, and oak (from oak barrels used in wines that are stored in oak). Chardonnays are typically dry, meaning they lack sweetness. Wine connoisseurs, sometimes perceived as wine snobs, may describe some Chardonnays as tasting and smelling like buttered toast, hazelnuts, and even wet rocks (but you’re a newbie and not there yet).
Riesling. Now imagine you are in an open field of fragrant flowers or sipping a juicy citrus drink. Rieslings have a broad range of flavors, textures, and aromas, encompassing hints of apples, peaches, pears, and other citrus bouquets that bind to the taste buds on a first sip. Rieslings, as a rule, are lighter-bodied than a Chardonnay, meaning they’re lower in alcohol, and have a crisp, fresh flavor. Wines made from the Riesling grape are typically off-dry, meaning there is a small amount of sweetness. Rieslings can also taste extremely sweet when made into dessert wines. From mini cocktail-hour-type hors d’oeuvres to lightly seasoned poultry, to desserts, the Riesling is very versatile in food pairing.
Sauvignon Blanc. The aroma and flavor of a Sauvignon Blanc wine produced in certain parts of the world can be very distinctive. When produced in the southern hemisphere, notably New Zealand, wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape exhibit characteristics of freshly cut grass (also called “grassy”), grapefruit (rind or juice), lime, gooseberries, and herbs. Sauvignon Blanc wine that is grown in warmer climates (for example, California), exhibit more of a melon-y, ripe taste, rather than tart, citrus aromas and flavors. Naturally high in acidity, this wine has a tendency to be tangy, tart, and zesty.
Like white wines, red wine is a misnomer. A pure red color wine does not exist. Depending on the wine grape varietal, the weather conditions where the grapes were grown, and the age of the wine, differences in color between one red wine and another can range from a very light crimson color, to ruby, to purple, or to nearly black in color. Both red and white wines contain tannins, a natural organic compound that is found in grapes, skin, seeds, and stems; however, the majority of tannins are found in red wines. Tannins vary in degree – light tannins cause a slight pucker in the mouth while harsh tannins can make one pucker like a fish. In general, reds are more “robust” or “complex” than whites meaning they’re vigorous, hearty, and typically full-bodied (relatively high in alcohol, which contributes to a fuller sensation in the mouth).
Three popular red wine grape varietals planted around the world and their range of aroma and flavor profiles are:
Cabernet Sauvignon. Sometimes referred to as the “King of Red Wine” grapes, California’s climate is ideally suited to producing deep, bold, and structured wines that exhibit flavors of cassis, blackberry, cherry, cedar, mint, eucalyptus, olive, cocoa, and violets. Featured on many steak house wine lists, wine produced from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in warmer climates are characteristically full-bodied. The strong tannins of a young California Cabernet Sauvignon cuts through animal fat, and, at the same time, the fat in the meat softens the tannins, hence the popularity in steak houses. Aromas and flavors of blackberry, blueberry, red and black currants, cherry, tobacco, chocolate, licorice, lavender, mocha, cedar, and yes, even lead pencil, are among the common aromas and/or flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlot. Wanting to enjoy a red wine but not a fan of the astringent and bitter sensation you can sometimes pick up from the tannins in them? Have no fear, Merlot is here. Wines made from the Merlot grape are typically “softer” than wines made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, meaning that the tannins are not as harsh. Although sometimes similar to the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, the Merlot flavors tend to be reminiscent of cherry, blackberry, plums, and herbs. They have a reputation to be easier to drink than most other reds, so watch yourself, newbie.
Pinot Noir. A fickle and challenging grape to grow, Pinot Noir typically consists of a bowl of assorted berries in the aroma and flavor and/or can have an earthy or woodsy characteristic, hence a match for dishes with mushrooms. It is usually lighter in color and generally has less tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, don’t be fooled by Pinot Noir’s lighter color – lurking beneath is substantial flavor. Because it is one of the lightest bodied of the red wines, and because of its velvety texture, Pinot Noir goes with a wide range of foods, including beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and even fish such as tuna and salmon. Very versatile, indeed!
So, the next time your restaurant server asks, “What would you like to drink?” there’s no need to be colorblind. Be wine savvy and say what you really want to drink: “I would like a full-bodied Chardonnay with tropical fruit flavors, a light touch of oak, and some minerality,” or maybe ask for the “silky, well-balanced Cabernet Sauvignon with well-integrated tannins.”