Tasting Characteristics of White Wines
Dry, Neutral The term dry is simply the opposite or absence of sweetness. Some white wines are extremely refreshing when youre very thirsty. The fact that they are neutral means that they do not exhibit any particular strong quality. The Italians tend to stay away from aromatic, strong flavored white wines. Most Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanco, Verdicchio, Soave, and even Chardonnay (if it is unoaked) from Italy will have this characteristic. The French use a grape variety called Muscadet. They call it Melon de Bourgogne. All of these are an excellent complement to shellfish.
Tangy, Zesty Wines of this style are typically described as sharp or green. This is due to the higher level of acidity that is only partially balanced out by sweetness. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is the pinnacle of this style. Rieslings, when young, can exhibit this quality. Age tends to cause them to mellow out a bit. The Loirre Valley in France produces a zesty Chenin Blanc in Vouvray and Savennieres. These wines are mouthwatering and intense enough that most people either love them or hate them.
Perfumy, Aromatic While this may not seem that a tasting characteristic, it really is. Aroma plays a huge picture in tasting wine. The best example of this is made from the Gewurztraminer (geh-VAIRTZ-trah-mee-ner) grape. They have very exotic floral, fruity and spicy aromas. The Germans create the most aromatic and intense versions and the Italians try to tone theirs down somewhat. Because of the lack of subtlety, stick with strong tasting, spice foods with these wines. The Viognier grape is also known for its apricot and floral aroma.
Toasty, Butterscotch These flavors are typically a result of fermenting and or aging the wine in oak barrels. Other associated flavors are nutty, vanilla-like, and sometimes smoky. The classic wine of this style is Chardonnay. Chardonnay is typically dry and very fruity. Try a white Burgundy (white Burgundy is made from the Chardonnay grape) for a great example. It is a rich and full bodied wine. If you are not fond of toasty, butterscotch-like flavors, try a Chardonnay from northern Italy or Frances Chablis. They tend to stay away from using oak.
Sweet, Rich For the sweet tooth out there, the classic examples are from Germany and the Sauternes district of Bordeaux. When grapes are allowed to stay on the vine for a longer than average amount of time, they will sometimes become infected by a fungus called botrytis. This fungus, sometimes called noble rot, dehydrates the grapes which in turn intensifies the sweetness of the fruit. It also produces a rich, honey-like flavor. This intense sweetness is somewhat balanced by a high degree of acidity. These wines can be very expensive and the German styles are called Trockenbeerenauslese (TRO-ken-BEER-en-OUSE-lay-seh) and Beerenauslese or TBA and BA for short. A less expensive wine gets its sweetness by letting the grapes freeze. When pressing the frozen grapes, the ice separates from the sweet, syrupy juice, leaving a concentrated sweet wine. This wine is called Ice Wine and is also produced in Canada.
Tasting Characteristics of Red Wines
Sweet and Sour The sweet and sour fruity flavors are common in Italian wines. They prefer to drink wines with their meals as opposed to by itself, so this style works well when accompanied with certain foods such as duck. Many Italian grapes produce that sour, cherry-like flavor. Some examples are, Sangiovese (san-joe-VAY-say), Barbera, Dolcetto (dohl-CHET-oh), and even Chianti (key-AHN-tee). Other places, including California, use these grapes but rarely do they produce the degree of bite that the Italians achieve.
Fruity and Juicy For those that dont prefer the mouth drying quality that tannin causes, these wines fit the bill. They are usually fairly light, with an emphasis on fruit flavor and are designed to drink young. No need to age these wines. There can be vibrant blackberry, cherry, plum or maybe black currant flavors. Zinfandel, Merlot, and Tempranillo (tem-pra-NEE-yoh) are a few of the grapes used for this style. California and even Chile produce some fine examples of light, fruity reds. France, though not quite as fruity, has Beaujolais (boh-jhoe-lay). Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape and is a good wine for those white wine drinkers who havent quite acquired the taste for reds. These wines also are good for dinner because they go well with a variety of foods.
Soft, Strawberry Mellow, strawberry or raspberry-like flavors with more noticeable tannin than the fruity wines above can be found in wines such as Pinot Noir (pee-noh nwahr) and Red Rioja (ree-OH-ha). Pinot Noir is a finicky grape so the quality varies wildly. Try a French red Burgundy (made with Pinot Noir grapes). They make some of the most silky and delicious examples. But again, cheap bottles are drastically worse than good ones. Aging also helps to achieve the mellowness and complex aromas.
Rich, Spicy Deep fruit flavors, hints of chocolate, black pepper and other spices are common in the Syrah or Shiraz grape. Australian Shiraz sets a benchmark for the style. Sometimes smoky flavors accent the Rhone Valleys Syrah in France. Often these wines have an earthy or mineral quality. These great tasting wines are better suited to cooler weather because of their rich, almost warming characteristic.
Firm, Blackcurranty For full flavored richness with the distinct taste of blackcurrant and firm tannins, Cabernet Sauvignon is the perfect choice. Aging makes a big difference in its mellowness and range of flavors. A good quality Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab for short, should exhibit a complex depth of flavors. The aroma sometimes resembles pencil shavings or cigar boxes. Because of the high tannin content, they are sometimes blended with Merlot grapes to soften it up. Even though price and quality varies, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape creates a fairly consistent tasting wine.
Now that you have an idea of some of the flavors of various wines, read about some example wine and food pairings.