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The Big Six Wine Grapes
Where do you look to start learning about wine? The label. Given that it contains everything you need to know to confidently choose a bottle, I think it is some of the most important real estate in the entire wine world. In this chapter, I'll show you how to navigate it easily.
What you find on the label of most quality wine sold in this country is the name of the grape variety used to make it. Wines labeled with the grape are called "varietal wines." They are most common in the United States and in Southern Hemisphere wine countries (such as Australia and Chile). You have seen many of the popular ones Chardonnay, Merlot, and so on so it is a familiar place to begin our tasting lessons.
The "Power Elite" of the Wine WorldThe Big Six Wine Grapes
There are hundreds of wine grapes, but we're going to focus on just a handful of them, the white and red grape types that I call the Big Six. The white grapes are Riesling (Rees-ling, not Rise-ling), Sauvignon Blanc (Sow-veen-yone blahnc), and Chardonnay (Shahr-duh-nay). The reds are Pinot Noir (Pee-no nwahr), the partner grapes Merlot (Murr-low or Mare-low, your choice) and Cabernet Sauvignon (Cab-uhr-nay Sow-veen-yone), and Syrah (aka Shiraz).
What's so big about the Big Six? They are the guts, literally, of about 80 percent of the quality wine sold in this country. Learn what these wines taste like in just one easy tasting lesson, and you will have mastered most of your wine world. The Big Six are everywhere, from Napa to Nuriootpa (an Australian wine region), because they can be grown successfully in almost every winemaking country in the world. They are good consistently good. And often great. And they offer something for everyone in terms of style.
In short, these grapes are to wine drinkers what "please" and "thank you" are to a toddler's vocabulary. The sooner you get them down, the better off you will be for the rest of your wine-buying and -drinking life.
What If the Grape Name Is Not on the Label?
The Big Six have you covered there, too. One of the biggest things about the Big Six is that they really get around, turning up all over the world in some of the greatest, most famous nonvarietal wines. There are two main categories of these:
Regional wines These are named not for the grapes used to make them but for the region where the grapes are grown. These regional, or appellation, wines are most common in traditional European wine countries France, Italy, and Spain. The idea is that regional factors like climate and soil are what make each wine's style distinctive. Once you taste them, it is easy to see the logic, which applies to other products as well: Dijon mustard (named for its hometown in France), the famously sweet Maui onions from Hawaii, and the famous cheese from the French region of Roquefort, to name a few.
Brand-name wines These are simply made-up names or trademarked names, and they range from the most basic of wines to the very top of the quality chain. Most people have heard of at least a few of them Manischewitz, Mateus, Blue Nun, Opus One, and Sassicaia are some examples.
Now look at the most famous of these categories, the regional wines Champagne, Bordeaux, Chablis, and Burgundy and the top brand-name wines Opus One and Sassicaia, for example. All are based on the Big Six. Once you know the grape identity behind the famous names, you'll have no problem deciding which to buy, because you will know the wine's style based on your Big Six tasting.
Screw-Cap "Chablis" and Jug "Burgundy"
These may sound like famous regional wines, but they're not. They are from the category of wines known as generics. Generic wines are usually jug or bulk wines packaged and sold under a classic European wine name, such as Rhine (from Germany) or Chablis and Burgundy (from France). Generics aren't made in the named region, but they do trade on the region's fame, making this category confusing for consumers. Many large American wineries use generic wine names. It's a sore point with European wineries, which are not allowed to use generic names in order to protect the quality image of the real wines from those famous European regions.
Tasting the Big Six
Tasting the Big Six grapes has two purposes. First, you get to know what the wines made from these important grapes taste like. When you taste the Big Six grapes side by side, you will see they are quite distinctive from one another, just as a pear tastes different from an apple. While it is true that a varietal wine will vary from one region and winery to the next wine would be quite boring otherwise the signature character of the varietal is still there, in the same way that chicken is recognizable whether it's the Kiev, chow mein, or barbecue version.
Second, you get to experience body, whether light, medium, or full. Body is the first, and most important, term in the Wine Buyer's Toolbox and it's interesting that this crucial wine-tasting term has nothing at all to do with taste. "Body" is a textural sensation, the feeling of weight, richness, and thickness in the mouth. As I tell the waiters I teach, this is one of the most important points about wine. In fact, I require new hires to understand body before their very first wine class on their very first day of training. And to help them grasp the concept, I use something my mentor Kevin Zraly taught me milk. That's right, milk. You should do this comparison, too, because it is the perfect way to learn the meaning of body.
Skim milk Watery, runny, feels kind of skimpy on your tongue and the taste goes away fast is light-bodied.
Whole milk thicker, richer, coats your mouth a bit, and the flavor lingers longer is medium-bodied.
Heavy cream dense, thick, really clings to the inside of your mouth, and the flavor hangs on is full-bodied.
The difference in body is obvious both in the taste and to the eye you can see how the texture thickens and the color deepens, and that the fuller-bodied liquid clings longer to the side of the glass.
I ask every consumer and waiter I teach to learn about wine and to talk about wine in terms of body, whether light, medium, or full. It's very easy to understand, because it's one of the few wine terms that has the same meaning to every taster. People quickly grasp differences in body, weight, and intensity in reference to wine, because they have experience in those differences. For example, they know that sole is lighter than salmon, although both are fish, silk is lighter than wool, and prime rib is fuller than chicken breast.
Also, I have found that body is a very comfortable realm for most people when it comes to talking about wine. Other descriptive terms are subjective and open to interpretation. I may think a certain Chardonnay tastes like an apple, but you may think it tastes like a pear, or just "white wine." If I describe a Cabernet Sauvignon as tasting like blackcurrants, I am likely to confuse 99 percent of my fellow tasters because so few Americans actually know what blackcurrants taste like.
How does body factor in to your Big Six tasting? Throughout the retail stores, hotels, and restaurants I consult to, and on my Web site's food-and-wine-paring database, I work with thousands of different wines. But for me, this simple chart is the bottom line when it comes to teaching waiters and retailers. You will want to refer to it when you are tasting the Big Six:
Body Style White Red
light Riesling Pinot Noir medium Sauvignon Blanc Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon full Chardonnay Syrah/Shiraz
That's all there is to it. It takes, at most, five minutes for me to teach a new waiter or bartender what he or she needs to know about wine in order to sell it: the Big Six grapes, their body style, and how to pronounce the names. As far as I'm concerned, that's enough wine knowledge to handle most wining and dining situations.