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The Ten-Minute Sommelier A Wine Guide

Aug 17, 2007
Of course, if your restaurant is serious about serving wine, you will want to have a wine expert on hand. This kind of expert is called a "sommelier", which is French for wine steward. However, for the restaurant that wants to just keep a few bottles on the menu, a basic working knowledge of wine will be enough to get a grip on the subject.

Wine has enjoyed an explosion in popularity recently. Medical research has confirmed that not only is wine enjoyable to the senses, but it is good for the body as well. The newly-discovered health benefits of wine have led to a resurgence in its popularity.

But, of course, wine has always been popular with the serious gourmet. Wine fanciers are a pretty sophisticated lot, and wine knowledge is so intricate and esoteric that you're almost guaranteed to find no end of things to learn about it. Get used to the idea that you will meet "wine snobs", who hold their knowledge of wine to be some kind of distinguishing mark of their high class. If you're catering to the wine elite, this article obviously won't be for you. For the rest of us common folk, here's just enough to know the basics.

Wine goes into two categories: red and white. These are also known as "mostly sweet" and "mostly dry", or tart. Some exceptions exist so that some red wines are tart and some white wines are sweet, but they are rare. The general rule of thumb for serving with dishes is that white wines go with seafood and poultry and red wines go with everything else.

In the category of white wines, we have: Chardonnay, which is the most popular, being flexible with a wide range of flavors and usually dry and full-bodied. Sauvignon, which is sharp and dry, kind of like aged cheddar with a bite and a kick. Riesling, which is usually German, having the character of being light with some dryness. Finally, there is White Zinfandel, which is mildly sweet.

The other category is red wines, with the most popular kinds being: Cabernet, which is the most popular; it has a medium to bold taste, and is sometimes sweet. Merlot, which is deep in color and flavor and very, very full-bodied. Pinot Noir, which is a gamble, since it is expensive, hard to get fermented just right, but very tasty when it's done right and hence held in wide esteem. And at last we have Red Zinfandel, which like its white cousin is also very sweet and light.

In addition to sorting wines with these breeds, there is also categories of wines designating their intended purpose. So there is the Aperitif, used for a before-meal appetizer; it is often flavored, and it includes Sherry and Madeira. Table Wine, which is served with the meal or as a stand-alone refreshment. Dessert Wine, which, as the name suggests, is very sweet and goes well with cake or cheese; these include the varieties of Port, Tokay, and also Sherry.

And finally, there are the other categories which fit alongside grape wines. Sparkling Wines are what we commonly call champagne. Of course, your chef will know about cooking wines which are meant to fry your flounder in and not for drinking, and are usually very salty or spicy. At last we have the category of "country wines", which are made from something besides grapes; country wines can and are made from everything from apples to gooseberries, and may be separated into sub-categories just like grape wines.

The flavors and characteristics of wine have their own jargon. Wine grapes, without any additives at all, can encompass a huge array of character in taste and smell. Taste is usually described in many terms. They may be: Sweet, which will mean either sweet as in sugar, or sweet as in a vanilla or apple taste. Dry here means tart or tangy, with the alcohol content showing through.

Besides dry a wine can also be described as tart, like in citrus. Fruity wines can have an under-taste ranging from raspberries to bananas - and still contain just grapes! Jammy means it has a really full-bodied fruit taste - see Merlot for a good example. Spicy can mean one of the spice tastes such as black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. Oaky means that it is subtly flavored by the oak barrels which fermented it, which is seen as a desirable feature in some wines. Last, an earthy taste is not like literal earth, but a very ripe, full taste.

Eventually as you deal in more wine, you will encounter a bad bottle. This happens in the finest establishments and vineyards, and is not to be taken personally. You usually cannot tell if a wine has gone wrong until you've opened it. The complicated business of fermenting wine leads to some mishaps involving matters of delicate chemistry.

The problems to watch for are these: Corked means the bottle's cork has gotten moldy so that the wine will smell like a mildewed cardboard box. Buttery will mean that it has a taste like butter, which is caused by some complicated yeast chemistry; however in Chardonnay some butter flavor is encouraged on purpose.

Oxidized will simply mean the wine is flat, with very little taste except for the alcohol and acid. Finally, reduced means it has an overpowering musky or burnt odor, which comes from the wine not getting enough oxygen. These are not subtle errors. When wine is too bad to drink, you will know as soon as the bottle is opened; the smell should tell you right away. All of these problems are highly uncommon.

Alcohol content is evident from the flavor: the lighter the flavor, the lower the alcohol, and the fuller the flavor, the higher the alcohol. The color, however, is determined by tannins, which are the residues left from grape skins. So red wines are allowed to have contact with the grape skins while white wines have no exposure to them. Tannins also contribute to a wine's longevity, so white wine ages faster, while red wines can be stored for much longer. 'Bouquet' is another word for aroma, and most of what applies to taste applies to aroma as well.

These are just the basics, probably most of what you need to know if your establishment keeps about five or six brands on hand for serving. If this is your set up, try to have one each of the more popular varieties. About six wines will be enough to handle most of a simple menu.
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