Wine Tasting: Basic Training
An exceptional teacher answers common questions about red wine--from swirl to sip.
The ever enthusiastic--and often irreverent--Kevin Zraly, founder of New York City's Windows on the World Wine School--was the obvious choice to lead this minicourse on red wine, which focuses on the regions highlighted throughout this issue.
On September 11, Zraly lost hundreds of colleagues and friends, as well as his venue atop the World Trade Center. Today he teaches in midtown Manhattan (for information, call 845-255-1456) and donates a portion of the proceeds from the sale of his just-updated book, Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, to a relief fund for families of 9/11 victims.
What is tannin?
KZ: Tannin is a natural preservative that is found in foods like walnuts, tea and grapes. The tannins in wine derive primarily from grape skins but can also come from the oak barrels in which certain wines are aged (which is why even some white wines, which are made without grape skins, have tannins). Tannins, when balanced with fruit, leave a tactile sensation in your mouth that is felt in the middle of your tongue. As a wine gets older, its tannins mellow and become visible in the wine as sediment. Of course, tannins are just one component of a wine's structure; the best wines have a balance of tannins, fruit and acids.
Why bother smelling wine?
KZ: It's simple: Your tongue can only detect four main tastes, but your nose can identify more than 2,000 different odors. Studies have shown that women have a keener sense of smell than men, but anyone can tell whether a wine is good or bad based on its smell. Wine should smell, well, like fruit--not gym socks or vinegar or anything unpleasant. That's why the tradition of having restaurant customers take a sip of wine to determine whether it's gone bad is not necessary: It's all in the nose! The first taste of a wine is always a shock to your tastebuds.
What does it mean when a wine is said to be full-bodied or big?
KZ: A big wine generally has more alcohol, more tannins and more concentrated fruit; big wines are best drunk with food.
Is it ever okay to chill red wine?
KZ: Of course. Room temperature is probably a bit too high for most reds, and restaurants often serve their reds too warm. Don't be afraid to ask for an ice bucket to bring a wine down to a preferable temperature or, at home, to put a bottle of red in the fridge for an hour before serving it. Your personal preference is what should guide you, and, especially when you're paying restaurant prices, you should enjoy your wine just as you like it.
What's a safe red wine to bring as a gift to a dinner party?
KZ: Because foods are so subtly nuanced, cooks should avoid letting anyone randomly pick wines for them; a good match can enhance a meal, but the wrong one can destroy a day's worth of cooking. So, what is the best wine? Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Tempranillo are all versatile; they're light in style with just the right balance of fruit and acid, and they pair well with fish, meat, poultry and vegetables.