Everything You Need to Know About Red Wine
Crisp fall air and hearty dishes that come along with it, like shepard's pie and chili, are always the signal to me that red wine season has started. Now, I know there are some people who drink it year-round, but I still seem to follow that retro adage of white wine for summer, red for winter. If you're always feeling confused at your local wine shop or find yourself failing when handed a textbook-thick wine list at your favorite restaurant, here are a few pointers for understanding the complex world of red wine.
First things first, you need to be able to articulate what type of wine you like. If you like wine that tastes less sweet, more tart, and with a robust aroma, you like wine that is classified as "dry." If your palate tends more toward fruity, lighter wines with hints of berries and a ruby tint, you're more a fan of medium-bodied, sweet wines. Now sweet doesn't mean dessert, mind you--that's just in comparison to wines that can leave your tongue feeling a bit puckery, and dry (wine geeks refer to this as "mouth feel'). What ultimately decides if a wine is sweet or dry is the sugar content and degree of fermentation of the grapes used.
The best way to figure out what you like is to taste a lot of wine, of course. I'd suggest finding a local wine shop that seems friendly and approachable and offers tastings, and chat them up. Taste what's on hand, discuss what you like with the staff, and snap pictures of labels you like, or use Vivino, a great app which stores your wine preferences. This visual chart is also really helpful for understanding the dry/sweet wine scale and showing which wines fall into each category.
Once you've established your preference, you can zero in on the types which fit that description. To really feel confident when perusing a wine list, it's smart to know how you feel about, say, California Cabernet Sauvignons (dry, with berry notes), or French Merlots (medium-bodied, smooth, silky finish). That way if you find yourself at an Italian restaurant with an all-Italian wine list, you can tell your waiter that you normally drink Merlots from France. Given that parameter, they'll be able to suggest a wine that will closely match that profile.
When shopping for wine, or looking at a wine list, you'll notice they are described with several identifications. You'll see the producer, the type of wine, region of origin, and the year the grapes were harvested. As a rule of thumb, the older the vintage, the more expensive the wine will be. There are also hot years for vintages, years that produced exceptional grapes--these can be more recent but highly regarded, which raises the price. No matter what your budget, you'll nearly always find a delicious wine that matches both your palate and your purse, so don't be fooled by high prices. Sometimes a $14 Chianti is simply more delicious than a $40 Barolo.
The mark of a true wine aficionado, in my opinion, is someone who's figured out how to pair wine with food. This cheat sheet is perfect for deciphering what goes with what--once you've sorted out the basics, it's pretty simple to review a wine list and know what to order with your roasted Branzino or farro salad. Always review the menu first to decide what you'll eat, and then select a wine. And if you can't figure it out, ask for help!