Wine 101: Barebone Basics

One thing about me that shocks most people is the amount of part-time jobs I’ve had in my life. I’ve worked various babysitting gigs, retail at place such as Loft, The Children’s Place, Dollar General, Macy’s… I’ve worked at Waffle House… I’ve worked as a package handler for FedEx… but my most favorite part-time job I’ve ever worked is at a cute little wine boutique in the East Village – Taste Wine Company.

I know, I know – you’re thinking, “Wow… shocker… Emily’s fave part-time gig being at a place that gives her a booze discount? Not rocket science.

And if you’re not thinking that, then you’re still stuck on the Waffle House bit… and I’ll tell you now that it’s okay, I’m okay.

But here’s the thing – while the wine & spirits discount was a definite plus, what was actually my favorite part of the job was learning so much about the wine and spirits. Not only the simple things, like what I actually enjoy and being able to point customers to something I’m sure they’ll enjoy, but learning about how everything is made and what makes each beverage unique.

Throughout my time at Taste, I learned so much, and that knowledge paired with the luxury events I began attending through work… my personal taste developed quite radically. Where most of my friends were still into Oliver Soft Red, I began looking for a California cab, and when they’re craving a moscato, I’m looking for a sauv blanc. I also at times find myself turning up my nose at those who are into the sweeter wines, but then I immediately scold myself with the reminder: “Wine is subjective, Emily. Get a grip, it ain’t that deep girl.

But it was a recent dinner where I ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc and my brother said, “Oh, did you find that wine when you were working at the wine shop?” I realized he assumed sauvignon blanc was not just a type of wine, he assumed it was a brand name – granted my brother is one year shy of 21, but still, it got the wheels in my head turning. I have such a basic level knowledge of wine, but I do understand it… so why not share my very basic knowledge with others who are looking to to broaden their own wine knowledge?

So let’s breakdown four common dry wine varietals:

Red

Pinot Noir

Pronunciation = pee-noh | n’wahr

This is typically a lighter to medium bodied red with not a lot of tannin (bitterness), and while pinot noirs definitely can have earthy notes to them, they more commonly get a bit fruitier with prominent berry, or jammy, vibes to them. A major note here is fruity does not mean sweet! When talking jammy, think of this in terms of the tartness and lingering aftertaste in fruits like cranberries or black cherries. In terms of what “earthy” means, well with some wines you can almost taste something similar to dirt, but mixed with hints of spices – it sounds funky, I know, but with wine it just works.

Pairs well with: In general, red wine goes great with a heftier meal, but it’s important to remember that pinot noir is a lighter red wine, so this isn’t meant for a heavy steak dinner. Pinot noirs go great with things like pasta dishes, roasted chicken, & medium cheeses like Gruyere.

Popular regions: Oregon, California, New Zealand, Australia, (Burgundy) France, Germany, & Argentina | I’m a sucker for pinot noir from Burgundy. The most random pinot noir I’ve had is one from Macedonia – this was earthy as all get out and tasted like straight dirt – but what’s fun about wine is that while I’m not into it, some people totally are and that’s OK 😉

Cabernet Sauvignon

Pronunciation = cab-er-nay | soh-vee-ah-(n)

When someone just says, “I’ll take the cab, please” – this is what they’re referring to, cabernet sauvigon. Some also call it the “cab sauv” [pronounced: cab sav, say it all through your nose like Fran from The Nanny] Now you know the lingo, it’s time to understand what this red is going to taste like. Cabs are heavier bodied, bold, high on the tanin (bitterness), and dry af. So if you are a sweet wine drinker who wants to dip your toes into dryer wine, do not start here, friend. It will deter you big time. This is a wine varietal to ease into, for instance if you do a wine tasting night, there’s a higher chance you’ll dig cabernet sauvignon if you taste in the order of: lighter softer red you’re accustomed to, a jammy pinot noir, maybe a medium bodied red like a petite syrah, then go for the heavier cab sauv.

Pairs well with: Big, bold wine goes with a big, bold dinner. Cabernet sauvignon goes great with hearty red meat dishes, massive portabello mushrooms, & it pairs well with most any cheese, but especially hard cheese like Gouda & cheddar.

Popular regions: California, (Bordeaux) France, Australia, & Chile | As mentioned earlier, I’m always game for a California cab.

White

Sauvignon Blanc

Pronunciation = soh-vee-ah-(n) | blah-nk

Sauvignon blanc is typically a safe white wine choice; these are lighter bodied, citrus-y, and really easy on the taste buds. But reminder, this is still a dry wine – while it seems fruity, it’s certainly not sweet. Typical tasting notes with sauv blancs are grapefruit, gooseberry, white peach, or melon – and if these sound like fruits you’d like on a hot summer day, that’s the exact mood of a sauvignon blanc. Think crisp, refreshing, and summer vibes when envisioning a sauvignon blanc situation.

Pairs well with: Mantra: lighter wines = lighter foods. So mix that mantra with the summery sauv blanc, and you’re probably not surprised that it goes well with seafood, green veggies, & a smooth goat cheese = all light, bright and fun 🙂

Popular regions: California, (Loire Valley) France, New Zealand, & South Africa | French sauv blancs are typically smooth & subtle, while New Zealand sauv blancs have a vibrant grapefruit personality.

Chardonnay

Pronunciation = char-duh-nay

Chardonnays were the hardest wines for me to understand, one: if I even liked them, and two: what people even meant when they would call them buttery. Like how can a wine be buttery?! But then, one day I had my ah-ha! moment. I tasted a California chardonnay and a French chardonnay (a white Burgundy) back to back which enabled me to taste the difference immediately. To back it up a bit, chardonnays are generally a medium bodied white wine, they have a summery pallet of a sauvignon blanc but think of a thicker, warmer version. For me, after tasting these two chardonnays from different regions within moments of each other, I was finally able to taste the “butter” that everyone mentions. Due to being aged in oak barrels, that California chardonnay was considered “oaked” and the wine’s thickness tasted more like a buttery vanilla, while that French chardonnay, which was not aged in oak barrels and considered “unoaked”, came across more like a velvety, mineral-y citrus.

Pairs well with: The buttery, oaked chardonnays go great with more intense dishes like smoked seafood & creamy cheeses, while the mineral-y unoaked chardonnays pairs great with light white meat dishes & medium cheeses like Gruyere.

Popular regions: California, (Burgundy) France, Australia, & Italy | If you’re into the citrus-y, mineral wines – look for unoaked chardonnays!

I only mentioned four varietals, but there’s so much more than that!

One of my absolute favorite parts about wine, is that it’s subjective. There’s no wrong answer, no wrong preference, no wrong pairing – it’s all about your personal taste! So while I made pairing suggestions up above, they’re just that – suggestions. If you want to have a red wine with your summery salad – go for it! If you try these wines and you don’t taste any of the things I said you would – it’s not that big of deal. The fun part about doing a wine tasting with others is comparing what you taste versus what they taste, and thinking, “Wow, interesting, I think I taste that now!” or thinking, “Nope, don’t taste that at all… still don’t taste it, nope.

The worst thing you can do is let yourself be intimidated by wine; wine is fun, complex, and honestly it’s like world culture in a glass. More importantly, don’t let anyone tell you your taste is wrong – it’s just different than theirs.

“In racing, there is no question who is best – the first one to cross the finish line wins first prize. But with wine, even if you make the best wine in the world, someone isn’t going to like it, because it isn’t their style. Judging wine is very subjective.”

Mario Andretti

Published by

Emily Smith

Core Values: Adaptability, Empathy, Intuition, & Dedication. A creature of habit with a passion for the world, I spend an abnormal amount of time plotting my next vacay on google maps. I often yearn for adventure and to be anywhere other than where I am and with a strong drink in my hand. I currently hail in Brooklyn, but I've spent a greater part of my life in both Indiana and Kentucky and a blip of time living in Caen, France. I have an affinity for exploration and New Age practices, so feel free to reach out to me for travel tips, dream interpreting, mediocre palm reading, or just to have a candid conversation.

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