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Wine Tasting Guide

What Will it Be…
Red or White?

Learning to be a wine connoisseur.

Choosing the Right Bottle

The US produced over 800 million gallons of wine last year. There are almost 10,000 wineries in the US generating 18% of alcohol sales and $665 million in revenue. We consume, on average, almost 3 gallons a year per person. That’s a lot of vino!

Full-service, high-end restaurants have industry-experienced professionals who offer guidance and make suggestions. The first thing you’ll be asked is, “Red or white?” Most of us consume wine at home and have little or no expertise. When endless options abound, how do you choose the right wine?

A Good Wine Shop or Winery

Find a good wine shop. A 30-second conversation with someone who is passionate about winemaking is better than any search engine, for finding the perfect bottle. You can establish a relationship with an online shop or vineyard that would be happy to help with recommendations. As your palate develops, wine becomes more conversational and finding the right wine gets easier.

Five Categories

Red Wines – Made from black grapes, the juice, skin, grape pip and seed are incorporated into the fermentation process. Although referred to as red, color can range from dark eggplant to deep tawny.

White Wine – Utilizes white grapes and doesn’t come in contact with the skins, juice only during the fermentation process. White grapes are light green or mauvy-pink in color. White wine is pale green, yellow or golden in color.

Rosé Wine – Made with red grapes. The juice has a shorter fermentation process and is in contact with skins only briefly. Lighter in color and body than red wines. Serve chilled.

Sparkling Wine – Sparkling bubbles come from naturally occurring CO2 (or specifically added) during the fermentation process. The result reaches from fizzy and sweet to effervescent and bone dry.

Fortified Wine – “Fortified” with distilled spirits after fermentation. The fermentation duration will affect whether the outcome is sweet or dry. Once spirits are added, fermentations stop.

What Does White Wine Taste Like?

White wine is usually the easiest place to start to grow your taste for wine. Often the sweeter the wine, the better. In the world of wine, sweet is the opposite of dry. If you choose to develop your palate, you’ll likely move into drier whites, then start exploring reds. You will always want to refrigerate white wine, serve it and drink it cold. White wines are often used as aperitifs before a meal and drank in between meals and with dessert. There are several entrees that white wines also pair nicely with—as a simple rule of thumb, think white wine with white dishes, such as white meat/fish and white sauces.

Sweet White Wines

There are several sweet wines out there, but the three most common ones are: Moscato, Gewurztraminer and Riesling. These wines generally pair well with desserts, cheeses and spicy dishes.

Moscato

Made with Muscat Blanc grapes, Moscato is recognized for its sweet citrus, peach and apricot flavors with a hint of floral notes and succulent, fragrant aromas. It comes in many styles, from still to semi-sparkling and full-on bubbly. It’s a perfect dessert wine!

Gewurztraminer

First, you must learn to say it, “ge-VOORTZ-tra-meener”, or “Girls Are Meaner” for a joke. It is of course, a German wine though widely available in the United States. Gewürztraminer is like the grown-up version of Moscato. While Gewürztraminer wine has many similarities to Moscato it also has higher alcohol levels, more striking aromatics and lower acidity. The first aroma you pick up from a Gewurztraminer is a sweet rose. You might pick up grapefruit, pineapple, peach, apricot, orange, and/or cantaloupe fruit flavors with a hint of honey, ginger, incense, allspice, cinnamon, and/or smoke. Try it with cheese and roasted vegetables.

Riesling

Riesling is an aromatic, deliciously refreshing wine that tastes like the nectar of apples, apricots, peaches and pears and comes in a tall slender glass bottle. Usually crisp, due to its high levels of acidity, Riesling is known for its strong floral aromas. It can be sweet, but it can also be dry. Every brand is different. If it comes from Germany or California you can assume it’s sweet, unless it is marked dry. Always pay attention to label markings and descriptions on Rieslings. One of the most food-friendly wines around, Riesling pairs with everything from sushi and seafood to spicy foods like Thai and Indian curries (it’s famous for cooling off the palate!). It’s most popularly enjoyed as a dessert wine.

Malvasia Bianca

Malvasia Bianca is lesser known as it does not grow in many places outside of Spain. Spanish settlers brought vines to New Mexico in the early 1500’s making New Mexico one of the oldest wine producing regions in the United States. Produced from one of the world’s oldest variety of grapes. This wine is fresh and fruity with overtones of honey, it pairs well with spicy dishes.

Light and Dry White Wines

So fresh and so clean. With little residual sugar, these light-bodied and dry whites are refreshing and gluggable. Foodwise, they play nicely with lighter dishes like grilled salmon, oysters, light pasta sauces, lemon basil chicken, and other white meats.

Pinot Grigio (pinot gris)

Easy-drinking, people-pleasing pinot gris (that is the grape; pinot grigio is Italy’s version of the wine). This white is known and loved for its zesty acidity and fruit flavors (lemons, limes, green apples). Don’t know what bottle to bring to a dinner party? Pinot grigio/gris is likely to pair with at least something on the menu.

Chablis

Hailing from Burgundy, France, Chablis is made with 100 percent Chardonnay grapes but tastes nothing like the oaky Chard you may think of as “typical.” Chablis has a citrusy, mineral-like, and almost salty taste —but in a refreshing way!

Chenin Blanc

A shining star in South Africa and France’s Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc is a versatile grape that comes in many styles. Drier expressions tend to be tart, with flavors of pear, yellow apple, and ginger —pour a glass alongside your takeout sweet-and-sour chicken.

Bold and Dry

There may be other whites that can fall in this category, but the best known is Chardonnay!
Chardonnays really show up and have the oomph to stand up to rich, flavorful dishes like lobster with butter sauce, risotto, hard cheeses, and chicken divan.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine as well as one of the most varying, with taste profiles that run the gamut depending on the growing regions and aging process. French Chardonnay tends to feature citrus and flinty flavors, and California Chardonnay is often aged in oak barrels, which creates a buttery flavor and creamy texture. New Mexico Chardonnays are typically clean and crisp with a light citrus flavor.

What Does Red Wine Taste Like?

If you are starting your wine drinking journey with reds vs. whites, you probably want to start sweeter and work your way up to the drier full-bodied versions. Red wines are most often consumed with a hearty entrée, though some pair excellently with chocolate. As a general rule of thumb, think red wines with red meats and red sauces. There are many red wine blends out there, but as a beginners guide, we are just focusing on the most accessible single varietals.

Sweet Red Wines

Red wines are not known for being sweet, so there is a short list of sweet reds that aren’t a blend. Sweet reds have become more popular in recent years for the health benefits. More are now available on the market and are usually made from a combination of grapes, with some version of the Muscat grape giving them the sweetness.

Lambrusco

Lambrusco was THE sweet red wine on the market for years. It’s fizzy and often best served chilled. The sweetest version is labeled dolce (sweet in Italian). Lambrusco wines range in color from pale ruby to dark purple with aromas of blueberry, cherry sauce, violet, and red currant. Most Lambrusco wines have light alcohol content.

Port

Ports are fortified wines, which means that another alcohol, typically Brandy, has been added. Generally, they come out of Portugal. Expect aromas of blackberry, raspberry sauce, licorice, cocoa, juniper berry, and anise with mineral notes. Wines taste sweet but have ample tannin to balance this sweetness. The alcohol content is substantially higher in Ports. They are excellent with chocolate and cheese. They can be sipped as an aperitif with an assortment of cheeses, or as an after-dinner drink when paired with a chocolate dessert.

Light-Bodied Red Wines

Lightweight and refreshing, these are your “gateway reds” — perfect for white wine drinkers looking to cross the bridge over to Team Rouge. Light-bodied reds can be drunk alone, but also pair really well with food thanks to their lower tannins.

Pinot Noir

This light, dry red has high acidity and big aromatics. The grape is grown everywhere and expresses itself a bit differently depending on where it originated. A typical flavor profile, however, is red-fruit-forward with earthy and herby notes. Think PN with salmon, duck, casseroles, and beef stew. It is an easy red to drink, so sipping on it anytime is considered appropriate.

Beaujolais

Beaujolais reds are made with the Gamay grape and share a name with the region of France they come from. These young wines (recently bottled) are staples at Thanksgiving feasts, since their red berry flavors and high acidity pair flawlessly with turkey, gravy, squash, cranberry sauce, etc. Feel free to enjoy Beaujolais all year long with any roasted white meat dish or cheese board.

Medium-Bodied Red Wines

Not too light, not too bold, they’re just right. Medium-bodied reds showcase a little bit more tannins than lighter wines, but still don’t hit you over the head with complex structure or intense flavor.

Merlot

Merlot tastes like cherries and chocolate. It has soft tannins, so it doesn’t leave your mouth feeling dry. Much like Pinot Noir, Merlot is an easy-drinking, versatile red that goes well with almost any food, even a pizza, spaghetti, or cheeseburger!

Red Zinfandel

Red Zin is renowned for its jammy, candied fruit flavors and spicy tobacco finish. With mid-range tannins and high acidity (plus high alcohol content) it’s bold without being heavy. Partner it with a sweet-’n-savory dish like curry or tangy BBQ ribs.

Full-Bodied Red Wines

Full-bodied reds have the highest tannins (and often, highest alcohol content), creating a feeling of weight and dryness on the palette. Wines like these are best for pairing with rich, substantial foods because they’re bold enough to hold their own while still letting their flavors shine through.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cab is the red wine king. The typical taste profile of Cabernet Sauvignon is high acidity, high tannin and medium to full body with notes of black cherry, green pepper, and spice of vanilla from oak aging. It’s grown and enjoyed all over the world and the first-choice wine to accompany a steak dinner. Cab’s big body, bold flavors, and mile-long finish can match meat and marinade like none other.

Malbec

In the past 10 to 15 years, Argentina’s pride and joy has made a name for itself in America as the go-to, crowd-favorite red that loves food. Malbec is a dark-fruit-forward wine with a little spicy finish (kind of like a fuller, rough-around-the-edges Merlot). Serve it with beef empanadas and friends will come flocking.

Syrah/Shiraz

Syrah from France/Shiraz from Australia provides a powerful fruit-and-spice blast to the mouth, with high tannins that help it age well. With food, Shiraz has the body to stand up to intense flavors — from a fatty blue cheeseburger to saucy BBQed ribs. Added perk: Syrah/Shiraz boasts one of the highest levels of antioxidants. (Yay for healthy drinking!)

And How About Rosé?

In general, Rosé tends to be fresh on the palate, with crisp acidity. Common flavors associated with Rosé are ripe strawberry, watermelon, and raspberry. Often these notes are complemented with herbal aromas and mineral undertones. Rosé can be made either dry or sweet, and it is most often served chilled. Rosé an in-between wine and can often be your transition from white to red. It plays nicely with fish, veggies, chicken, grilled steak, potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, you name it. For those that like it, it’s the perfect barbecue wine, beach wine, and picnic wine, but it’s also the perfect sitting-around-watching-TV wine.

How to Experience Wine

We have only touched on the most common wines. You will run into many others. The best way to experience wine is to order a glass, breath in the aroma then take a sip—do not gulp. Explore what it tastes like and the way it makes your tongue feel. Every wine will have a different affect. Make sure you make note of the wines you try and the ones you really like so you can find them again. Not every bottle of the same kind of wine will taste the same—some are wildly different. If you have the opportunity to do a wine tasting, do it. It will really help you to understand the flavors and find the types of wines that best suit your palate.

Characteristics of Wine

Here’s a secret–the characteristics of wine are highly subjective. People spend a lifetime and a small fortune honing their skills, developing their senses and training their palates to pick up on the subtleties of tasting. When you experience wine, you taste through the nose and mouth. Pour a glass, roll it around with the stem, exhale completely, inhale, full nose in the bowl. Your mouth should start to water. The first thing that comes to your mind is correct. It’s like word association or a Rorschach Test; there is no wrong answer. Here are some common words used to describe wine flavors and scents:

 

Flowers Buttery Jammy
Coffee Crisp Light
Full-Bodied Toasted Butterscotch
Fruity Tobacco Cherry
Aromatic Grass Vanilla
Oaky Smoke Spice
Dry Citrus Cedar
Sweet Mineral Pepper
Chocolate Berry Acidic
Round Earthy Herby

Stick to a Budget

A bottle of wine can cost less than a burger or as much as a small family vacation. There are beautifully acceptable bottles of wine in your price range. Inform your seller what your price range is. There is no shame in an inexpensive bottle of wine. Once you understand the care and discipline it takes to execute a superior bottle of wine, you appreciate the producers who pour their heart and family into each harvest.

Temperature Matters

White wine should be stored at 50-60°F. Red wines should be kept at 55-68°F. Storing sparkling wine or champers (slang for Champagne) in the ice box will cause it to go flat before its time. Keep sparkling wine at room temperature then chill 15-20 minutes before opening. Keep in mind, in the wine world, “room temperature” is 55-60°F. If you are keeping your wine in the kitchen, above the refrigerator, move it immediately.

Let it Breathe

Young, red wines tend to be tight which means it’s not as smooth as developed, aged wines. Aeration is the key. The circulation of air through the liquid will speed up the process of releasing the tannins. You can accomplish this with a purchased aerator or simply pour the wine into a decanter or any other appropriate glass vessel.

The Long and the Short of It.

Wine is an art form and it takes a keen curator to bring out the best in these masterpieces. Red or white? The short answer is, yes. Whatever your preference, whatever your budget, for every mood and occasion, there is a wine. The perfect wine is the one you enjoy the most. It takes a little time and willingness to experiment to refine your wine style.

Remember, enjoy the process and ceremony in properly serving a lovely bottle of wine. You won’t be sorry.

Cheers!

About Heart of the Desert

Heart of the Desert is a working pistachio ranch and vineyard with four retail establishments in New Mexico. They are best known for their farm fresh pistachios and Award-Winning New Mexico wines. Each store offers wine and pistachio tastings. They offer worldwide shipping and produce attractive gourmet baskets that make great corporate and family gifts. The main store, on the ranch in Alamogordo, offers farm tours that showcases how pistachios are grown and processed as well as a stunning Tuscany themed patio that overlooks the groves and is available for weddings, private parties or enjoying a relaxing glass of wine.