Hello, denizens. Been a lot of talk about wine lately, and it has piqued my interest. So I want to talk about wine. If you want to skip the hot grape talk, continue right ahead to the comments. If you want to join me, more (much more) after the jump.
This is your Hamsterdam for the entire weekend. Enjoy but, as always: Obey the rules and be excellent to eachother.
If you grew up in the Midwest like I did (and as an Iowa sports fan you almost certainly did), then you grew up in beer country. Wine in your upbringing was probably limited to cheap champagne on holidays, bad box wine, Mad Dog or Boone's in high school, and the rare night out when you wanted to get fancy. And I don't know about the rest of you, but when I finally started having wine more often in my 20s, it was a little overwhelming and frankly intimidating. Not only did it cost more than beer, but there was a dastardly level of variety and high probability of picking out a stinker at the local Hy-Vee. Well, I'm here to give you a crash course and tell you it's really not that overwhelming. There's really only 5 areas of importance:
The different types of grapes
There are two different main types of wine, red and white. And each of those colors has 4-5 "classic" or "great" grapes used and then a cornucopia of minor grapes. I won't go into the different characteristics of each of the major grapes, but it's good to know these important names as you'll see them often. Red wine: Syrah/Shiraz (same grape), Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir. White wine: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon. All of the grapes are markedly different in flavors, so dig in and find out which ones you like. And don't let anyone tell you which ones you should like. Fuck those people.
Drink what you want to
As noted above and elsewhere here, drink wine how you want to. Though you may notice that some of these do matter when you get really deep into wine, the reality is that type of glass, specific temperature, swirling and sniffing, inspecting the cork, and all matter of wine snobbery are not really important to enjoying your wine if you like it a different way.
Years & regions do matter
There can be stunning variance between the quality of wines based on the climate and soil of where they were grown (I think only French people can truly pronounce the word for this: terroir). So you may have really liked a particular wine's 2008 vintage but the 2009 sucks ass. Or you may love Australian Shiraz but find that you don't like Italian Syrah. So to get what you like can be a never-ending game of cat and mouse, truly a lifetime of trying new wines. This is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of wine for beer drinkers, as beer does not have this variance.
Pairing wines with food
This is something that has become quite overblown and a big reason that wine snobs scare the rest of the population from getting into wine in the first place. They'll tell you that you have to have a certain type of wine with every kind of food you can imagine, but do what you wanna. There are some general rules that do indeed make both the wine and food more enjoyable (a heavy cabernet with a steak, a sauvignon blanc with shellfish, etc), but the wine pairing idea has gotten out of hand. If you really do care, some good quick charts are available here
Single-grape wines vs blended wines
Americans drink single-grape wines, but Europeans drink blends. So while you may order a Cabernet or Chardonnay at your next meal, the dirty Europers will be ordering a wine by the name of the house or region that produced their blend. It's somewhat likely they won't even know for sure what grapes are in there, just that it's a red or white. And you know what? Those dirty Europers do it right. Blends do a pretty good job of accentuating the good parts of a particular grape's flavor and hiding the negatives (merlot's dirt or sauvignon blanc's cat-piss tastes) behind another grape's strength. You're much more likely to find a shitty single-grape wine than a blended wine in my experience. In fact, nearly every one of the most celebrated wines you hear about selling for thousands of dollars a bottle are all blends. Do yourself a favor and try a blend next chance you get.
I can give four easy recommendations for how to buy wine:
1) Don't spend much money per bottle. Anything more than about $10-$20/bottle and you're just showing off, and also getting ripped off. Even in champagnes, you'd have to be pretty good to tell a major difference between an $80 bottle of Perrier Jouet and a $12 bottle of Domaine Chandon. Just check out ratings and buy the best rating you want to pay for, pretty simple.
2) Unless you're an expert, never buy at a random grocery store or liquor without help. Probably more than half of wines are basically shitty, and you're going to get the bad ones when you pick blindly. It's just gonna happen. If they have ratings listed, make sure they're from a reputable source (Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator are the giants here) and buy something that is rated an 85 at the minimum. Or ask for help at a great wine shop like Dirty John's in IC. They're happy to help and they're generally excellent at it.
3) Buy Charles Shaw at Trader Joe's. It's affectionately called "Two Buck Chuck" because it is still exactly $2/bottle. That's actually cheaper than Bud Light, so no excuses for you poor folk. It's not great by any means, but it's definitely adequate. And most importantly, they're excellent representations of what each variety is supposed to taste like. The Merlot tastes like a Merlot, the Pinot Grigio tastes like a Pinot Grigio, etc. If you know what kind of grapes you prefer, it will make choosing more expensive wines easier.
4) Buy from the wooden rack at Costco. Every Costco has an extended circular-ish wooden bin area in their wine/beer section that has individual bottles of very good wine available for very cheap prices. They have reputable ratings listed for every bottle they sell here, and as a rule of thumb all of these wines are vetted by Costco's buyers and worthy of their shown minimum-85 ratings. Really, you can't go wrong.
And just for the hell of it, some quick and fun wine facts:
1) By far the most important factor in rating wines is the aftertaste, the 5 seconds or so of mouth flavor after you've drank it. This is more than 50% of a wine's rating as a general rule.
2) Did you know that pretty much every wine you'll ever buy is 50% 'Merican? Let me introduce you to a nasty little bug named phylloxera that nearly completely wiped out wine production in the 1800's by destroying vineyard roots. The only good way to combat this (even to this day) is to have all vineyard roots be a slightly different, more hardy grape species of North American origins. And because those American vines make terrible wine, all vineyards worldwide have American root systems with European grape vines grafted onto them above ground level.
3) Champagnes keep their consistent flavor by blending the same type of grapes from the same vineyards over several years of crops. It's why you won't generally see a year on a bottle of Dom Perignon or Veuve Cliquot, hell even that dirt-cheap bottle of Korbel at Wal-Mart has probably 5 different vintages of grapes to get the flavor right. There are fun exceptions to this rule, of course.
4) Speaking of champagne, the bubbles are generally believed to have started as a vintner defect. This probably makes champagne one of my favorite accidental discoveries of all time. Fuck vulcanized rubber, give me some champagne first.
5) If you're drinking red wine, some quick tips that might make it even better: decant or aerate (you'll notice the difference), and chill the wine just a couple degrees before drinking. Most reds are drunk at room temperature but taste slightly better a couple degrees below that.
6) And the best tip I can possibly give: If you're more interested in digging deeper into the history and intricacies, Karen MacNeil's WINE BIBLE is an amazing, thorough, and well-written book. I really wish there was something like this for beer. Alas, most beer books are absolutely turrible.