Choosing Wines

Wine GlassChoosing a wine for any occasion
Wine can seem like a mystery, but you can get good wines both for drinking and cooking at most any supermarket. All it takes to get started using wine is a little knowledge and some money. This 2-part column will give you some knowledge, and you’re on your own as far as the money goes!

GrapesGrapes have been domestically grown for the making of wine by humans for more than 12,000 years. The varieties of grapes used to make wine can be grown in nearly any country. Wines are classified as sparkling (such as champagne) or non-sparkling. Non-sparkling wines are divided into red, white, and rose or blush. A wine can be classified as dry or sweet. The more sugar used up in the fermentation process, the dryer a wine will be. A vintage wine is one in which 95 percent of the grapes it contains were harvested in the same year, which is indicated on the bottle.

There are a bazillion different varieties of wine, and it would be impossible to list them all. To get you started, here are a few of the more popular wine varieties you are likely to find on a restaurant’s wine list or at your local grocer, or click on the Wine Explorer link on the right for additional selections you can order via the web.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON (Red) (cab-er-NAY SO-vin-yon): One of my personal favorites. Cabernet’s flavor can be like plum, black cherry and spice. Cabernet is a mix of grapes aged for 15 to 30 months in oak barrels, which gives the wine a a woody, cedar flavor.

CHARDONNAY (White) (shar-dun-NAY): One of the most popular whites. Chardonnay has a flavor like apple, melon and/or pear.

CHENIN BLANC (White) (SHEN’N BLAHNK): This is my favorite white wine. It’s flavor is described as a subtle blend of melon, peach, spice and citrus.

FRENCH COLOMBARD (White) (kahl-um-BARRED): This wine has been called the king of jug wine. This is the least expensive wine you will ever want to serve or cook with. Anything less than this is best used for antifreeze.

PINOT NOIR (Red) (PEE-no NWA): This wine has been described by experts as having the flavors of black cherry, spice, raspberry and currant .

RIESLING (White) (REES-ling): Somewhat sweeter than the other white wines. One of the best wines to serve with desserts.

ZINFANDEL (Red or white) (ZIHN-fan-dell]): White Zinfandel is a blush-colored, slightly sweet wine. Real Zinfandel, the red wine, has a spicy pepper, raspberry, cherry, wild berry and plum flavors.

There are no hard and fast rules about which wine should be drunk with which food, but there are some tried and tested guidelines that those who serve with a meal wine can follow when deciding which bottle will best complement which dish.

At a formal dinner, sherry is drunk before the meal as an aperitif to stimulate the taste buds for the food to follow – especially the dry or off-dry sherries. Sweet sherry is best enjoyed with dessert or fruit at the end of the meal.

As a general rule, white wine is usually served with the more delicate dishes, such as fish, and heavy red wines with heavier foods such as beef, venison and composite dishes.

Drier wines are drunk before the sweeter ones and white before red when there is more than one kind of wine served with the meal.

Rose wine is halfway between white and red and can be regarded as a multi-purpose wine. Rose (a sweet red wine) or chianti (a dry red wine) are often served with Italian food, such as spaghetti, lasagna, etc. Sweet wine is drunk with dessert or fruit. Sparkling wine can be enjoyed at any stage of the meal – apart from traditionally being served on festive occasions. It goes especially well with dessert, however.

There are recommendations about the temperature for serving wine. Rose and white wines are cooled, but never served icy cold. Serving a wine too cold hides much of its taste. Sudden raising or lowering of the temperature of wine can also destroy much of its characteristics. Red table wine should be served at room temperature – around 65 to 70 degrees. Sparkling wine is cooled in an ice bucket and served from it. Port and white dessert wines are served at room temperature although sherry and dessert wine can be cooled in summer.

Red wine should be opened for a while before it is to be enjoyed. This allows the wine to “breathe,” or mix with the air to bring out its flavor. White wine should be chilled, not ice cold. Sparkling wine should be served chilled, from an ice bucket.

The ideal glass for red or white wine should have a medium stem to prevent the temperature of the hand from warming the wine. The glass should be tulip-shaped to concentrate the aroma or “bouquet” of the wine at the rim of the glass. The bowl of the glass should be clear and transparent to show off the color of the wine. Champagne is served in tall glasses called flutes.

Wine glasses should be filled 2/3 full to allow room for the wine to breathe. If you’re serving wine, don’t refill the glasses of your guests until they are completely empty.

If a bottle is not emptied on the first round, place it on a side table and fill the guests’ glasses again later. Alternatively, it may be left at the host’s right hand.

When buying wines, be sure to avoid bottles that have any wine residue near the foil covering the cork, as the wine may have been stored improperly and gotten too hot. Wine should be stored in a cool, dark place on its side to prevent the cork from drying out. Unfinished bottles of wine will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. To bring a refrigerated red to drinking temperature, let the bottle stand out for 30 minutes or microwave a single glass for about 10 seconds.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the last 3 centuries on what wines go with what foods. There are a few rules, but they aren’t etched in stone. The best way to find out what works is to experiment, and whatever you like is fine. As a general rule, for serving with soup, choose a dry or semi-sweet sherry. For seafood, white meat and light entrees, a white or rose table wine chilled slightly works nicely.

For red meat, grilled dishes, venison, stews and casseroles, serve a red table wine at room temperature. Dessert, fruit, nuts, and cheese go well with a sweet dessert wine such as a German Piesporter. To round out the meal, brandy or sparkling wines are served with coffee.

Wine used for cooking doesn’t have to be expensive – the only real exception is the use of sherry in trifle or soup because then quality is very important. The only rule you should follow is to never use wine that has an off-taste or has gone sour. I always use a wine I wouldn’t hesitate to drink. If it doesn’t have a pleasant enough taste to drink, it won’t add a good flavor to the food. So-called “cooking wine” is often second rate, so don’t bother with it.

Wine that’s left over after a meal can also be used for cooking, as long as it is properly stored . For this, I use a neat little gizmo called a Vac-U-Vin. This little $15 gadget consists of a rubber stopper and a small, hand-operated pump. To use it, you replace the cork in an opened bottle of wine with the rubber stopper. The pump then is used to pump out all the air in the bottle. Wine stored with one of these in place will keep for a year without going bad. Each time you use any of the wine, you replace the stopper and pump out the air again. The stoppers are reusable and the kit comes with 2 of them.

During the cooking process all the alcohol evaporates, but the delicate flavor of the wine remains in the dish. When it comes to the amount of wine to add to a recipe, try for subtlety rather than overpowering the dish with wine. The more wine that is added to a dish, the longer it must cook to evaporate the raw taste of alcohol and to add flavor.

Wine can also be used to marinate food. A leg of lamb is is referred to as “mock venison” when it has been marinated in red wine and herbs for a few days. Meat is greatly tenderized by being marinated in wine. This is due to the acidity of the wine breaking down the muscle fibers.

Avoid overheating when cooking with wine and keep the lid on to preserve the flavor.

Champagne Bottle and GlassCHAMPAGNE
The pop of a champagne cork brings a bubbly smile to party-goers everywhere. And why not? The serving of champagne is synonymous with celebration and special occasions, especially New Year’s Eve. More of it is sold in the two weeks preceeding New Year’s Day than at any other time of the year.
Since most of us don’t regularly buy champagne, here’s a quick course in Champagne101.

Champagne traces its history to17th-century France, where a Catholic monk named Dom Perignon was cellarmaster of the wine cellars at the Abby of Hautevillars in Northen France. The good brother had been conducting experiments on blending wines from different varieties of grapes when he discovered that certain mixtures produced bubbles when fermented. Unfortunately, the bubbles burst in the bottles, so Dom Perignon had to re-design the bottles, and also the corks. When he accomplished this feat and tasted the results, he is said to have exclaimed to his fellow monks, “Come quickly — I am drinking stars!” And so, champagne was born.

True champagne only comes from a small region in Northeast France called, appropriately enough, the Champagne region. Most of the world recognizes this distinction and calls their sparkling wlnes by different nalnes — spumanti in Italy, sekt in Germany and vin mousseux in the other parts of France. But a lot of American vinyards call sparkling wines champagne, even though technically they’re not.
French champagne is usually made by blending chardonnay and pinot noir or pinot blanc grapes. California “champagnes” are often made of the same blend, while those from New York stateare from the pressings of Catawba and Delaware grapes.

The process of making champagne has changed little from the time of Dom Perignon — it is very labor intensive, with more than 100 steps in the process, although some of them are mechanized today.
After the champagne is blended and fermented in barrels, it is given a second fermentation in the bottles. A small amount of sugar — called a dosage — is added to each bottle just before the final corking. This dosage determines how sweet a champagne will taste. A dry champagne has no sugar added, and as a result, isn’t very sweet. The bottle’s label will give you a clue as to whether a particular champagne is dry or sweet. The label indicates the level of sweetness by these French terms:

  • Brut — Very dry, less than 2 percent sugar;
  • Extra sec Ñ Dry, up to 21/2 percent sugar;
  • Sec — Slightly sweet, up to 4 percent sugar;
  • Demi-sec — Up to 6 percent sugar;
  • Doux — Includes anything over 6 percent sugar.
  • Demi-sec and doux champagnes are considered dessert wines.

This fermentation produces the gas that gives champagne its characteristic bubbles and produces enough pressure to send a cork popping toward outer space. That’s why a champagne cork is tapered in a flare shape, and also why the corks are held in place by wire baskets.

A chilling experience
Champagne is best served well-chilled, at a temperature of 40 to 50 degrees. The best rule is the cheaper the champagne, the more you chill it, as lower temperatures diminish taste. An expensive champagne should never be served colder than 50 degrees. This is where a kitchen thermometer comes in handy.

Champagne should never be refrigerated for more than 2 hours, as this will also dull the flavor. It is permissible to do a rapid chill by submersing the bottle in a bucket of half-water and half-ice for no more than 20 minutes.

The popping question
In spite of what you see in the locker room after the Super Bowl, it isn’t considered polite to spray your date while opening a vintage bottle of bubbly. In fact, if a bottle of champagne is properly handled and chilled, the cork will have just a little pressure behind and will release without any champagne escaping from the bottle.

To open the bottle, first remove the foil covering the stopper. Then, untwist the wire cage covering the cork. With the bottle pointed away from anyone (and yourself) hold the cork in one hand and the bottle in the other. Gently twist the cork until you feel it begin to give way, then ease it out with your thumb.
Another way to ensure the cork doesn’t go flying is to cover the whole top of the bottle with a cloth dinner napkin and proceed as above. This way, if the cork does eject from the bottle, it is immediately caught by the napkin, which also soaks up any spillage.

Champagne should be served in the tall, slender wine glasses known as flutes, to enable the bubbles to form properly. A metal champagne stopper, which you can get at most specialty cookware shops, will allow you to save leftover champagne for about two days, in case you don’t stay up as late on New Year’s Eve as you had hoped.

This should give you enough information to select a good bottle of champagne to help ring in the new year — just remember to buy a round of ginger ale and a good cigar for your designated driver! Cheers!
Chef Rick’s Top Picks for Champagne

Dom Perignon has the highest name recognition of all the french wines. Although it has a stellar reputation, there are other wines below its $115-per-bottle price that are equally worthy of a special occasion. Here are some French wines worthy of consideration:

  • Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blanc – Somewhat less expensive, yet at least 95% of the taste of Dom Perignon. The main difference is the size of the bubbles.
  • Piper-Heidsieck Brut – This remarkable wine sells for around $28 per bottle and gives the most bang for the buck. Highly recommended.
  • Charles Heidsieck 1990 Brut Champagne – at $48 per bottle, this wine is a winner. Not quite as smooth as its expensive cousin, but quite nice.
  • Moet et Chandon Brut Imperial – At around $35 per bottle, another good choice.
  • Mumm Cordon Rouge – Around $27 per bottle. Another strong contender for best buy.

If you would like to experience a good American sparkling wine, here are several good choices, all in the $16 to $30 price range:

  • Taittinger Domaine Carneros Brut
  • Mumm Cuvee Napa prestige Brut
  • Piper Sonoma Select Cuvee Brut
  • Roederer Estate Brut
  • Korbel Reserve

1 Comment so far »

  1. Charles said

    June 29 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    As the old guy Justin (He had a cooking show on pbs here in Ga.) used to say about choosing wine “Just drink the one you like”.

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