So, you’re typically a red-wine-only drinker. But now, officially, there’s a certain something in the air that sets off a little trigger in the brain: “Don’t reach for that Shiraz,” it says. “Give me something chilled.”
WHOA, there, says your brain. You’re a RED ONLY kind of guy, right? RIGHT?
I have seen the look of anxiety on the Red Only drinkers’ faces they realize they might cross the line into white wine. They start to rattle off a list of musts: “It can’t be sweet. I don’t like fruity. Not too sour. Not bitey. Oh, not dry.”
That, for the record, makes zero sense. Find me a wine without bite, sweetness, sourness, fruit, and dryness and I’ll show you a supergroup comprised of the Muppets and Slipknot. It simply won’t happen. The problem most of the time lies in the misunderstanding of a lot of the vocabulary we take for granted in wine shops, and it gets worse when people start to venture out of their comfort zones. Red drinkers don’t want to take the risk of a white wine if they don’t understand the description of what they’re getting into, so often many are stuck sipping much-too-warm Cabernet poolside at some barbecue on a 97 degree Saturday afternoon. Not great, not refreshing, just sad. So let’s break down a few of those mysterious words and maybe open a few doors for the Red Only crowd.
Say the word “acidity” to a wary white wine buyer and you can forget convincing them that the new bottle is a good idea. You think “acid,” you think tart, biting, sour, that face toddlers make when they unwittingly bite into a lemon. In fact, wine’s acidity is paramount to its composition and in the wines we crave this time of year, it’s what makes them feel light and refreshing. Often, descriptions that accompany acid are lemony, or citrusy, or bright. My first night on the job at the shop, my boss handed me two bottles and said, “open both of these. Pay attention to your gums.” What? Right. My gums. I brought the bottles home, I opened them both, I swished one around and immediately my gums started to tingle. Cue the salivary glands. Acid whets the palate and works well with food just like a piece of lemon on fish: in simplistic terms, it makes it taste better.
When people declare that they don’t like fruity wine, you must pause and take a minute to consider the facts. Wine, in its most basic form, is fruit. When fruit tastes like anything but fruit, i.e. chalk or dust, you probably don’t want to eat the it, right? So, no matter which way wine chooses to express the different fruit characteristics that the grapes bring to the table, you’re going to get some semblance — and you want to get some semblance — of fruit in the wine. Keep in mind “fruit” can mean a wine has notes of dried fruit, cooked fruit, candied fruit, or fresh fruit; that’s a huge spectrum of flavor and concentration. So fruit nay-sayers, just hold your horses. Plenty of room for adjustment.
“Sweet” is one of the most misused and misunderstood words used in wine descriptions. Wine labels or shelf tags will seldom say sweet unless its implying that the wine itself has some residual sugar—that is, sugar not converted by yeast into alcohol. A lot of times, people mix up the ideas of sweetness with fruitiness (thus that violent aversion to the description of “fruity” for many), but the two are separate descriptions. Sweet is actually the opposite of dry.
I once had an employee at the shop who would start to describe wine as “effervescent” every time she ran out of adjectives. Something about the way she said it made people feel like they were getting a treat of some kind, a mystical magical bottle, and they’d usually go for it. After a while, a coworker came up to me and asked, “do you think she knows what that word means?” Effervescence implies that a wine as a little spritz or fizz to it, something that feels tingly on the tongue with a little bit of bubble. Wines like Vinho Verde from Portugal are great examples of this.
When somebody describes wine as “light,” they’re referring to heft or weight in wine. The best way I’ve ever heard this explained is in terms of milk. The same basic material becomes skim milk, whole milk, and heavy cream, right? But each one coats the palate in a different way. Skim milk is almost like water, so it’s light-bodied. Whole milk is more viscous, so we’ll call it medium-bodied, and heavy cream is, well, heavy, creamy, rich. We’ll call it full-bodied. So if you’re looking for a “light” wine (often, people look for “light and refreshing” in the same go), you want one that doesn’t feel creamy, doesn’t coat the palate, that gives the sense of a cleansed palate ready for your next sip.
If you feel the spring tugging at your love of red wine and pulling you to a more seasonally appropriate palate, don’t fight it, don’t fear it. Those mysterious little descriptors assigned to white wine aren’t so daunting, and we can work through it together. Post questions! Post answers! We’re going to become Ambidextrous Wine Drinkers! Viva la Spring!
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.