Wine has been around for a long time, and I’m not talking about that half-consumed bottle of Merlot you’re still saving for when your current love interest kicks you to the curb (have some confidence!). We don’t know when wine was first made, but we do know that it has been enjoyed by everyone from the Greeks to the ancient Egyptians to the Babylonians, who even ran a type of wine shop. But only now is wine becoming as popular in the U.S. as it deserves to be. It’s time for everyone to educate themselves about something so rich in history — and flavor — since it’s quickly becoming a part of American culture the way it always has been in Europe.
This month, Blast asked Julie Bonaventura, the creative director of Busa Wine and Spirits, to help us get down to the basics of vino.
Lesson One: Choosing and buying a wine
"All you have to do is just sip and see what you like," said Bonaventura. It’s that simple. Once you’re aware of what flavors you tend to like, let the experts take it from there. Most stores, like Busa, have educated wine experts on their staff who are happy to help. Tell them what flavors you enjoy, specific wines you like, and your price range.
"Say, â€˜I don’t want red wine.’ Then you’ve eliminated half of the search. Then let them know, â€˜I like spicy’ or â€˜I like fruity.’"
If you choose to go it alone, consider trying different wines from one brand you know you like, suggests Bonaventura. They’ll most likely carry a range including a pinot grigio and a chardonnay and then move to red with a Shiraz, a Merlot and a Cabernet. This way, you’ll be comfortable with both the brand and the price.
When picking out a bottle, don’t be sucked in by a sexy label. "People tend to go for a fun label or something that they know, and really the best thing to do is just flip that bottle around and read the back, because the back is going to tell you what it goes well with and what kind of flavors the wine will bring to you," said Bonaventura. She noted that if you’re shopping for a dinner party, make sure you have a sense of what you’ll be serving so you can pair the food and wine accordingly.
If you’re picking out a gift or something for a holiday party, go for a nice neutral wine. Bonaventure especially loves the Coppola’s line — as in Francis Ford. They have a nice variety with nothing too overbearing. She raved: "I love his movies, and I love his wine!"
Also, be sure to look at the points a wine has been given. Many stores advertise the wine rating. Only buy wine with a rating of 90 or above — you’ll be able to find every price range.
"I don’t feel you have to be an expert to buy wine; I don’t feel you have to be an expert to buy the best wine either,” Bonaventura said. “The best wine is whatever you enjoy. You don’t have to buy a $40 bottle of wine to think it’s the best. You might buy a $50 bottle of wine and not enjoy it.”
Lesson Two: Drinking at dinner
When you’re serving wine at home, be sure you’re serving it properly. A white wine should be chilled for at least 20 minutes before you serve it. A red wine should be decanted right before your guests arrive. "It’s breathing, just how you and I breathe," said Bonaventura. "Air is going in and air is coming out." You can buy a decanter at places like Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, and HomeGoods.
Before you sip, cleanse your palette. You don’t want any other flavors interfering with the taste of the wine. Water works fine. Then take a sip and let it sit on your tongue. It should tingle and taste all the different flavors. Never gulp your wine. Next, take a bite of food and then another sip of wine. "If it’s a perfect pairing, you’re actually not even going to notice a change,” said Bonaventura. “If there’s a difference in the wine — if it strikes you differently — then that’s a negative reaction."
When pouring wine for your guests, only fill the glass halfway. Red wine glasses are made bigger and rounder so the wine can breathe, with the intention that it will not be decanted.
One last tip for your holiday parties: Red wine spills can be tough to battle. So what’s the one thing that always gets out red wine? White wine! Just get to it right away.
Okay, so now you’re the perfect host, but you’re still overwhelmed when you crack open the extensive wine list at your favorite restaurant.
Remember: Go with what you know you like and take your time ordering. Asking your waiter is the best way to navigate the list. One thing you should always do is ask for a taste. Most restaurants offer tastes of any wine offered by the glass. "There’s nothing wrong with doing it. It’s perfectly free, and more people need to take advantage of it," said Bonaventura.
But, go for the bottle over the glass. There is a massive markup on wine in all restaurants, so you’ll get more for your money this way. Don’t think you’ll drink it all? No problem — most places will re-cork the bottle for you and let you take it home.
Most importantly, consider your meal when ordering wine. Ask your waiter what pairs best and check to see if the menu offers suggestions for each entr©e. "I think a lot of people don’t realize that wine can actually ruin your food, too,” said Bonaventura. “If you choose a wine that’s not complementary to the food, the wine will change its flavor. So, you might think the wine has gone bad, but really it’s not the best pairing."
Lesson Three: Rules are made to be broken
It’s extremely important to pair wine and food accordingly. You’re probably familiar with the old “white goes with fish, red goes with meat” rule. Disregard it completely. Nowadays, it totally depends on the wine. Many whites are heavier and can nicely complement something with cream or meat. Reds have so many different varieties these days, and many lighter ones pair beautifully with fish. Try a wood smoked salmon with a heavy, oaky chardonnay, then try it with a medium-bodied oaky red. Both will pair nicely. "I definitely don’t think those rules are valid anymore, and rules are always made to broken — especially with wine," said Bonaventura.
Other rules to ignore?
One of the biggest misconceptions about wine is that it always gets better with age. In fact, most wines are meant to be drunk within a couple of years. A great example of a wine that breaks all the rules is Beaujolais Nouveau. This wine is released annually on the third Thursday of November and offers a glimpse at the European vintage (this simply means the year — in this case, 2009). It’s bottled as soon as the grapes are squished. Beaujolais Nouveau is recognized around the world as a fantastic wine. This year, especially, it is being praised. Head to your local liquor store and pick up a bottle for about $8.99. Yup, you can get a wine lauded by connoisseurs for under $10. This red wine also pairs nicely with a salad or fish. "It’s great tasting, it’s really, really fresh, and you can taste that in your glass of wine. I don’t think for beginning wine drinkers that it’s important to look at the date or to see when it’s bottled. They really need to focus on what they like," said Bonaventura.
Another rule some people blindly follow is to throw out a bottle when the cork breaks. Bits of cork floating in your wine do not mean the bottle is “corked.” It’s fine. An actually “corked” bottle of wine means the wine has been contaminated with something called TCA — and you’ll smell it. (Don’t worry about what TCA is. It involves fungi and mold — ew.) To avoid corked wine, winemakers are using plastic corks and screw tops more and more. These don’t mean the wine is cheap or crappy. You just don’t have to worry about your bottle being corked!
More winemakers are also doing boxed wine. Again, this doesn’t mean the wine is of poor quality. When wine is boxed, it’s vacuum sealed so the flavor is locked in and your wine lasts longer. It’s also not breakable (perfect for those out-of-control wine ragers).
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to wine. As the industry evolves, everything changes. Not sure what to believe? Comment below and we’ll de-mystify the myth.
Lesson Four: Learning about wine
Taking a class is, of course, a great way to learn. But if you’re looking for something a little less expensive, you can’t go wrong with wine tastings. They’re free to attend. You can go online to find out when their next tasting is. Experts are always on hand to answer any questions you have.
Bonaventura also recommended keeping a wine journal. Tear off labels and paste them in your book. Record your thoughts on the wine — how it tasted, smelled etc. Many wines have easy tear-off labels for this very reason.
There you have it! Now that you really have the basics down, we’ll step it up a notch next month. Happy New Year. Cheers!
Busa Wine and Spirits has six independently owned and operated locations in Salem, Reading, Woburn, Burlington and two in Lexington.