Wine Not: Que Syrah, Syrah

A properly poured glass of red wine. Photo by Matt Williams.
A properly poured glass of red wine. Photo by Matt Williams.

This week, leave your beer mug on the shelf and dust off your long-stemmed glasses for a toast to Dionysus. We’re talking wine.

Wine production, or vinification, dates back to at least 6,000 BC, although different regions developed it at different times. While Montanans are becoming more and more familiar with craft beer, any wine fancier than Franzia still intimidates many college students.

Even though each bottle contains tens of thousands of chemicals, there are only four main varieties of wine: regional, varietal, proprietary and generic. Regional wines come from areas with long histories of wine production and often include specific grapes and cultivation practices, which may even be codified into law. Burgundy and Champagne are good examples.

Varietal wines are named after the grape variety from which they are produced. Many New World wines are varietals, while most of the better Old World wines are regionals. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and many others are all varietals.

Specific wineries sometimes produce their own proprietary wines — this is especially common in California. Think Blue Nun or Joseph Phelps Insignia.

Many generic wines are simply a marketing ploy to sell (usually cheap) modern American wines. These often simply confuse the customer.

Conventional wisdom dictates pairing red wine with beef and white wine with fish or poultry, but that’s a bit too simplistic. In a good pairing, the wine and food should both compete equally for your palate, with neither dominating.

Human tongues can taste four different flavors: sweetness, saltiness, acidity and bitterness. Dropping the unpleasant idea of a salty wine leaves us three potential flavors. Choose a wine that complements your food: sweet with sweet, bitter with bitter. If you order fish — onto which you might squeeze an acidic lemon — then consider a more acidic wine.

Of course, like all other rules, this one was meant to be broken. Contrasting flavors can also excite your palate. If you’re eating salty chips, a sweet Riesling could pair nicely with the saltiness while also imparting some of its sweetness to your palate.

In addition to flavor interactions, consider the heaviness or lightness of your meal. In general, pair hearty food — like winter stew or meat and potatoes — with a heavier bodied red wine. For more delicate meals — like chicken or pasta with a butter-based sauce — go for a white wine.

More important than anything else, though, is that you drink a wine you enjoy. If you want to drink chilled, cheap red wine with a lobster and crab dinner, just ensure that your sommelier’s horrified face makes it taste that much better.

Before closing, here are a few quick and dirty tips: Don’t smell the cork when your waiter removes it; doing so marks you as a rookie. Wine aficionados use the cork to verify the name of the winery and the vintage.

Fill your glass between a quarter and a third full and pinch the stem between your index finger and thumb. Holding the bowl of the glass transfers body heat to chilled white wines. While holding the bowl may be acceptable for red wines, you can’t see the color or clarity of your wine through your hand or the fingerprints it leaves.

The phenomenon known as “wine legs,” “tears of wine” or, in a humorous twist, “church windows” occurs when droplets form in a ring at the top of your glass and fall in rivulets back into the liquid. Legs actually indicate a wine’s alcohol content, with more prominent legs meaning more alcohol. Google the Marangoni effect to nerd out on the physics behind the phenomenon.

I admit that normally I’d reach for a pint of Montana beer before a glass of wine, but wine is a world unto itself and even a beer-lover does him- or herself a disservice to ignore it. Should adventurous university students venture anywhere that’s not their local microbrewery, a basic knowledge of wine is a prerequisite for appearing cultured. Just make sure you figure out how to open the bottle first.