Selecting wine can be overwhelming. Between vintage, varietal, and processing (just to start!), you could fill your entire brain with wine knowledge and still feel like there's more to learn. Of course, tasting is a great way to learn more, but before you taste, you have to choose! Luckily, we've got a trick that can help you understand what a wine will taste like with just a little information from the label.
As you read, keep an image of the world map in your mind. Wine is an agricultural product. Where the grapes are grown has a profound effect on the final product. The further a location is from the equator, the colder it gets. So, in more northerly regions (in the northern hemisphere), fruits tend to get less ripe than further south. This means that grapes from colder places tend to have less sugar, which is what yeast eats to create alcohol. So, less sugar means less alcohol. Since alcohol is the main determinant of the wine’s body, less alcohol means lighter body.
Conversely, wine from a hot place like Sicily will often have higher alcohol, thus fuller body. The wine’s body translates directly to mouthfeel, with lighter-bodied wines feeling like water in your mouth, but full wines like half-and-half, or even light cream. Why is body so important? Because a light-bodied wine should be paired with a light dish, and vice versa. The Sancerre that is perfect with a goat cheese salad would taste like water with cumin-rubbed salmon with ancho butter…and the Napa Chardonnay for that dish would obliterate the salad. Body is as important as flavor profile!
It is also helpful to distinguish the Old World (wines from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East) from the Old World (everywhere else). This is partly because of climate (France is much further north than the U.S.), but mostly because of perspective.
The French and Italians use wine as a condiment for food, not as a cocktail. So, many European wines taste better with food than by themselves. Remember, lemon juice and hot sauce don’t taste good by themselves, but they accent food and make it taste better. On the other hand, Americans like to drink wine by itself, and so are effectively looking for a cocktail. Cocktails taste good by themselves, and don’t need food. In fact, their flavors can clash with some food flavors. This is precisely why Merlot is so popular—it is usually low in acidity and has soft tannins, so it provides a soft, not-too-sour glass of wine to sip by itself—but it is not great at making food taste better because of the low acidity.
Old World wines tend toward dryness (even if they’re full-bodied) while New World wines tend to have obvious fruit, or even true sweetness in the form of residual sugar.
Now, looking at your mental map of the world, you should have a line drawn from north to south, and east (old world) to west (new world). You also have four quadrants with fairly predictable wine styles. So a wine from northern Italy will be light-bodied and dry, like a Pinot Grigio from Friuli. But a Zinfandel from Paso Robles will be full-bodied and filled with fruit. Looking to the other “corners,” lower-right, or southern Old World, would yield dry, full-bodied wines, whereas the ones from the upper left (north, New World) would tend towards light body and fruit.
What does this do for us? With four basic wine flavor profiles, you can cover more ground more quickly while at the wine store. With some basic pairing rules, you will be able to use the quadrants to find wine that will work for your meal.