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What's What?

Demystifying the wonderful world of wines.

There’s a great big ocean of good wine out there and stylistically, it’s all over the map — literally. By sharpening your ability to figure out what you like and why you like it, you can have an easier time buying what you like. Here’s a breakdown of the four most important things to know.

If you tend to like bitter foods (greens like arugula and watercress), vinegar-based foods (condiments like mustard) and drink your coffee black with no sugar, then you probably also enjoy more tannic wines. Why? Because tannin has a drying, bitter sensation. Think of drinking black tea without milk. It isn’t a flavor, but more of a textural sensation, as tannin comes from the skins, seeds and stems of the grape. Which wines are more tannic? Cabernets, merlots, wines from Northern Italy like Barolos, Barbarescos (Nebbiolo is the grape) and some syrahs.

Acid is similar texturally. In wines it brings them life, lifts up the flavors, makes them zippy and fresh. We all know what acid in foods is like — anything with lemon, citrus in general, tomatoes, etc. All those tart, tangy foods really get your salivary glands going. Acid is essential in wine but some wines are made to preserve that acid and some are made in such a way that softens it. Think of a light, refreshing, tart sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or the Loire Valley in France versus a fullbodied, creamy, buttery Chardonnay. The way these wines feel on your tongue is very different.

Another component in wine is body. The way I like to think of body is the difference between skim milk versus whole milk versus heavy cream. The weight of the liquid and mouthfeel — the way it feels in your mouth — is key to understanding your palate. You say to yourself either, “Wow, this wine is rich, heavy, full-bodied and I like it!” or, “Geez, I wish this wine weren’t so strong.” While this term isn’t really used in the industry, one can interpret the criticism as meaning too heavy or too tannic.

When we limit ourselves to words like smooth, dry or sweet, we’re missing out on some more dialed-in adjectives that will inform our wine search. Words like fruity, earthy, spicy and floral help you and the outside world better define your palate and lead you to some interesting finds. So, to summarize, if you’re the kind of person who likes rich, creamy sauces — and frankly, who doesn’t — and you drink four double grande lattes a day, then you probably prefer wines that are richer, and more fullbodied, possibly more oaky, but not too tannic. Or, maybe you just like them all.

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