A Beer Lover’s Guide to Wine
Philly Beer Week has come to a close. Alas, there’s always next year. But you’re sick of beer, anyway, right? Time to move on? (As if. Perhaps I should try another tact.)
How about this instead: Since your palate has surely been turned on to many new flavors and ideas this past week, and is as open now as it can ever be, why not consider wine? It’s more like beer than a hophead might think.
If you never drink wine under any circumstances, and you don’t plan to, well, there’s nothing to see here. If you, however, like many beer lovers, occasionally drink the stuff, and have a mild interest in drinking better wine, but don’t really know how to pour your love for beer into fermented grapes, here are a few tips to get you started:
Macro vs Micro
We all know craft beer is superior to the big boys. All those mass-produced beers are made with adjunct ingredients, like rice and corn, which is part of the reason they just don’t taste very good. Many people don’t realize wine is the same. When you buy big brands like Yellow Tail, Woodbridge/Mondavi, Gallo, Barefoot, Cupcake, Fish Eye, etc., you’re not getting a product made by farmers. You’re getting mass-produced wine that’s made with inferior grapes, supplemented by adjunct ingredients like grape juice concentrate (a.k.a. “Mega-purple,” which evens out the flavor) and wood chips that help it taste the same year after year, regardless of how the grapes grew that year. So, I ask you, if you aren’t willing to settle for sub-par ingredients with your beer, why settle for them in wine?
Though there is, in the store, no 100% perfect way to be sure whether a wine has been made the natural way or in a factory (wine labels are notoriously stingy with details) there are a few things you can do:
- Look for on the phrase “produced by” on the label, which means the wine was actually made by the winery itself. (Other phrases such as “cellared by” or “vinted by” suggest otherwise.)
- Get to know your local store’s wine specialist. All the PLCB Premium stores have them (here’s a list), and they know their stuff. Tell ’em you’re looking for something better than the mass-produced, factory made swill, but at a reasonable price. They’ll steer you in the right direction.
- When drinking imported wine, don’t just pay attention to the producer – also consider/note the importer. Chances are, if that importer brought us one quality wine, they’ll bring in others, and you can start to build up a library of companies that you trust.
Breaking Down Wine
Now that we’ve found decent wine, let’s talk about how to enjoy it.
A simple way to break down the flavor of beer is with the malt-hops-alcohol trio. How roasted are the malts? Are they light and biscuity, caramelly, or dark and chocolatey? Is it lightly hopped, mildly-bitter, or does it hit you with a hammer? And how alcoholic is it? Does this provide any heat or sweetness?
With wine, there’s a similar trio. Acid, Tannin and Body.
Acid, similar to malt, is the backbone of wine’s flavor. If it is crisp, like cranberries, for example, that means it’s a high-acid wine. If it is jammy, on the other hand, or stewed, it is low acid.
Acid is probably the most important aspect in wine-food pairings. Medium to high-acid wines pair best with lots of foods, as they clear the palate and play off any acidity in the food. Low-acid wines pair best with rich foods or are sometimes better on their own, without any food.
Like hops, tannins add bitterness to the flavor of the wine, and provide that mouth-drying sensation that is an acquired taste. Unlike hops, tannins are not added to wine – they are polyphenols that naturally occur in grape skins (although choices in the winemaking process can increase or decrease their intensity).
Body in wine is another way to say alcohol. The level of ABV is the main determinant of mouthfeel – is it light, like skim milk, or rich and creamy, like whole milk? Alcohol also adds perceived sweetness in both beer and wine (not to be confused with sweet wine, which is sweet due to sugar). In both industries, it should be noted that there has recently been a movement towards lower alcohol, though I haven’t heard the term “session wine” thrown around much yet.
The other major influence on wine flavor is oak aging, something that’s only recently started to gain traction in the beer world. This can impart flavors such as vanilla, warm spices, tobacco and caramel. It does the same, obviously, for beer.
Now you’re thirsty. We’re here to help. Thus, a few reasonably-priced suggestions based on some popular local beers, using wines that are currently in PLCB stores:
Charles & Charles Rose 2013 ($10.99)
Fruity, smooth, and fresh. Hard to stop sipping on a warm day.
Yards Philly Pale Ale…
La Spinetta Vermentino 2011 ($19.99)
Beautifully balanced, somehow both lush and bright. Delicious.
Philadelphia Brewing Fleur de Lehigh…
Domaine Ehrhart Gewurztraminer Herrenweg 2012 ($14.99)
Opulent tropical fruits and Asian spices lead to a lively finish in this offbeat, exotic pick.
Sly Fox O’Rielly Stout…
Demarie Barbera d’Alba 2010 ($18.99)
Rich, round and cheery, yet surprisingly light on its feet, it goes well with a variety of food.
Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA…
Chateau de Belcier Côtes de Bordeaux 2011 ($15.99)
The choice of kings. Big tannins are balanced by fruit and earthy notes. The best in this one will be brought out by a thick slab of beef. (Full PAVC review)
Victory Dark Intrigue Imperial Stout…
Villa Cafaggio Cortaccio Toscana 2006 ($29.99)
The oak influence is strong with this one: vanilla and warm spice abound.
Whatever’s on draft at Tired Hands…
Terre de Trinci Sagrantino di Montefalco 2006 ($14.99)
Take a walk on the wild side: a rare grape, rustic, funky, rugged, but willing to reward the adventurous. (Full PAVC review)