Selecting Wine According to Style
Selling wine by how it tastes is a simple and useful concept.
Illustration by Elena Viltovskaia
Have you ever wished you could buy wine that was classified by style? For years, we have bought and sold wine by price, producer, region, sub-region and even, sometimes, by the food type with which it pairs well. Yet seldom, if ever, do we see wines sold by style, except on a few wine lists.
Imagine how simple it would be to shop for wine by style, without worrying about origin, producer or grape?
It seems Americans are in luck thanks to WineStyles, a national chain of more than 100 wine stores that have been laid out to simplify the customer’s wine-shopping experience. That’s right, the customer, not the store clerks or the supplier.
The store is divided into eight different style or taste categories, as defined by the WineStyles mandate: crisp, silky, rich and bubbly for whites; fruity, mellow and bold for red wines; and nectar for sweet offerings.
It makes a lot sense given how many people use the same simple terms to describe their favourite vino, and, with any luck, more wine shops and restaurants will take this cue. Here’s how it works:
The story of modern white wine is its crisp, clean style. Fresh, thirst-quenching and palate-cleansing, it not only tastes good, but it sets the stage for your next bite of food. In the cellar, the wine sees no wood and, lately, more concrete and less stainless steel. Normally young and fruity, rieslings, sauvignon blancs and unwooded chardonnays lead the charge, but a wide variety of grapes can fit this descriptor.
My choice is Kung Fu Girl Riesling ($24), from Washington’s Columbia Valley. The Kung Fu Girl Riesling label looks like it’s promoting a bad Jackie Chan movie, but when you taste the wine, it’s all black belt. On the palate, the acidity you hope for arrives to freshen up the lime, wet stone and just off-dry apricot/tangerine flavours. Perfect for spicy dishes.
Described as “the bridge between crisp and rich,” silky wines tend to have a smoother mid-palate and more texture, often revealing themselves in creamy, buttery notes. New Zealand chardonnay is grossly underestimated for its smooth style and crisp flavours.
An excellent example is the Cloudy Bay Chardonnay ($43) from Marlborough on the South Island. The taste is a delicious mix of juicy and creamy peach, melon, lemon, butter and honey, flecked with cinnamon and nuts.
Rich is reserved for the most-opulent whites. They are aged in wood and so full they really require food to be at their best. Think Rhne whites, big white Burgundies such as Corton Charlemagne or California chardonnay.
My silky pick is the revamped Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay ($35) from the Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. Juicy, elegant and ripe, you can savour its orange, honey, buttery, spicy lees and nutty flavours flecked with guava, green apple and pear. The finish is silky-smooth.
Bubbly wines are pretty much self-explanatory. Wines with bubbles are known as sparkling wine, including the finest examples from Champagne, France. The majority of sparkling wine made around the planet is not Champagne, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less fun to drink. Prosecco from Italy, Cava from Spain or mthode traditonelle from Canada can deliver equally compelling examples at bargain prices.
My pick is the revamped and delicious Charles Heidsieck N/V Brut Reserve ($72) from Champagne, France, whose refined mousse is only surpassed by its spicy, toasted, nutty, citrus, baked apple, pear and cherry flavours. Impressive, fresh, mouth-filling bubbles that overachieve for the price.
Do not confuse fruity with sweet. Think young wines that see little or no oak to allow the fruit to tell its story. Often, this style of wine works well with spicy or hot dishes where the ripe fruit helps tame the dish’s heat.
I suggest the southern Rhne where the fruity grenache dominates. Brotte 2008 Ctes du Rhne Les Brottiers ($18), with its peppery, black raspberry and licorice aromas, delivers a wallop of supple, juicy black cherry, plum and raspberry fruit flavours with excellent balance. Solid value here.
The zone between fruity and bold is mellow. Normally medium-bodied with a modicum of tannins, WineStyles aptly describes them as “party pleaser” reds you can sip with or without food.
The perfect wine for that is the Luigi Bosca 2007 Reserva Malbec ($22) from Mendoza, Argentina. Expect a mellow, mouth-filling red with a savoury licorice fruit flavour and bits of plum, tobacco and black olives. Best with grilled meat entrees.
The most robust, complex reds come with a decent amount of mouth-filling tannins, qualifying them for the “bold” tag. A wonderful example of an Old World bold red is the Le Serre Nuove Dell’ Ornellaia ($50) from Bolgheri, Tuscany, Italy. This latest blend of Bordeaux varietals is full, round, juicy and dry, with plenty of smooth-grained tannin. Black olive, tobacco leaf and peppery, licorice notes mix with orange peel, cassis and black cherry fruit. Long and dry, with some youthful tannin, it needs bottle time to mature.
The New World bold is similarly styled with complex, mouth-filling tannins, but often there is bright, richer fruit and softer tannins in the back end. What it gives up in complexity it makes up for in sheer hedonistic flavours.
A current favourite is the Caymus 2008 Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($140) from Napa Valley, California. The nose is a riot of smoky, coffee, floral and cassis jam aromas with blackberry, vanilla, savoury notes, while the entry is round, smooth and warm. Expect plenty of blackberry jam, coffee, pepper, vanilla and cedar/tobacco flavours on the palate, with bits of leather, chocolate and coffee in the finish. You can drink this now with a rib-eye steak, grilled rare.
As you might suspect, nectar is a nod toward the great sweet wines of the world. In this case, the sweetness comes from the amount of unfermented or residual sugar left in the wine. The more residual sugar, the sweeter the wine, but, in this case, it’s the wines with great acidity to balance all that sugar that get our attention.
A local favourite is the Quails’ Gate Late Harvest Totally Botrytis Affected Optima ($36/375 ml) from the Okanagan Valley. Its light gold colour and inviting honey, orange rind, floral apricot nose seduce your senses. So ripe and rich, with fine sugar/acid balance, it boasts an abundance of juicy, lychee, baked apple, honey, orange rind, apricot, and lanolin flavours.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who is the editor-in-chief of Calgary-based Wine Access magazine.