Sunday, March 04, 2007

Wine Trek: The Big Six

Recall the scene in the 007 classic “From Russia, With Love.” After sitting down and ordering dinner on the Orient Express with the assassin Donald Grant, who is posing as James Bond’s informant (who he has actually already killed), Bond feels suspicious of Grant, and pulls a gun on him. Grant catches Bond by surprise and, after a short grapple, he knocks Bond to the floor by a blow to the back of the neck. Bond looks up at his attacker and says (in true 007 fashion): “Red wine with fish…well, that should have told me something.”

Choosing a fantastic wine to accompany a great meal without the help of your server is not impossible. However, it is necessary to know a little bit about the main kinds of wine available. Once you are familiar with the major varietals (that’s what we posh wine connoisseurs call “types of grape”), you can make an educated guess on the kind of wine that would best suit your meal choice. There are six primary varietals, and with them come a few classic food and wine matchings. What follows is a brief explanation of “The Big Six.” We’ll begin with the three whites (from lightest to fullest): Reisling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, and will continue to the three reds (from lightest to fullest in body): Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.



Reislings are the lightest in body of The Big 6. Depending on the age of the Reisling, the wine can range from light green to straw yellow in color. Characterized by crisp acidity, and a smoother, sweeter taste, Reislings are often the wine of choice for newer wine-drinkers. However, when matched with the correct food, Rieslings can make ordinary food transform. The Reisling varietal is native to Northern France (Lorraine) and Germany. The cold climate slows fermentation of the grape, leaving most Reislings with a lower alcohol content, settling comfortably around 11%. When smelling a Reisling, you will detect notes of fresh cut grass, honey, and even petroleum.

Also try: Gewurtztraminer (Germany) (usually drier than the standard Reisling)

Classic Pairings: Thai cuisine

Spicy Curry

Cajun cuisine


Fruit-based desserts

Sauvignon Blanc

Fuller in body than a Reisling but less powerful than a Chardonnay is the Sauvignon Blanc varietal. It ranges from light greenish to honey in color, and is characterized as a “fruit-forward wine.” This means that the amount of fruit that you can smell in the wine overpowers the other minerals or alcoholic aromas. Even the tiniest sniff at the top of a glass of Sauvignon Blanc reveals its fruity essences. Grapefruit is always dominant, with hints of green apple and pear. You can also smell a bit of a herbaceous quality in some brands, including parsley, chive, and tarragon. Sauvignon Blancs have a clean feeling that makes a well-chilled glass a perfect aperitif for a summer barbeque.

Also Try: Pinot Grigio (Italy) , Pouilly-Fuisse (France)

Classic Pairings: Steamed, baked, or sautéed white fish with spring vegetables

Barbequed Shrimp and Vegetable Skewers


No doubt about it, Chardonnay is the best known varietal. Its creamy feeling and smooth acidity give it the edge when it comes to pleasing a crowd. It is a full-bodied white wine that stands up well to seriously flavorful foods. Depending on the age of the wine, Chardonnays can range from light green to caramel yellow – a huge span that makes Chardonnay an extremely versatile wine. Classic Chardonnays are smoky, with flavors of ripe apple, and pear. These flavors are paired with aromas of butter, spices (like nutmeg and cloves), and oak. The oak smell comes from the wood barrels that Chardonnays are typically aged in.

Also Try: Chablis (France)

Classic Pairings: Salmon with beurre blanc sauce

Lobster Thermidor

Seafood linguini with cream-based sauces

Cheese-Stuffed Chicken Breast


Pinot Noir

The Pinot Noir grape produces a red wine suitable for any occasion. It is a light-bodied wine and a fantastic one for white-wine lovers willing to give reds a try. The color of Pinot Noir wine ranges from ruby red to cranberry, depending on the age of the wine. It is a very earthy wine, usually smelling of clay, leaves, mushrooms, vanilla, and minerals. In some cases, you can smell dark caramel or berries, usually raspberries and sour cherries.

Also Try: Gamay (France), Shiraz (Australia/New Zealand)

Classic Pairings: Wild Mushroom Risotto

Grilled Game Birds (Pheasant, Quail, Duck)

Rotisserie Chicken


A classic Merlot can bring sophistication to any table. Being medium-to-full in body and tannic in nature, a Merlot is an old-standby that charms even the most discerning tastes. Newer Merlots, a year or less old, are cranberry in color, but can develop into deep brick red wines. Usually a chocolate-cherry smell, Merlots can also carry scents of bakeshop spices like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon that are even detectable by beginning connoisseurs.

Also Try: Syrah (France), Sangiovese (Italy)

Classic Pairings: Molten Lava Chocolate Cake

Garlic-Studded/Herb-Crusted Lamb Rack

Cabernet Sauvignon

The best known red wine grape is indisputedly the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal. Full in body and with an erudite reputation, Cabernet wine enjoys the reputation of being the wine of choice for true wine drinkers. Cabernet Sauvignon is heavy on the tannin feeling, leaving a lasting feeling in the mouth that lingers long after the wine has been swallowed. They are typically dark raspberry-to-brick red in color and carry essences of cedar, blackcurrant, cherries, and even eucalyptus (in Australian vintages).

Also Try: Medoc (France), Tempranillo (Spain)

Classic Pairings: Bleu Cheese-Crusted Filet Mignon

Boeuf Bourgignon

Dark Chocolate Desserts

Knowing The Big 6 is just the first step to understanding more about wines. From this list you can make a fully-reasonable hypothesis about what wine to order with your dinner, and that will help you to enjoy your dinner much more fully. Wine is not meant to overshadow or steal the thunder from food. On the contrary, wine and food are delicate complements, and creating the perfect symbiosis between the two takes practice. With these guidelines, you’ll look like 007 when making your selection. After all, only evil assassins order red wine with fish.

To be published in the Summer issue of Good Outs: Tallahassee magazine

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