Olympia – Jan/Feb 2018

Wine 101: From Grape to Glass

Purple and green grapes


Learning about and purchasing wine can be daunting. There’s a jungle of vines and wines out there. The world of wine can be fraught with elitism. And often we are pressed to buy by the “score” wine publications and other experts give them. It can be quite the dilemma. Where does one begin? In my view, we should start with vitis vinifera, aka the wine grape.

Not all wine grapes, and therefore not all wines, are created equal. The classics — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Nebbiolo grapes (responsible for Italy’s magnificent wines, Barolo and Barbaresco) have track records going back centuries. They are the backbone of wine/winemaking (oenological) history and of Europe’s greatest (and most expensive) wines.

Basket of red wine grapes

Wine grapes

Many new wine lovers cut (and stain) their teeth on these familiar varietals. Fortunately, they’ve been cultivated to suit more modest tastes and pocketbooks. (Incidentally variety refers to the kind of grape; varietal refers to a wine made from a single grape variety.) These grapes are very much at home in the New World, particularly the United States. Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay grow beautifully in sunny California; Pinot Noir in Oregon; Merlot in Washington State. Riesling likes northern California’s cooler coast and Washington and Oregon. Tasty Sauvignon Blanc can be found in all regions. In the last 30 years, all these grape varieties have found a degree of comfort in Canadian soils too. (Nebbiolo has not followed the same migratory pattern.) New World climates drive these grapes to produce wine with more alcohol content and more fruity taste than their European cousins.

It’s not just the type of grape (the variety), but also the soil, the weather, and the skill and techniques of the winemaker that determines the taste of different wines.

The wine grape develops its own personality according to the region and soil on which it is grown. The marriage of grape, earth, and climate is referred to as “terroir.” In the hands of the winemaker, the grape becomes even more of an individual. If he or she ferments, say, Chardonnay in stainless steel it’s a good bet the wine is crisp and smacking of fresh green apple. But a barrel-fermented Dhardonnay behaves quite differently displaying toasty, rich, and spice notes and may taste more like mom’s apple pie.

If the sun shines kindly on the grape all should go pretty well. In less mild (clement) or wet years, the grapes get grumpy and don’t perform particularly well in the winery or in the bottle.

Perfectly cooked beef pairs well with Merlot

Merlot pairs well with beef.

Pairing Wine with Food

As far as wines’ role at the table, whether from the New or Old World, classic varietals are best with classic fare. For instance, Merlot goes well with roast beef, Cabernet Sauvignon with lamb chops, Pinot Noir with boeuf Bourgignon or coq au vin, and Riesling with coq au Riesling and roast pork. Sauvignon Blanc quite likes coquille St. Jacques and a buttery Chardonnay loves lobster.

Wines made from the classic varieties (grapes) go well with classic foods. For instance, Merlot pairs well with beef.

French grapes (varieties) that are traditionally used for blends become proud stand-alones. These include Malbec (now Argentina’s signature varietal), Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Syrah (Shiraz), Mourvedre, Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne and Semillon. Their roles on the culinary stage play a major part in ethnic and American dishes that borrow and blend flavors from all over the globe.

America’s great melting pot of cultures and cuisines has introduced us also to the charms of less noble, but no less tasty, varietals from other countries. Try Sangiovese (think Chianti) and marvelous Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino with Italian dishes, Spanish Tempranillo with saffron-scented dishes and spicy chorizo, and trendy Pinot Gris/Grigio with shellfish.

Then there is California’s own Zinfandel. (Its great-great-grandaddy is thought to be southern Italy’s Primitivo.) And nothing waves the American flag more than Zinfandel with a juicy  burger or steak  topped American blue cheese.

Burger with knife sticking out of the top

Just begging for a nice California Zinfandel.

Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by all the choices. I encourage you to stick your nose not just into the glass but also into the world of viticulture (grape-growing) and viniculture (wine making). Attend wine events or organize a tasting with your friends. Find a wine vendor you trust. Ask about pairing wine with food and experiment on your own.

As your wine horizons broaden, your taste buds will reward you well. Cultivating an interest in the wine grape, guaranteed, will make you a savvy purchaser too. And the whole wine thing won’t be half as intimidating.

Check out wine courses in your town, or visit This Wine Tastings Guide website is packed with easy-to-understand, non-intimidating information on everything from wine and wine pairing to how to make vinegar.

Recommended reading:

Any book by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson and Andrew Jefford.


Book cover for "Experiencing Wine for Dummies"

Wine for Dummies by Ed McCarthy (a fine primer)

Windows On the World Wine Course by Kevin Zraly.

Book cover for the Complete Wine Course

The “bible” from Windows On the World Wine School

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Julie Pegg, RFT Contributor

Julie Pegg has been writing about food, wine, and spirits for 15 years. She was a product consultant for 14 of her 24 years working for the British Columbia Liquor Board in Vancouver. She still keeps her hand in (and elbow firmly bent) at Dundarave Wine Cellars in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Julie is also a keen amateur cook who loves culinary travel. Farmers’ markets and wine shops are always her first stop.