The Wine Poser

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We've seen them holding court in restaurants: the proud, self-proclaimed wine connoisseurs who appear to know everything about wine and even manage to pronounce "Pouilly Fuisse" correctly (pu-EE-FWEE-say). They slowly peruse the wine list and duly impress everyone.

But here's a well-kept secret: Most of these people know only the basics and a few buzzwords. A little bit of wine knowledge will take you a long way, so here's your chance to join the circle of chic posers. We'll start with the most obvious element, the main grapes.

There are hundreds of varietals, but six are the most widely known. White wine grapes include Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. These grape types — most of which you have seen on labels — have different characteristics and flavors that will either tempt you or turn you away.

Chardonnay (shar-dun-NAY) is one of the hottest white wine varietals out there. It's grown just about everywhere in the world, and is the grape found in White Burgundy. It's often described as "oaky" (an oft-used wine-geek word), meaning that during the fermentation or aging process, the oak barrels (or oak chips) added a woody characteristic to the wine that can be smelled and tasted. People also adorn Chardonnay with fluffy buzzwords: buttery, vanilla, melon, and honeysuckle. These subjective flavors and aromas are what your nose smells and your tongue tastes before, during and sometimes after the wine is in your mouth. But remember: What one person tastes will rarely be what another tastes, so if you find yourself saying, "Huh? What butter?" You're OK. Some good, consistent producers of Chardonnay: Stonestreet (California), Lindeman's (Australia) and Hogue Cellars (Washington).

Sauvignon Blanc (SO-vin-yon BLAHNK) — or Fume (FOO-may) Blanc as it is sometimes called — yields a "lighter" wine than Chardonnay, meaning the flavor isn't as strong. It's often acidic, a characteristic that makes you pucker when you sip it, but the better wineries have found the balance between acidity and fruit. Buzzwords for Sauvignon Blanc: citrus, apple, and — this is a good one for "snoot appeal" — herbaceous (Er-BAY-shus). Herbaceous means the wine reminds you of a meadow or a mouth full of fresh herbs. Some people like this and some don't. Delicious Sauvignon Blancs come from Brancott (New Zealand), Geyser Peak (California) and Kenwood (California).

Cabernet Sauvignon (cab-er-NAY SO-vin-yon) reigns as the king of red wine. A primary grape in the Bordeaux region of France, "Cab" — as the wine world affectionately calls it — is produced and consumed all over the world. Full-bodied, these wines are flavorful and can have more tannin (the substance that makes your mouth feel dry and like sandpaper) than other red wines. Good, trendy throw-around words are oak, tobacco, leather, cherry and currant. Reliable labels for cab are Beringer (California), Guenoc (California) and Chateau Souverain (California).

Merlot (mur-LO) is another red grape that originates from the Bordeaux region. This grape produces smoother, less tannic wines that are easier to drink than its sibling Cabernet. Cabernet is often blended with Merlot to smooth out the rough edges of a young, robust Cab. Merlot continues to grow in popularity among the up-and-coming wine snobs because of its fruitiness (some of them taste like grape juice) and softness on the tongue. Buzzwords: chocolate, black cherry, coffee, and plum. Merlot makers of note: Blackstone (California), Columbia Crest (Washington) and Flora Springs (California).

Pinot Noir (PEE-no NWAH) represents the rising star in the wine world, and sits on the expensive end of the spectrum. Pinot forms the foundation of Red Burgundy, the high-class wine from southeastern France and carries an expensive reputation. The expense is not without reason. Because of its sensitivity to weather, this grape is difficult to grow and prices reflect this effort. Lighter in flavor than Merlot or Cabernet, Pinot is normally "fruit-forward" — meaning the first thing you taste is the grapeyness and not the tannin — and can vary in quality from bottle to bottle. Buzzwords: raspberry, spicy, fruity and earthy (smells like dirt). Proud Pinot producers: Rex Hill (Oregon), David Bruce (California) and Saintsbury (California).

Red Zinfandel was born in the U.S.A., although its origins have sparked many debates. But Americans have laid claim to this grape and created the best-selling wine in America: White Zinfandel. White Zin, a blush wine made with red grapes, was created in the 1980s by M. Trinchero to utilize the huge quantities of red Zinfandel in the vineyards. But it wasn't until the 1990s that red Zin became a player in the wine world. Red zinfandels can be tannic or fruity, and are great food wines — they can be consumed with just about anything. Buzzwords to describe Zinfandel: peppery, blackberry, spicy and jammy. Zippy Zins are made at Ravenswood (California), Gallo of Sonoma (California), and Seghesio (California).

(You might have noticed I didn't mention any French goodies. That's a whole other barrel of grapes that we'll tackle in a near-future column.)

Now that you know the grape basics, you have ammunition to go forth and wage snobbery with the pretenders. Rest assured the people at the next table will never know. And it's always fun to give snobs a run for their money — and their limited knowledge.

Have a fabulous wine or wine experience you want to share with us? Bring it on! We'll feature your comments in a monthly mailbag. E-mail [email protected] or mail to Corkscrew: 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605.

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