Tip Sheet: Beyond the Grape

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Certified sommelier Clara Orban, chair of modern languages and professor of French and Italian and a frequent speaker at alumni events across the country, has been teaching The World of Wine to undergraduates since 2002. In her class, Orban explores the history and culture of wine, as well as its geographical impact. In addition, she shares her expertise with the general public in “Wine Lessons: Ten Questions to Guide Your Appreciation of Wine” (2010, Kendall Hunt Publishing) and “Illinois Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide” (2014, Southern Illinois University Press). Below, Orban discusses how to pick the perfect wine.

The United States has become the largest wine-consuming nation in the world. In 2013, we drank 2.82 gallons per person, for a total of 329 million cases. However, consumers are still confused—perhaps even intimidated—by wine. There are a few simple tips to follow when looking for the right bottle.

First, context is all-important. Are you buying the wine to consume with a meal? If so, it should complement the food. Are you adding the wine to your collection? You’ll need to think about bottles that age well.

Let’s start with the last option first. Reds such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and California Cabernet come to mind as wines that have long cellaring capacity, depending on their vintage year and the way they have been stored. For white wines that age well, you may want to look into German Rieslings or French Semillons. Mostly, though, you’ll want to concentrate on wines that go well with the foods you like.

In general, think about the flavor profile of the food when choosing a wine. Delicately flavored foods, such as fish in cream sauce, will not stand up well to a full-bodied wine. A robust food, such as grilled steak, will be wonderful paired with a red wine with lots of body. There is a general—and generally sound—rule that white wines go with fish while reds go with meat. Most fish have healthy omega oils. The higher acidity of white wines will cut through the strong flavor of oily fish; it’s the same reason you might sprinkle lemon on fish. Red meat has iron. Tannins, which are abundant in red wines, neutralize or soften the heavy taste of iron. Whether you stick to this tradition or not, respect the general “weight” of the food flavors when making your choice.

Of course, you might just want to sip a glass of wine by itself. Whatever the occasion, drink what you like. The best way to enjoy wine is by sharing it with family and friends as you create moments to remember.


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