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Stew Cues: First step in understanding wine is understanding grapes


Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

Many people are overwhelmed and intimidated around wine. That is no wonder, considering the many vineyards, countries, styles, and prices to choose from.

Knowing which brand to buy and how much to pay is confusing. The key to answering these questions is to learn the grapes and the simple words that best describe the aromas, taste and finish of the wines we like. Once we can explain what we enjoy or the qualities we are looking for, we are off to a good start.

The most important factor is the grapes. There are three white and three red classic noble grapes. Noble grapes is the term used to describe the international grape variety that consistently makes premium wines worldwide.

Many originate in France, so it is helpful to learn a bit about French growing regions and the characteristics of the grapes that grow there. Historically, France has influenced growing and production methods implemented worldwide. Many of the famous wines that stews will buy and serve on yachts come from these classic regions, and it is important to know what it is about these wines that owners and guests prefer.

The six classic noble grapes are Riesling, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay for whites, and pinot noir, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon for reds. 

Riesling is a white grape that flourishes in the French region of Alsace. Often considered a sweet wine, it can be produced in a sweet or a dry style. With its citrus-y flavor and floral aromas, it is a good beginner’s wine that pairs well with spicy or Asian foods.

Sauvignon blanc is often noted for its medium to high acidity. When aged in oak, it becomes full- bodied and complex. Lighter, fresh, zesty, and fruity unoaked varieties make a great aperitif. New Zealand produces popular styles with distinctive grapefruit and passionfruit notes. It originates in the Bordeaux and Loire Valley regions of France.

The third white grape, chardonnay, is the most widely grown white grape in the world. It produces a full-bodied wine with a great array of flavors and scents that vary according to the growing and aging conditions. Those aged in oak take on a rich, buttery flavor, while unoaked varieties are lighter, crisper, and fruitier. It originates in the Burgundy region of France.

Pinot noir grapes produce a light-bodied red wine with low tannins and medium acidity. Although light in color, aging in oak gives it a deep, earthy flavor with balanced dark fruit flavors like cherry and blackberry. It pairs well with a variety of foods, including salmon and truffles. It originates in Burgundy.

Merlot is a smooth, approachable medium-body red wine with low to medium tannins. The red fruit aromas pair well with many foods, and aging in oak brings out mocha, vanilla, and earthy flavors. It originates in Bordeaux where it was originally used as a blending wine. The name means “little blackbird”.

Cabernet sauvignon grapes produce some of the finest and priciest wines in the world. It is full- bodied with heavy tannins. The dark red fruit flavors vary depending on climate and soil conditions and take on deep earthy flavors when aged in oak. The acidity and high tannins make it great for pairing with fatty, heavy foods and sauces.

The sheer variety and number of selections available can make wine seem intimidating. Learning about the noble grapes is a great first step in building your knowledge and defeating overwhelm.

Bear in mind that wine is subjective, and the main function is to give us enjoyment. Everyone has different tastes, and we should honor that.

Alene Keenan is former lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She offers online courses to make training available to everyone and shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at and on Amazon. Comments are welcome below.

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