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Murray: Look to grapes to find key to wines differences
A red wine primer
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"Now, just what is ‘merlot’ anyway?"

A student in my wine appreciation class asked me that in the first session. It reminded me that facts, terms, issues, etc., that some of us take for granted, others find puzzling.

I thought of that student recently when, at a gathering of friends, one asked me the same question ... only it was "pinot grigio," not "merlot."

Well, folks, I’m here to answer both questions, and to pitch some basic wine knowledge in your general direction. Get that glove ready to catch.

Merlot and pinot grigio are the names of the grapes that make up the wines bearing those names. Merlot is a red wine grape; pinot grigio produces white wine — and a pink wine, too.

Wines named for the variety of grape that makes up the majority of that wine are called varietal wines. The percentage of the contents of the named grapes varies from country to country. In the United States, 75 percent of the wine must be from the named grape. In Australia, it’s 85 percent. Some countries require 100 percent.

Merlot is the most popular red wine in this country, and pinot grigio is the most popular white. Before merlot took the lead in the early 1990s, cabernet sauvignon was America’s choice for a red wine with dinner. Merlot was primarily a blending grape, a role this noble grape still plays in France’s Bordeaux wine region.

But American wine makers realized that cabernet sauvignon needed some time in the bottle to mellow some of its hardness, caused primarily by levels of tannins in the grapes. (Tannins are the "stuff" that gives red wine its body and ability to get better with age.) Merlot, however, is softer, more round in the mouth and becomes ready to drink more quickly than cabernet. And Americans are notoriously impatient.

There are many more red wine grapes than the ones I’ve mentioned here — these are vinifera grapes, or classic European wine grapes. There are native American grapes, such as muscadines, and French-American hybrids, such as marechal foch and chambourcin.

But Americans tend to buy varietals with European heritage. In fact, labeling wine by grape type is an American phenomenon. Wine makers around the world learned to put grape names on the labels if they want to sell in this country.

The next column will deal with some of the more popular white wine grapes and the wines they produce.

Oh, almost forgot, when you’re serving red wine, pop the bottle into the fridge for about 20 minutes before you serve it. Trust me ... it will taste and feel better.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. E-mail him your questions about wine. His column runs the first week of the month.

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