Wine primer: Learn your merlots from your malbecs

Whether you’re just satisfying your own curiosity or you’re planning a particularly special evening, understanding wine is a worthwhile skill to master. And with the help of wine guru Andre Proulx, the ability is well within your grasp.

red wine

As a long-time wine lover and host of Newstalk 1010’s The Wine Review with Andre Proulx, Mr. Proulx is a man who certainly knows his grape-based beverages. He helps us break down the major wine groups so you can strut into your wine store with new-found confidence and pick the perfect beverage for your next gathering.


If you’re new to wine drinking, Proulx suggests Rieslings are a great place to start. He finds they tend to be a little sweet but with a nice acidity that doesn’t leave a heavy taste on the back of your tongue after each sip. Rieslings lean toward bright citrus flavours such as lemon, lime and grapefruit. They can also have notes of honey, but not so much as to be overwhelmingly sweet. Consider a dry Riesling for a citrus blast with much less sweetness, suggests Proulx.

Proulx’s pick: Megalomaniac winery’s Homegrown Riesling ($13)

Pinot gris

In addition to Rieslings, Proulx finds pinot gris to also be a good way to get started on your wine journey. Pinot gris (French) and pinot grigios (Italian) offer crisp flavours as well, but they’re more tropical, such as pineapple, melon and mango. They also tend to be more mellow and have lingering flavours, and they pair well with Chinese or Thai food. Proulx suggests they make great summer wines in particular.

Proulx’s pick: Henry of Pelham’s 2011 Pinot Grigio ($15)


Picking the right chardonnay can be a little trickier than with other whites, since the wine can be oaked or unoaked. Oaked chardonnay is left to sit in an oak barrel for varying time frames, while unoaked is not. If you’re new to chardonnay, Proulx suggests unoaked is the better place to start, as the barrelling process can add a layer of complexity that might be too much. Unoaked chardonnay tends to be quite dry, with crisp, almost tropical notes. It’s easy to pair with such foods as barbecue or roast chicken. For the ultimate pairing, Proulx advises trying it with simple dishes that aren’t too laden with sauce.

Oaked chardonnays, on the other hand, are a little harder to nail down, as the flavours are dependent on what type of barrel was used and how long the wine was left in it. So a little trial and error might be necessary in finding the one that suits your palate. Oaked chardonnays tend to have creamier and more complex flavours, such as butterscotch and caramel.

Proulx’s picks: 2008 Malivoire Chardonnay ($11) or Château des Charmes 2009 Chardonnay ($20)

Blended wines

If you’re having a gathering and aren’t sure what everyone will like, Proulx finds blended wines to be an excellent option. Blended wines are mixes of a variety of grapes. Although they can be hit or miss, Proulx finds that, for the most part, the balance of flavours grants blended wines the ability to never be too “in your face.” Because different grapes bring different flavours to the table, you can wind up with all kinds of tasty combinations. And these unique combinations can act as great conversation starters.

Proulx advises that blended wines will simply be labelled as “red” or “white,” but if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that most bottles will break down the percentages of which grapes the wine contains. This is a good starting point in picking out wines you’ll be interested in. And if you can’t find the information you’re looking for at the store, check out the company’s website to get a breakdown of what flavours you can expect and what foods they suggest pair well with it.

Proulx’s picks: Trius Red 2010 ($23) or 2011 Sibling Rivalry White ($14)

Got some extra? Check out how to use leftover wine >>


Proulx suggests gamay as a first step if you’re just getting into red wine. He explains that they tend to be light and fruity, with a variety of cherry flavours. Although wine snobs might give you a hard time for enjoying this lighter wine, Proulx explains that many Beaujolais wines use gamay grapes, and this is a trend that’s going to continue. So ignore those stiffs, and enjoy your gamay!

Proulx’s pick: Trumpour’s Mill Gamay Noir VQA ($15)


Merlots differentiate from other red wines in that the fruit has ripened more, explains Proulx. Merlots tend to offer fruity flavours such as raspberry, and are not too heavy, which makes them the ultimate crowd-pleaser. They are gifted with smooth finishes as well, which means the flavours don’t linger on your palate for too long. The difference between merlots and malbecs? Proulx explains that both wines tend to have similar flavours, but malbecs can sometimes be a little heavier.

Proulx’s pick: Peninsula Ridge A.J. Lepp Vineyards Reserve Merlot 2010 ($20)

Cabernet franc/sauvignon

Now here’s where things get a little heavier in the red department. Cabernet sauvignons tend to have a lot of spice to them, with peppery and smoky flavours coming through, explains Proulx. They can also have fruity notes of plums and black currants. Cabernet francs tend to be less spicy, but the flavours are often similar to cabernet sauvignons. And although cabernets are oaked, they don’t tend to have a wood flavour as do chardonnays. Proulx suggests cabernets are best for sitting and enjoying over the course of an evening, with red meat such as a roast or wine

Proulx’s pick: 2009 Grower’s Blend Cabernet Franc ($27)

Shake it up

As a wine lover, Proulx understands the temptation to keep buying the same thing when you know you like it, but his advice is to “change it up all the time.” If you’re having a dinner party, grab a few varieties you’ve never tasted before. You might find they aren’t to your taste, but that’s OK. You’ll naturally gravitate back to wines you know you love, but along the way, you might discover something unexpectedly wonderful!

You can listen to Proulx review Ontario wines on Newstalk 1010 every Sunday morning at 8:35 a.m. Or, if you don’t have access to that radio station,  download his podcasts, and listen to them at your leisure. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook to keep up-to-date on all the cool, new wines coming out of Ontario.

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