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Wine 101

Let’s face it; wine can be intimidating. Your favorite restaurant might have a wine menu that looks like a foreign novel. And if you don’t order fast enough, a sommelier might show up to stare you down before launching into an extended discourse on the Bordeaux region of France or the tannin content of Cabernet Sauvignon. But fear not, gentle reader, because drinking wine should be an easygoing experience.

“A few years ago, everybody was concerned about drinking the right wine with the right food,” said Jordan Willis, the bar manager at Joe Theismann’s Restaurant. “But these days, people are drinking anything with anything.”

Wine experts agree: Drink whatever makes you happy. This is the universal maxim of pairing wines. Other than that, there are a few things to keep in mind. Jose Gonzalez, the assistant manager of Planet Wine on Mount Vernon Avenue, offers a few guiding principles.

For a spicy meal, find a sweet wine. If you’re having poultry with herbs, try a delicate pinot noir. If tenderloin is on the menu, pair it with a red wine with lots of tannins, like a Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The trick is to find a wine that does not have the same flavor as the food, but will complement it,” Gonzalez said. “So for a spicy meal, select a sweet wine.”

Gonzalez said that wine drinkers are looking for many things. Some appear in his Del Ray store with a copy of “Wine Spectator” under their arm, looking for the trendy vintage. Others are looking for a complicated finish. Some just look at the price tag.

“In my experience, the more wine you drink the less likely you are to want a sweet wine,” Gonzalez said. “But it’s a myth that American wine drinkers prefer sweeter wines than European wine drinkers.”

Here in Alexandria, taste in wine is as individual as a wardrobe or a signature. People like what they like, of course. And so wine drinkers are looking for what pleases them. At Gadsby’s Tavern, where George Washington used to drink, guests can enjoy modern varieties or historic favorites.

“We have spiced wines, which were big in the 18th century,” said Paul Carbe, general manager of Gadsby’s Tavern. “If you see a menu from one of George Washington’s dinners, it will say ‘served with claret.’ Claret is basically like a Bordeaux, and it’s a tasty wine. But people don’t know about it.”

CARBE SAID THAT his guests are looking for different things, with visitors from various parts of the country requesting varieties that suit their geographically specific notion of what a good wine should be.

“Women from the Midwest like White Zinfandel,” he said. “But overall, I’d say that pinot noir has really come into its own around here.”

Some things to keep in mind when drinking wine:

• The earliest written account of winemaking comes from the Old Testament, which includes an account of Noah planting a vineyard and making wine.

• American wines are named after the variety of grape, such as “Chardonnay” or “Merlot.” French wines are usually a blend of grapes that grow well in a region, such as “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux.”

• Bordeaux wines typically are a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

• Tannins are astringent substances found in the skins of grapes. In red wines, tannins provide flavor, structure and texture. They are believed to combat the effects of aging as a result of their antioxidant traits.

• A true Champagne comes from Champagne, France. If it comes from California, it’s a “sparkling wine.”

• Looking for the perfect refreshing wine for a hot summer day? Try a Riesling, which is made from a grape that has cultivated in Germany since the 1400s.

• Want to order the trendiest variety on the market? Try a Malbec, a French grape from the Bordeaux region that has a distinctively plum-like flavor.

• White Zinfandel is actually not a white wine at all. It’s a blush, which means that it was made from a red grape that was separated from its skin before the fermentation process. The White Zinfandel varietal was created about 30 years ago by Sutter Home.

• Take the time to thoroughly smell a wine before you drink it. Stick you nose right into the glass. The sensory experience will be heightened, and you will have a better vocabulary to describe what you are drinking.

• Although they were once an indicator of cheap wines, the screw top has been gaining in popularity among fine wineries. The main reason for this is that the screw top eliminates “cork taint,” a harmless but unpleasant moldy taste from infected corks.

• Ever since the movie “Sideways” Merlot sales have plummeted. Don’t be put off by the bad hype. It was just a movie!