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Looking to learn the basics about wine? You've come to the right place. Below you will find links to the most asked about topics including wine ratings, attributes of different wines and much more. Feel free to use this information in reference to selecting, as well as serving, fine wines. But most of all remember, if you like it - that's what counts, so just enjoy!
There are a countless number of red grape varieties in the world, some able to make wine, others best suited for grape juice. Right now, the world wine market focuses on about 40 to 50 different red wine grape varieties, the most widely recognized and used listed below.
What differentiates red wine from white is first, the skin color of the grape, and second, the amount of time the grape juice has with its skins. After picking, red grapes are put into tanks or barrels where they soak with their skins, absorbing pigments and other aspects of the grape skin, such as tannins. This is how red wine gets its red color. The exact color, which can range from light red to almost purple, depends on both the color of the particular grape skin and the amount of time spent on the skins. Remember, the inside of almost all grapes is a light, golden color - it's the skins that have the pigment. For example, much of Champagne is made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, both red grapes. Yet because the juice for Champagne is pressed quickly, with little time on the skins, the color of Champagne is often white.
The list below is roughly organized from lighter-bodied to fuller-bodied, lower tannins to higher tannins and light color to deeper color - but note that this is not an "always" list, just a general guideline. Remember, European and old-world countries tend to label their wine by region, while new world wine is most often labeled with grape variety.
|Grapes||Where they grow best|
|Pinot Noir||Burgundy, France; California; Oregon; New Zealand; Chile; Champagne, France|
|Sangiovese||Tuscany, Italy; California|
|Grenache/Garnacha||Rhone, France; Spain; California; Australia|
|Merlot||Bordeaux, France; California; Washington State; Chile|
|Cabernet Sauvignon||Bordeaux, France; California; South America; Australia; South Africa|
|Syrah/Shiraz||Rhone, France; Australia; South Africa; California; Washington State|
White wine differs from red wine in, first and most obviously, color. Under that skin, the pulpy part of a white grape is the same color as that of a red grape. The skin dictates the end color for red wine, which differs from the white's color determinates.
This is mainly due to the pressing of the grapes. When white wine grapes are picked, they are immediately pressed and the juice is removed from the skins with little contact.
Color in white wine does vary, often from the type of grape, occasionally from the use of wood. Listed below are a few of the most common white varieties in the world wine market. They are listed from lighter bodied, and lighter colored, to fuller bodied with deeper colors. The list is not set in stone - winemaker's decisions and climate may affect the end result of a white wine's body and color - these are just guidelines.
|Grapes/Region||Where primarily grown|
|Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris||Alsace, France; Italy; Oregon; California|
|Sauvignon Blanc||Loire, France; New Zealand; California; South Africa|
|Chenin Blanc||Loire, France; South Africa|
|Riesling||Germany; Alsace, France; Australia; New Zealand; Washington State; California|
|Chardonnay||Burgundy, France; Australia; California; South America; South Africa; Oregon|
|Viognier||Rhone, France; California|
Let it Breathe
First things first, merely opening the bottle does not let the wine "breathe." This is one of the most common misconceptions about wine.
The best and most entertaining way to accomplish real aeration is to pour the wine into a decanter/pitcher. It doesn't matter if it's fancy or plain, the purpose of the decanting is to get air into the wine.
If you're at home, get your wine to breathe by pulling the cork and pouring the wine into the pitcher from the greatest height you can achieve without spilling. The idea is to splash it as much as possible to maximize the wine's contact with air.
At a restaurant, answer the waiter by saying yes, please open the wine now. Then ask if she'll decant it for you. If the restaurant isn't set up for decanting, then ask that your wine be opened and glasses poured for everyone, even if you're saving the wine for the next course.
Your wine will do a lot more breathing in your glass than it ever would have while still cooped up in the bottle.
Many young, concentrated red wines, like an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux that can age for several years, undergo a sort of micro aging process by getting lots of air into them.
The same goes for a young and concentrated or especially astringent white wine, such as a white Burgundy. The reason is that forced exposure to air begins to oxidize a wine, causing subtle chemical changes that affect both the flavors and the texture.
Serving wine at the best temperature
Heed the advice of Ursula Hermacinski, the former Christie's wine auctioneer, when it comes to knowing what temperature at which to serve a wine: "Twenty minutes before dinner, you take the white wine out of the fridge, and put the red wine in."
This rule is intended to fix the two most common mistakes in wine service: People tend to serve white wines too cold and red wines too warm. It's a mistake you don't want to make because properly chilled wines do taste better.
White wines too warm will taste alcoholic and flabby, while white wines too cold will be refreshing but nearly tasteless. As for reds, keep them too warm and they will taste soft, alcoholic and even vinegary. Too cold and they will have an overly tannic bite and much less flavor.
Below are some guidelines to help you out.
Champagne and other sparkling wines should start out totally chilled. Put them in the refrigerator an hour and half before serving or in an ice bucket with an ice-water mixture at least 20 minutes before serving. For vintage-dated Champagne and other high-quality bubbly, however, you should let the bottle then warm up a bit if you don't want to miss out on the mature character for which you're probably paying extra.
Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, White Zinfandel and other refreshing white wines should also be chilled to refrigerator temperature (usually 35 to 40 degrees) for an hour and a half before serving. But the better examples, such as barrel-aged wines like Fume Blanc will improve if brought out 20 minutes early or allowed to warm up slightly during hors d'ouevres or dinner.
Chardonnay, white Burgundy and other rich, full-bodied and barrel-fermented white wines of high quality taste their best at classic "cellar temperature," or 55 degrees. So put these into the fridge an hour and half before serving, but bring them out 20 minutes early to warm a bit.
Sweet dessert wines need the same treatment as Sauvignon Blanc, above, with the exception of fortified dessert wines like Port and sweet Sherry, which are better at cellar temperature or warmer. Treat dry Sherry like Sauvignon Blanc, too.
Almost all red wines show their best stuff when served at about 65 degrees-cool, but warmer than cellar temperature. This is not room temperature and you will enjoy it more if you chill it for 20 minutes in the refrigerator before serving.
How to Taste Wine
There are some key factors one looks for in assessing wine ... appearance first, then smell, impression in the mouth and total flavor in the mouth. While you certainly don't have to like what is considered excellent wine, the above attributes should give you an appreciation for why it is considered such. Also, noting these characteristics makes drinking better wines a deeper, richer experience.
Appearance consists of a wine's clarity and its color. As red wines age they fade, going from deep purple to, eventually, a brick color, whereas white wines grow darker. The best way to judge color is against a white background, a tablecloth or piece of paper, with not a lot of wine in the glass. Also part of a wine's appearance is the wine's viscosity or "legs," which run down the sides of the glass when it is swirled. The more slow moving the legs, the denser the flavor. So if a red wine is pale to brickish and has slow moving legs you can expect it to be mature.
Our centers for smell are located right next to our memory centers. One good whiff of a wine that has been swirled in the glass a couple times should evoke distinct memories - of honey, flowers, mushrooms, citrus, butter, for example - it will also remind you that you've had this wine before, or alert you to the vinegary or moldy scent of a bad wine. First impressions are crucial here and far more reliable than subsequent sniffs. Based on appearance and smell, you now have enough information to determine a wine's overall quality and age.
Tasting the wine fills in some blanks, mainly with regard to a wine's "balance." Take a generous sip and swirl it in your mouth. The weight of the wine in your mouth will tell you whether it's light-, medium- or full-bodied. It also tells you how much sweetness, acidity, alcohol and tannin it contains. The object is for these elements to harmonize pleasantly. If one element is dominant, a proficient taster will know whether that imbalance is a flaw, or is acceptable in the wine being tasted. (A young red wine might be overly tannic but with definite fruitiness, suggesting that in a few years the tannin will have been moderated by the fruit; in this case too much tannin is perfectly acceptable.) The ultimate moment in tasting is just before the wine is swallowed, when the vapors hit the upper nasal cavities.
There are several kinds of tasting. One is for people who barely know the difference between red and white - uncommon but not unheard of. In this case, choose five bottles, a light young red, a mature red, a dry white, a sweet white, and a port or sherry. When several wines are being tasted, the order should be youngest and lightest wines first followed by older more full-bodied ones. To reverse this order is to overwhelm any subtleties a younger, lighter wine might have accrued and is not a fair assessment.
For a more discerning group, choose five different varietals, like a Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, to illuminate the distinct differences in so-called "red" wines. Another method might be to select Chardonnays from as many different growing regions as is practical (include several countries and states) to determine what the "baseline Chardonnay" taste is, and how that taste can vary depending upon where it's grown. This is a delightful way to explore a single varietal in depth.
For the more serious taster there are horizontal and vertical tastings. Horizontal would be, for example, ten Cabernets from the same year but different wineries; vertical means all the Cabernets are from different years. This give insight as to what constitutes an excellent Cabernet - again, in your opinion.
It's a good idea to keep notes about the wines you taste so you can enjoy - or steer clear of - those precise wines again, or so you can get wines with similar characteristics. And feel free to develop your own rating system. Professional ratings are very helpful in a broad sense but they can't compare to what you think about a wine.
Pairing Food & Wine
You've all heard old food and wine pairing rule - white wine with fish, red wine with meat. And you may have also heard the more popular phrase - eat what you like, drink what you like. In reality, paring wine with food - or food with wine - is somewhere in the middle.
Pairing food and wine is not a science. It has a lot to do with personal preference and tastes, so there are no cut and dry rules. In fact, most wines work with most foods, but knowing a few basic rules can enhance your enjoyment.
Match creamy with creamy - Creamy wines, such as Chardonnay or Viognier, matched with cream-based sauces (pasta or poultry) or a creamy cheese. You're matching rich with rich, so the textures of both will complement each other.
Match acid with acid - Bright, crisp Sauvignon Blanc is a lovely match for that fish with a lemon sauce. A good rule of thumb - if the recipe or food has lemon or other citrus in it, you're going to want some acid to match. Some great wines to pair a lemon-based sauce are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Chablis.
Match sweet with sweet - Chocolate Lover's Cake? Crème Brulee? Actually a good way to do this one is to pair color with color. Rich and dense chocolate cake is a great match to Port or other dark, sweet wines. A light Crème Brulee looks for sweet and acid, so a Moscato or Muscat-based dessert wine is not too heavy and a perfect match. Berry tart? Match it with a red sticky from Australia.
Match delicate with delicate; bold with bold - this is one that does not do well to contrast. A delicate meal, such as sole with lemon butter, would be completely overwhelmed with a big California Cabernet. Instead, pair with a delicate wine such as Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc or even a light and fruity Pinot Noir. In the same realm, a light Sauvignon Blanc would be overwhelmed by a hearty beef stew. For those flavors, a bold red like an Italian Barolo or a big Australian Shiraz would do much better to complement the bold flavors of the dish. In short - do not overwhelm the food or the wine.
Match spicy with sweet - A big tannic red with spicy chow mien? Not so much. Take that dish and pair an off-dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer, and it's a party in your mouth. The sweetness of the wine is offset by the spice in the food and instead of tasting sweet, you taste the delicious fruit in the wine instead. Pair Riesling, Pinot Gris (Alsace style) or Gewurztraminer with spicy Thai or Indian food. It's a great combo.
Match creamy with crisp - Another fun match is to pair a bright acidic wine to cut through a cream-based food. Take creamy cheese. Sparkling wine or Sauvignon Blanc can cut through that cream and bring out the best flavors in both the dish and the wine. Another great example is a crisp Chablis with a lobster bisque.
Match Tannin to protein and fat - Tannins in wine are enhanced when paired with other tannins present in foods, so avoid pairing a big tannic wine with walnuts or chocolate! The two elements that help soften tannins in wine include protein and fat. This is why a steak is such a classic pairing for big red wines - it has both. Protein and fat help bring out the fruit in a red wine, subduing harsh tannins.
Remember - any combination you enjoy is a good combination!
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