Some wine basics: Part 1

Some wine basics: Part 1

To those of you who already know your wine basics, this may be unneccessary, but to those of you who are joining me as novices, or perhaps those who are self-taught with patchy knowledge, I hope the following is helpful. I am certain that later I will realize that I forgot to cover some crucial points, and wonder how in the world I forgot to include it, but that will be what part two is for :)

I hope that you benefit from the following very basic wine knowledge, and please feel free to drop me a line at with any questions, topics, comments, or critique! Thanks for taking the time to share in my passion with me!

Firstly, there are two types of grapes - white and black (also known as green and red). Scientifically all the grape varietals used to make wine are "vinis-vinifera", and all these grapes yield a white (or yellow) juice. It seems slightly counter-intuitive, but the red grapes as well as the green grapes yield this pale yellow juice, and the way that the juice that becomes red wine actually becomes red is by leaving the pigment ladden red skins in contact with the juice for an extended period of time. This adds the color to the wine, and also the "tannin" (a compound also found in coffee that is responsible for the pucker sensation in your mouth), which is a reason that red wines are often more "strong" to drink, in regards to mouth feel as well as actual strength. The longer the skins are left in contact, the deeper the color and theoretically the more tannin. There are white wines made from red grapes, such as White Merlot (which is not pink, unlike "White" Zinfandel), that are actually quite delicious.

Oh, white zinfandel. Most wine afficianados look down upon the stuff, but in reality it is quite popular, and can be quite refreshing and delicious. The legend is that American wine pioneer Jacob Beringer stumbled upon the concoction trying to make wine his picky wife would enjoy, as she found his whites to be underwhelming and lacking in complexity and his reds too dry and tannic. After some time he found that by taking the skins out of the zinfandel vat after very little time, the juice would retain just a touch of color and flavour and his wife was a fan. Other vintners wives in the area began joining her on the porch enjoying this libation with her, and it became a hit locally. Beringer White Zinfandel is the original New World blush, or rose, wine. Or at least that's the lore that was passed down to and through me. The flavor profile of most white zinfandel is fairly similar to the popular white wine, Riesling - lightly fruity, fairly sweet, little to no oak, vanilla, or floral notes, and best enjoyed quite cold.

The french have also been making pink wine for a very long time, but they are less uniform than those from the New World, and range from dry and acidic to floral and tannic, from sweet and fruity to earthy and tart. For all intents and purposes rose wine is not meant to be aged, with the exception of Champagne.

Champagne. It is indeed a region in Burgundy, and it is true that sparkling wine labelled or referred to as Champagne must have been grown, bottled, and completely produced there. Specific laws govern all French wines, and those in Champagne are among the strictest. Champagne is made from two "black" grapes and one "white", although they are allowed to use only two, or in many cases only one, to acheive desired flavor profiles and styles. These grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Munier (a lesser known red grape), and most Champagnes, to some degree, will have all three. Blanc de blanc is a style using only Chardonnay, transversely Blanc de Noir is a style that uses no chardonnay. Rose Champagnes are quite excellent, and most often represent all three grapes. All Champagne must be "methode champenoise" meaning a second fermentation occurs in the 750ml (or whatever size) bottle, creating the bubbles that have nowhere to go until you open it. Us "Pros" open bottles slowly so as not NOT "pop" them, as this releases many of the bubbles into the environ,ment rather than in your glass and ultimately your mouth. Vintage champagnesare more expensive but not always any better, and look for indicators as to the sweetness (or dryness): Brut will be dry, Sec will be sweet, and there are champagnes from ultra-dry to super-sweet.

The rest of Burgundy is famous for it's Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and this entire region is approximately 45 degrees north longitude, a desirable longitude for growing cool-climate grapes, and a longitude that is shares with Willamette Valley, Oregon. This fact helps me remember the geographic position of France as well as what grapes Oregon is known for (the same, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).

Many restaurants' wine lists are "progressive", meaning they go from lightest to most full bodied, first with whites, then with reds. Although there are many excpetions, a good rule of thumb for the lightest to most full bodied in first white and then red is as follows: Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay; Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel.

Many pricey wines taste just like the cheaper ones of the grape grape from the same region and year. People generally overpay for wine for no reason. That being said, top wine-makers in top regions that have successful releases and charge big bucks for them can sometimes be very worth it. The "wine of the year" two years ago was the Saxum "James Barry" from California, and although it was not released as an expensive bottle, it sure is now, and it is so very worth it.

Different glassware is used for different styles of wine to allow it to "open up" optimally. A bigger bulb and smaller lip, for instance, may allow much of the alcohol to evaporate without leaving the glass, and for some wines that is best practice to release aromatics and such. The wrong glass can make it difficult to fully experience some wines, but for the most part it is more of a "respect the wine, man" practice than one that must be followed. If you are able to use a smaller, less bulbous glass for white and a deeper, rounder glass for reds than you're ahead of the game.

Food pairing used to be very specific, and the old rule of thumb is red wine with red foods (namely, red meat) and white wine with white food (primarily seafood); and wines from specific regions were intended to pair with cuisine from that region (Shiraz and game, Pinotage and quinoa, Chianti with riggatoni marinara, kind of thing). Then there were the exceptions: Pinot Noir with Salmon (which is a red, or pink, fish - so it makes sense), and then experts started making recommendations that transcend conventional wisdom, so I've found, for me and my guests, that your favorite wines will go with your favorite foods, regardless of anything else. If you don't like dry Chardonnay, it doesn't matter how well it pairs with oysters, and if you don't like oysters than the "perfect pairing" could be "perfectly disgusting" to you, no matter how great the wine makers or waiters are telling you that it is. Someone who likes sweet white wine, like german Riesling, and hearty, spicy steaks, like a cajun ribeye, will love a nice Piesporter with their Creole Cowboy chop. To me it just makes sense. That being said, there are certain wines and foods that really do not go together, like red wine and cream, such as pasta in white sauce. But even still, if someone finds the two to compliment each other to them, then it may be a perfect pairing - to them. Wine is so subjective.

So don't let anyone else tell you how or why to like wines. Get out there, and find your perfect wine and perfect pairings. Know that every time you drink wine, there are things that you will like about each one, and things you don't. Take mental notes. Maybe you really enjoy "apothic red". Why? Is it because the body of it is velvetty? Or that there isn't much oak? Is it the specific fruit flavor? Raspberry, perhaps? Isolate what you like, and search diligently for wines that may have that same note, but up a notch. If you love an oaky Cabernet, try to search out an oakier one. See if you like it more, or less, than the initial one you loved.

Well, I had hoped to cover more today, but I have wine to taste and sell, and people to meet, and a halloween party tonight that may turn into a photo blog tomorrow. I look forward to hearing from any of you, and wish you all health, happiness, and prosperity. Until next time, cheers!

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