There is much to know about wine and there is much to ignore – there is plenty of ritual in front of the spiritual when it comes to the appreciation of wine. The difference between these 2 bodies of knowledge resembles the channel between Scylla and Charybdis each one threatening to swamp the boat with ignorance or overwork.
The confusing parts of wine come from largely outdated convention and happenstance. The ladder of wine knowledge resembles a ladder, but without the first few rungs to give one a leg up to the rest. Which is why “Learn Wine” programs gain so many students. No one can make you understand wine; but there are many good resources to begin and continue listed here. Below is a compendium of learnings earned on the path to becoming a reasonably good “wine person” in honor of all those who have been my teachers and the students who have taught me as much as I have taught them. Wine remains simple and complex, but it is only complicated by mis-information. Let’s get started with the basic basics:
- All wine is made of fruit juice; the most popular fruit has been grapes for their adaptability to climate and soils, their sugar/acid balance and their overall taste.
- Rice wine and honey wine are NOT wine; their alcoholic strength easily matches wine’s alcoholic strength, so Sake and Mead are often referred to as “wine” – the same is true for Barley Wine.
- Grape wine is primarily made from a species called Vitis Vinifera; all white pulped – mainly. Red wines are only red for extended contact of the skins with the juice – mainly. These “Vinifera” wines are mainstream, nevertheless, wines of all grape species have long winemaking histories.
- Vitis Vinifera grapes can be “transparent” in taste to the region of the world in which they were grown. This transparency confounds scientists and energizes enthusiasts.
- We “taste” with our eyes first.
- Our tongues are blunt and tonal, like the rods in our eyes, and nearly universal from one person’s perception to the next.
- Our noses are sharp, with as much ability to differentiate smell as the cones in our eyes differentiate color – and nearly as personal as a fingerprint.
- Brandy is the distillation of wine. Cognac is region of France specializing in distilling wine.
- Ugni Blanc is the most planted grape variety in the world. Outside of Italy, it is the basis for Cognac, inside Italy it is called Trebbiano and makes a perfectly unoffensive white table wine.
- Cognac is a region of France that makes grows Ugni Blanc grapes to make their brandy; confusingly, they also have growing districts with “Champagne” in the name though they make no sparkling wine.
- Champagne (not in Cognac) is a blended wine, using both “colors” of grapes. See #3.
- Blended wines both erase and highlight the importance of a “Vintage Year”. In this regard, Port and Champagne are twins.
- Temperature is the single most affective component of wine growing, wine making, wine serving and wine tasting.
- The sweeter the grapes, the more alcoholic the wine can be.
- Sweeter grapes have traditionally been achieved by longer growing seasons, freezing grapes, drying grapes and a certain fungus.
- Fermentation is both a sugar conversion and an acid conversion process.
- Varietal wines are made from different varieties of the same species of Vitis Vinifera.
- There are grammar police in the wine world; i.e. – Variety is a noun, varietal is an adjective. While you CAN’T have a grape varietal, you can have a varietal wine. While you CAN have a grape variety, you can’t have a variety wine. In other arenas, a punt, the indentation in the bottoms of some wine bottles, is also known as a kick-up, appropriately.
- Punts are extremely useful for strengthening the bottoms of bottles that contain 4 & 5 atmospheres of pressure (carbonation); and they remain exclusively decorative in every other application. After the bottom of the bottle is reinforced with a punt, the next weakest point is the neck of the bottle – which enables sabering the top from Champagne bottles.
- Regional wines can be varietal wines or blended wines – it purely depends on the region’s traditions, values and in some cases, laws.
- Old World wines are made to accentuate the place, New World wines accentuate the grape; in both places, great wines are made. Both places can screw up good grapes just as easily.
- White wine with fish, red wine with meat, unless the protein is accentuated with a more dominant flavor like Mango Salsa, Bearnaise or bleu cheese – then pair that flavor instead.
- Tannin is Mother Nature’s anti-oxidant. Protein, fat and salt erase it from our taste, as does time in a well-cellared bottle.
- Sulfites are a reactive chemical that occurs naturally from the fermentation process – we routinely add more as a “chemical refrigerant”. Happily, once they react to something, they cannot react to us.
- Sweet wines mask flavor, Dry wines turn flavor up. Why would you want to mask flavor? Spicy Thai, perhaps blue cheese or maybe Puttanesca?
- “Dry” designations refer to beverages without much or any sweetness. This is a throwback to humoral medicine, widely practiced until germ theory became dominant in late 19th century. While there are “Wet” wines, we do not refer to them as such – same for “Cold”. However, we still refer to some wines as “Hot” for the same reasons that our ancestors did – as the figurative heat of the alcohol evaporation increases to the point of seeming warm, or even hot.
- All preference is based in experience and expectation.
- Context is a huge determiner of appeal. Outside influence from companions to location will influence your memory of the wine.
- Details of flavor are a huge determiner of fineness in wine.
- A winemaker’s ability to spend money making wine is finite; the price charged for the wine does not seem to be.
- Taste can be honed, sharpened and enhanced. Attention is the biggest, sharpest tool to do so. Listening to others is the second sharpest tool.
- Esters of aromatics evaporate at different temperatures. It’s what makes fancy stemware worth the price – to catch those different layers of flavor more easily.
- Memory is not enhanced with alcohol.
- “Legs” or “tears” do not indicate quality or even style of any beverage.
- Every pro knows what they don’t know, for that is also a form of knowledge.
- The secret of taste is to be able to remember who you are. An open mind is an open palate; though the definition of connoisseur includes being able to tell the difference between what is good and what you personally prefer.