Now I don’t claim to be a wine expert. Cheese maybe…but one thing I’ve learned through investigating cheese is that cheese needs wine to be complete. Kind of like me and…pasta. (sorry, hubby) Wine was “discovered” in ancient times. I put discovered in quotes not to be annoying, but to make a point that wine happens naturally. The skin of a grape is sticky such that naturally occurring yeast sticks to it. The grapes ripen, fall off somewhere and ferment. This is essentially wine. The simple story about wine is that grape sugar + yeast = wine through fermentation. Beer happens in much the same way, but it uses starch instead of sugars to make the alcohol. The complicated part of it is that there are a ton of grape varieties and factors that affect the flavor profile of wines. The Romans are credited with helping to spread winemaking skills across the countries they conquered. They were able to import different types of wine all over their trade routes, but after the fall of the empire, more local wines were crafted. The Catholic Church also had a large role in cultivating wine production, and as land was given to the Church as tithes, the enterprising monks started vineyards on them. And, being one of the only literate groups in the country, the monks were able to document their activities.
So below are a few factors that create the different varieties of wine. We’ll get into more detail as the weeks go on.
Red vs White vs Rosé
White wine comes from “white” grapes, right? Well, in reality, they are green or gold, most of the time. Red wines are made with juices and skins of red grapes, and are in contact with the skin of the grape which imparts color and tannins. Rosé wines are blended white and red wines. Some think of these as cheap-y wines, kind of “fake” reds for the white-wine drinker. I had someone bring me a bottle of Riunite (may as well have been Boone’s Farm..) rosé for a dinner party. I almost died. And true, you can get Riunite at 7-11 wine, but Rosé in general is not that cheap. Wonderful rosés are made in Provence, France. They are amazingly flavorful wines that are perfect on a warm day, which you find often in Provence.
Those Frenchies use the term terroir (the “place” where something is made – terrain, altitude, climate, etc) to establish wine superiority and to basically say only the best wines and cheese can be made in France. But, actually, there’s something to this (not the France thing, the terroir thing). The climate and altitude of the growing terrain affects how long grapes can ripen and develop more flavor. Areas with quick season changes ripen the grape more quickly, which isn’t always good. The goal is to get the grapes to ripen over the longest period of time. The longer they stay on the vine, the longer their flavor profiles have to develop. So that is why certain wines are best produced in certain regions. Like Argentina makes a mean Malbec. Is that because they suck at making other wines? No, it’s because the grape for Malbec loves Argentina. Coincidentally, this same grape grows in France (the Bordeaux Region), where the climate is similar to the area in Argentina where it is grown.
Wines can be “oaked” or not. You can smell it. And taste it. It’s sightly tannic, depending on the age of the wine. Sometimes the stems of the grapes are left in, and contribute to this flavor. The oak flavor can vary, based on what type of wood it is (American, French, old/new, etc). Aging in oak can affect the color of red wine, in that unlike its stainless-steel aged sisters, it loses some of its color because of oxidation that can happen based on the porosity of the wood.
So speaking of tannins, they are the element of wine that make you pucker, and cause a slight scraping feel on your tongue. This is the same sensation you get with tea sometimes. In wine, they come from the skins of grape, as well as from aging in wooden barrels. Pressing grapes is like pressing olive oil, in that the more you press, the more contact with the skin, and the more acrid it becomes. Winemakers are sure to try to minimize tannins during the pressing process. So when you say “I hate red wines”, you are talking like a crazy person. Maybe it’s the tannins you don’t like… And contrary to popular belief, not all not all red wines have strong tannins. Play around a bit and you’ll see.
Aging is done to round out the flavors a bit. Sometimes when grapes come off the vine, they’re too bold to really drink right away. They need to mellow out a bit. We all know a few people who could benefit from just sitting somewhere and calming down…the same goes for wine. As wines age they can become more full-bodied and “round.” “Round” just means that the flavors are all balanced. And in case you’re wondering, the date on the bottle refers to the year the grapes were harvested, not when it was bottled. Some wines, such as Spanish wines aged in a Solera, can take years to be ready to bottle. And when you see NV, it means “Non Vintage,” meaning it’s made up of a blend of grapes from different harvest years.
Sediment is the junk left in the bottom of the glass. It’s the skin of the grape dropping out of the wine. You may hear of a wine “throwing sediment.” This happens rarely in white wines. Remember that red wines are the ones primarily in contact with the skin of the grape, which makes sense that there are more cases of sediment in red vs white wines. You can drink it, but it’s typically more tannic, as it is grape skins…this is why older wines are “decanted,” to leave the sediment in the bottle and not in your glass. I am guilty of decanting for no reason. We got so many beautiful decanters for our wedding, I had to use them…
Fortified wines have alcohol added to them. Originally this was to make the wines more stable in shipment. But it helped to increase the alcohol content of early poorly made wines.
So that’s a quickie intro to wines. Stay tuned on tips on how to taste them.