He brings forth wine to gladden the
heart of man. Psalm 104:15
Years ago, being asked by a wine expert to bring a bottle over for dinner, I did the most sensible thing possible by scanning the supermarket isles of unfamiliar choices and carefully selecting the one with most attractive label. Let's just say that later that night my host took the task of beginning my wine education!
After years of intrigue, I'm still no expert but I have come up with pointers that vastly improve the topic clarity, the enjoyment, and most importantly: the suave-ness of the image (from the adult sippy-cup).
Congratulations—you're an expert
You know if a wine is good by this simple test: You want another glass! I can't believe how many people tolerate supermarket swill, assuming their palette is undeveloped. It's not worth it! Better none than a bad one. Fortunately, fabulous wines are available at great prices, with just a little familiarity on the subject. To help get us on our way, here are ten sips.
1. What is wine?
An energy transformation from sugar to alcohol occurs (fermentation) in a plant when yeast hits the right temperature. Grains translate into beer/whiskey; any fruit (other than grapes) yields brandy; and grapes turn into winethe study of which is called oenology (pronounced "ee-nology").
As a Christian I believe there's something special and mysterious about wine, otherwise Christ wouldn't have chosen it to represent his life, paired with bread. Wine seems to be a souvenier of paradise, a foretaste of a richer gladness in Heaven.
2. Why can names be confusing?
Attempting to improve marketability California vintners borrow European names, but frequently do not retain the standard practice of labeling by grape type (varietal) and geographic area (generic). Common examples:
- "Burgundy" is not red wine, but a region in France (producing various reds and whites). So the CA name "Hearty Burgundy" is meaningless.
- "Chablis" is not white wine, but the sub-region in Burgundy (which only uses Chardonnay grapes). So, a 'Chablis' from CA is meaningless.
- "Champagne" is a region near Paris. Thus, Champagne wine is not necessarily sparkling wine and sparkling wine is not necessarily Champagne. (And French law restricts the name to that region only.)
- Australians call the French grape "Syrah" by "Shiraz", so Americans with both on their shelves often don't realize it's the same grape.
- CA vintners sometimes change standard grape names to boost appeal, such as when Robert Mondavi re-named Sauvignon Blanc to the "smokier" Fumé Blanc and significantly improved sales. But it's the same grape!
3. What's the trick to names?
The grape provides the strongest taste attribute, so start by determining which you prefer. These six grapes comprise 80% of the world's wine:
- Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir
- White: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling
4. How does wine color contribute?
The color depends on whether or not the grape skins are included in the fermentation. When U.S. consumption shifted from reds to whites (from 1960s to present) CA vintners started making white wines from red grapes, such as Zinfandels and Pinot Noir (Blanc). So these wines may have a "red taste", but a white look.
5. Wine glasses
- Good wine glasses do not obscure the wine color and have a large enough bowl for swirling, which allows the esters, ethers, and aldehydes to combine with oxygen and release the aroma (i.e., "bouquet") of the wine. Wine glasses should hold at least 10 ozs. to allow for this, but restaurants often serve small glasses, filled full, to feign abundance.
- White wine glasses close a bit near the top to help to discern the bouquet and preserve the chill.
- After swirling, transparent "legs" might be seen streaming down the sides, which are tannins sticking to the glass. Slower moving legs greater than ¼" apart indicate higher alcohol (~14% vs. ~11%). Thus, watching the legs of wine (just as with women!) won't reveal that much about the personality.
6. Chill, man, chill
I've consulted at least eight well-known, reputable wine authorities, which unanimously agree that reds should be chilled despite the common modern practice to the contrary. "Best at room temperature" was meant for old European cellars. So always lightly chill reds— even though restaurants never will! For further proof, reference wine thermometers. Lastly, just try it and see if you don't like them better, especially during summer.
(Michael Franz from the Washington Post gave me this rough rule:
Whites: remove from fridge and drink after 20 minutes. Reds: put in for 20 minutes.)
7. Decanting and debating
Decanting is the process of pouring wine from the bottle to a carafe to a.) separate the wine from its sediment and b.) aerate it. There is a great debate regarding whether aeration improves the taste. Many say aerate reds younger than four years, some say don't aerate at all—everyone is in agreement that simply removing the cork doesn't do anything, despite the common practice. So if aerating, use a carafe or pour your glasses early.
It is not necessary to smell the cork! A restaurant's trained wine steward (i.e., a sommelier) opens the bottle and presents the cork simply to verify it isn't dry. Since bottles should be stored horizontally, a dry cork may indicate air has entered and oxidized the wine. The enemies of wines are air, light, high temperatures, and vibration; so trendy, open wine racks aren't good for much more than fashion.
- A common misconception is wines improve with age. According to Kevin Zraly, teacher of the famed Windows on the World course, over 90% of all the wines made in the world are meant to be consumed within one year! For marketing reasons alone most wines are ready to swig now.
- Wine-makers seek balance between hardening elements (e.g., tannin, acidity) and softening elements (e.g., sugar, fruit flavor).
- In general, white wines have more acidity than reds. An overly acidic wine is usually described as tart.
- Cheese is often served with wine because it softens the stringent elements (akin to softening coffee with milk). A bitter taste, especially in reds, is likely due to tannins (natural compounds from the skins, stems, and pips of the grapes and even the wooden barrels) that serve as preservatives.
- The aftertaste might be my favorite part of the tasting. A good wine has a lengthy, appealing aftertaste. Yum.
Absolutely! Good finds are all over, especially from countries with lesser-known reputations, such as Chile, Australia and South Africa.
For a few more dollars ($10-$14) you'll significantly increase the chances of a winner. Though any price range is no guarantee and you can definitely find world class wines for less. How? Start with pro picks: