For those of us who are not very knowledgeable about wine, here’s a great article that we would like to share that will give you the basics of how wine is made, how to select the perfect glass for any occasion and you will even impress you date about some great facts about wine they may not have known.
If you don’t know jack about wine, you’re really missing out – but you’ve come to the right place. This stuff has fueled parties for thousands of years and has even given a doormat country like France a modicum of respectability, so you really should introduce yourself to it. One day, you’ll hope to be an adult and then you won’t have the option of knowing nothing: you’ll be expected to bring a bottle to friends’ houses, to order for you and your date at nice restaurants, and to serve a respectable glass at your own dinner parties. We’ll give you an overview of the pricey liquid, from how it’s made to the important differences between colors of wine, their regions and vintages, and, of course, how you can best enjoy them.
1. Learn the basics about making wine
You may be wondering, “Why do I care how the stuff is made?!” If so, you really should relax, maybe even have a glass of wine. Learning the basics about winemaking is useful because it allows you to (a) credibly evaluate the wines that you taste and (b) impress your date. For instance, it’s always a fun piece of trivia to let people know that red grapes can make white wine, and it is good to know that you should never chill your white wine by chucking it into the freezer – frost severely damages the alcohol balance and taste of wine.
So what exactly is this stuff and why is everyone all up in arms about it? Let’s be clear: wine isn’t just high octane grape juice. Good wine really is tough to make; if you don’t believe us, try a nice bit of crappy wine and you’ll quickly learn why Monty Python claimed that it “opens the sluices at both ends.” Making a good wine involves taking a great grape, growing it in the right soil, ushering it through the fermentation process, aging it in the right way, and releasing it at just the right time. So there are plenty of things to screw up, and the English have been botching it for years.
What is wine?
What is wine?
Essentially, it is fermented grape juice, but with a few extra twists. God saved a few pieces of Eden when he gave us the boot, and one of the best is the fact that any fruit containing sugar will turn to booze if you leave it to ferment. In the process of fermentation, yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. Yeast is found all over the place, and in the wild it lands on the skins of grapes; hence, when grape juice is left to sit about in the wild, that yeast will mix with it and ferment it naturally. Vintners nowadays don’t take any such chances: they labor over what precise strain of yeast to use in their recipe because different choices will obviously lead to different results.
Most people believe that green grapes make white wine and red grapes make red wine. That is largely true, but if you care to impress anyone with arcane eno-trivia, you should know that white wine can also be made from red grapes. The inside of red grapes is essentially “white” — it is only their skin that is red. And most wines are made with just the inside of a grape. The red color in red wine is created by allowing the fleshy interior to mix with the pulpy skins when it is being crushed. This process infuses red wines with “tannin,” an ingredient that gives red wine its distinctive flavor. So you can make white wine with red grapes — like White Zinfandel, a fine white wine made from a grape with a decidedly red exterior – but not red wine with green grapes. Oh, and most champagnes are made from red grapes. Weird, but true.
The grapes are crushed with or without the skins and then left to ferment. The nasty bits are removed from the juice and a disinfectant is used to neutralize any contaminants, such as mold and bacteria, that may have been on the grapes remember, they’ve just been sitting outside for ages, surrounded by bugs and dirt, and yeast ain’t the only thing lurking on the skin. The fluid, or “must,” is then left to complete the fermentation process in either big steel vats or small wooden barrels — barrels call for a longer process and are harder to keep at the right temperature, but supposedly lead to a better finished product, for which you of course will end up paying more. Once the wine is properly fermented, the vintner will need to pluck out all the little nibblets and then mature the clarified vino. The better vineyards will age the wine for years in oak barrels, which infuses the wine with positive woody hints. The lamer vineyards will shove the stuff in a steel vat just long enough for it to be squirted into cardboard boxes with plastic spigots.
2. Learn the basic differences between red and white
There are four major types of wine: red, white, rosé (or blush), and champagne. As far as dining is concerned, we are going to focus only on the first two types since champagne is its own animal and rosé is largely considered a joke. That’s not entirely true, but you’ll be safer sticking to reds and whites if you’re ordering at a restaurant; most wine advisors recommend chilled rosé only for a picnic on a hot day. Oh, and anything that comes in a can, a box, or a forty ounce container isn’t technically wine; it will be listed on the menu under This-Is-For-Cheapskates.
Where color comes from
The rationale behind the Rule
Where color comes from?
Color is the first and easiest distinguishing feature of wine. As we hinted at earlier, the main difference between red and white wine is that grape juice used to make red wine contains skins, seeds, and stems. This is significant for the following reason: leaving juice to mix together with the woody bits (known as maceration) causes the finished product to contain something we briefly mentioned earlier – tannins. If the term tannin is bugging you because you don’t really get what we’re talking about, just think about a strong cup of tea. That woody taste is tannin. In wine, it can lend a wonderful complexity to a red wine. As a general rule of thumb, red wines are heavier and more complex than white wines. White wines are usually a good place for beginners to start because they are initially more palatable to novices since they often tend to be sweeter.
The reason you need to be aware of the differences between red and white wine is because one of the oldest rules in fine dining is that you should attempt to harmonize your choice of food and drink. If you are going to be eating something delicate with subtle tastes, the Rule states, you should avoid drinking something with a strong flavor that will overshadow the food. Conversely, a hearty meal will often be best complimented by a strong wine with flavor of its own. Now every single guide to wine in the world makes a point of saying that the Rule is out of date and the only hard and fast dictate of wine drinking is to choose something you enjoy. Of course, if you’re dropping fatty cash for grub and grog, you should pick whatever the hell you want. Don’t let dead British wankers tell you how to eat a meal — go with what you like.
The rationale behind the Rule
Nevertheless, there’s a reason that Rule evolved in the first place: it makes sense. If, for example, you’re trying to pick up on the vague hints of Caribbean brine that delicately caress the primo slice of sushi you just ordered, slurping a bowl of tequila isn’t going to help. Balancing food with drink may not be required anymore, but it’s a good tip to keep in mind and will instantly push you off the Zero mark when you start eating at good restaurants.
A specific corollary of the Rule is that white wines tend to go best with fish and white meats, like chicken and pork; red wines go best with red meat and red sauces. Another adjutant to the Rule is that you should begin with lighter wines and progress to heavier ones throughout the course of the meal. This policy again reflects the idea that you should not overburden your palate: if you start with a strong drink, your taste buds will be shot and you won’t be able to enjoy anything that comes after it. That is why aperitifs are typically light drinks while dessert liquids, like port, are rich and heavy.
3. Learn the basic differences between sweet and dry
One of the main distinctions — after red and white — that is bandied about by wine drinkers is whether a particular quaff is sweet or dry. Though imagining how a fluid can be dry is something of a logical stretch, just bear in mind that dry is nothing more than the opposite of sweet, and we all know what sweet tastes like. A related factor is the weight of a particular type of wine, which refers to the amount of alcohol present in a given sample.
Guide to Sweetness
Ordering at a restaurant
Guides to Sweetness & Weight
Here is a quick and dirty guide to the sweetness of wines (and please note that, for both charts, the listed reds are not necessarily of the same sweetness/weight as the whites listed next to them — these are relative charts of sweetness/weight, within red or white):
RED WHITE Sweetest Pinot Noir Riesling Zinfandel Chardonnay Cabernet Chenin Blanc Syrah Sauvignon Blanc Driest Merlot Brut
And here’s a thumbnail sketch of how heavy or light a wine is:
RED WHITE Lightest Merlot Brut Zinfandel Fume Blanc Chianti Pinot Grigio Pinot Noir Riesling Heaviest Cabernet Chardonnay
Ordering at a restaurant
With this simple matrix above in mind, you will be well equipped to tackle any menu you face. If you want to buy time to consider what precisely you should choose from the wine list, tell the waiter you will decide on a wine once you have chosen your food. Then wait to see what your date orders. Next, simply ask your date whether he or she prefers red or white. If your love target claims to have no preference, start with the Rule and suggest a wine color that matches the meal he or she has chosen. Then simply toss out the ringer: “I think a Riesling might go well with your fish, though a Fume Blanc would also be a good choice if you would prefer something a little drier.” After your date closes her mouth and expresses a preference, you’re golden. When the waiter returns, simply announce your collective choice: “We would like a Fume Blanc tonight, can you recommend one?” The waiter will then direct your attention to a selection of your chosen wine on the list and now all you have to worry about is the price — we’ve cut out all the noise so that you can focus on only that one variable. And the best bit is that you now sound knowledgeable enough to handle the dreaded retort: “I’m sorry, we don’t have a Fume Blanc.” You’re in the driving seat, the restaurant looks silly now. So simply ask, “Well what along those lines do you have?” You’re in control.
4. Learn the basics about some standard wine regions
So we’ve gotten you past the threshold and into the land of respectable restaurant ordering. But as you will no doubt quickly learn, the universe of wine variables is vast. Once you have begun to get a grip on the color scheme, geography will be the next lesson. Anyone can make wine almost anywhere, but we all know that a few places have learned the process better than others. When we think of wine, we think first of France, Italy, and perhaps California. So when you are first starting out, just stick to those regions. Sure, there is a wonderful universe of wines from Spain, Chile, Australia, Germany, and beyond, but we’re looking to avoid embarrassment here, not to have you winning sommelier competitions.
Now that you know how to finesse the red versus white debate at the table, here’s another way to flex. Most fine restaurants, and many feeble ones, are either French or Italian. If they’re neither, then they’ll probably be American eclectic. So you’ll obviously be on the right track of if you order a native wine when eating the food. Here’s a quick guide to geographic specialties:
FRENCH ITALIAN AMERICAN (California) Bordeaux Chianti Zinfandel Burgundy Spumante Chardonnay Merlot Barbaresco Sauvignon Blanc
Please bear in mind that we are merely scratching the surface here and that each of those three regions produces myriad other kinds of wine. But there is no way to teach you all that information in this format — ultimately, you are going to have to be the one to sit down and start tasting. Begin with these basics to fill out your landmarks in the wine universe, and then you can branch out to the more esoteric wines.
5. Learn the basics about vintages
The word vintage is simply a fancy way of saying “year.” Just like the NFL draft or Party of Five, different years will produce differing qualities of the final product. Snobs and pretentious folk refer to the different years as vintages. The reason different vintages produce different quality wines — despite the fact that the same vintner is using the same wine-making process on the same kind of grapes — is that small variations across any number of factors can affect the entire yield of wine in a given season.
Remember how yeast converted the natural sugar in grape juice into alcohol? Well, what do you think would happen if the level of sugar were higher or lower in a given year? Obviously, you’d get variations in the level of alcohol, which in turn, imbues the sauce with different levels of kick and other characteristics. What typically regulates the amount of sugar in the grapes is largely the amount of rain that falls close to harvest time, so vintners get very nervous about the weather close to harvest time. And because the weather cooperates to greater and lesser degrees in different years, different vintages will have better or worse wines.
So although old wine is a crude shorthand for good wine, you should always remember that keeping a cruddy vintage around for a decade won’t make it better than a two-year-old hotshot. This added wrinkle will unfortunately complicate your task because you can’t simply order the oldest wine on the list if you’re looking for the “best.” Don’t fear though; the wine geeks of the world have compiled handy-dandy little indices that are about the size of a golf score sheet. On them, they list the major types of wine from major wine-producing regions and rate the quality of each vintage. Check out the chart of Wine Enthusiast magazine.
If you want to rock on a date, steal the wine list, bring it to the bathroom, and bust out a copy of your chart. You’ll be able to spot the great wines and hopefully find an affordable one. Of course, unless you’re dating a sommelier, all this effort will be lost and you’ll be found out anyway. Ah well, at least you’ll impress the waiter.
6. Learn how to open a bottle of wine
Everything you have just learned is going to enable you to make an intelligent choice of wine the next time you are out at a restaurant. Of course, if all goes well on that date, you may be looking to share another bottle of vino at your place. To do that, you are going to need to know how to open a bottle at home, without stabbing your date with the corkscrew or drowning anyone in the fluid.
The first step in opening your wine is screwing off the cap . . . and then throwing that bottle in the trash. If you’re wrestling with a cap or a spigot, you’re not opening a bottle of wine. Forget about it if you’re not confronted with a cork — you’ll only embarrass yourself. If you are dealing with a cork, you’re probably also going to have to deal with a metal wrapping around that cork. Once upon a time, this metal used to be lead, designed to protect the cork. Unfortunately, lead kills human beings. So, we’ve switched to other alloys now and occasionally, gasp, plastic. Whatever it is, you’ll want to decapitate it. For this, you can use any sharp knife, including the one handily provided on many waiter’s bottle openers — this kind of opener is known as a “waiter’s pull.” Using the knife, slice the metal wrapper below the protrusion at the top of the bottle’s neck. This involves taking off about a half-inch band of metal. But you’ll want to make sure that there is no metal left near the lip of the bottle, because if the wine touches metal when you are pouring the liquid, the combination can oxidize your precious fluid. So, be safe, and keep it away.
There are three major devices for removing the cork. The easiest, though perhaps least suave, is the “winglever.” Invented for the ergonomically challenged, these bad boys will get the job done with a minimum of fuss. Simply line up the corkscrew with center of the cork and poke it in. Then holding the neck of the bottle and the barrel of the opener together, start twisting the key at the top. The levers on the side will rise as you twist the key. When they have gone as high as the can, secure the bottle on a table or, if you are seated, between your legs. Then push down on the levers and voila, watch the cork rise easily out of the bottle.
A second opening device is the previously mentioned “waiter’s pull.” This gizmo requires more skill so please practice before trying to impress your date — on your first go, you’re almost guaranteed to spill the bottle or to stab someone. Again place the corkscrew into the center of the cork. Then level out the rest of the “pull” perpendicular to the screw and begin twisting it, driving the screw into the cork. After the metal screw has entered the cork to the depth of about an inch, pivot the pull so that the metal hook rests against the lip of the bottle. Use that metal hook as a pivot, and lever the cork out of the bottle. Again, this requires a modicum of skill.
The final device is known as the “dishonest butler” because it can remove a cork from a bottle without damaging the cork. Presumably naughty British valets would steal a tipple from their master’s cellar and replace the cork with the guvn’r none the wiser. Insert the longer blade of this device into the gap between the cork and the lip of the bottle. Then insert the shorter blade in the other side. Wiggle the device from side to side, forcing it deeper into the neck of the bottle. When it has descended about an inch or so, pull the cork out with a slow twist of your wrist. Again, no one will be very successful at this maneuver the first time around, so practice before your date shows up.
It’s always a good idea to impress your guests with a cute little device to keep your wine as fresh as possible especially when opening a bottle outside. Yes you can use the cork if you correctly removed it from the bottle, but why not use a catchy little device that will impress your friends.
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