This is Your Guide to Becoming the Wine Connoisseur You Wish You Were
If you want to learn the basics needed to survive your next office party, wine tasting, or a date with a wine snob, you’ve come to the right place.
If you’ve stumbled on this page wanting to know the difference between a Pinot and a Cabernet, don’t worry. When we’re done here, you’ll know more than just their color and that they taste like grapes. (Spoiler…grapes are the key ingredient)
In all seriousness, wine is very complex and few people realize how much time and effort go into making the best wines the world. That’s why we’re here to give you the 411 on wine.
The more you understand wine and its processes, the better you will be at making decisions when it comes to buying your next bottle.
Let’s start with the basics…
Why do people drink wine?
Not for the health benefits, although in moderation it can be beneficial (depending on your definition of moderate).
People drink wine not only to taste it but to savor it.
Before we get into savoring wine we must understand how one’s senses function. First, DO NOT confuse taste with flavor.
What’s the difference you ask? Flavor is a combination of taste and smell.
Have you ever tried to eat something when you had a stuffy nose and the taste would be almost nonexistent? Here is a good exercise to do if you want to understand the relationship between taste and smell.
Next time you’re eating, hold your nose and pay attention to the flavor. Then let go of your nose and notice how the flavor presents itself tenfold. That’s because you’re using your sense of taste along with your sense of smell through your sinuses.
There are 5 basic tastes to know when wine tasting. They are as follows: salt, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami (think savory).
There are two ways in which the human body can smell: from the front through our nostrils and from the back through our sinuses. This process is also called retro-olfaction and is the primary way in which we can sense different tastes.
Not all wines are equal
Different grape varietals produce different wines. Said varietals make characteristics such as tannin structure, acid levels, flavor profiles and body/mouthfeel more prominent in some wines as opposed to others.
Let’s talk about these characteristics for a second so we can paint a bigger picture.
Tannin is the one thing people will either love or hate about wine. For those of you with exclamation and question marks running amuck in your head, there’s an easy way to understand what tannin feels like.
Think of tannin like licking a dry popsicle stick or drinking over-steeped black tea – it’s not for the faint of heart.
On the one hand, you have tannin which will dry your mouth out and on the other, you have acid levels. The more acidic a wine is the more it will taste sour and the more it will make you salivate.
Winemaking techniques influence flavor profiles such as what container the wine ages in, how long it ages and how it’s fermented.
The body of a wine or the mouthfeel relates to the alcohol content and how heavy the wine feels in the mouth.
So now that we know how to taste, let’s get more into knowing what we are tasting.
Pests have always been the enemy of the grape grower. Bear with me here, we must backtrack to a time where pests were a real thing and pesticides were as useful as cheap perfume.
All you need to know, biology and scientific terms aside, is that there is a pest called phylloxera and it destroys crop yields. This pest is native to North American and the vines in these locations are resistant to it. Unfortunately, European vines cannot say the same.
The solution was to graft European roots onto North American roots, sort of like ‘meshing’ them together. Then you get what’s called a new ‘rootstock’ which is then used to create hybrids, crosses, and clones of various vine species.
You might hear of a wines ‘terroir’ or how it is reflective of its terroir. This is a fancy way of saying a wine is reflective of the place in which it was grown.
There are plenty of factors that go into a wine’s terroir. Mainly the climate, how much sunshine the grapes get, what soil its grown in, and the specific temperature at which it is grown.
Often times grape growers must control the temperature and humidity levels lest they run into issues.
What would you say if I were to tell you that there is such thing as a good mold? Fun fact: there is good mold and it’s known as ‘Noble rot’.
This is where the forgotten strawberries in the back of your fridge scream in protest for even saying such a thing.
Some grape varietals are more susceptible to mold due to their thin skins. Noble rot draws the water out of the grapes and when this occurs, these grapes are then used to make sweet dessert wines.
It would be easy to say that winemaking is a straightforward, step-by-step process. Alas, as with most things in life, that’s not the case.
Grapes are not only sorted, but they must undergo crushing and pressing.
Think back to the episode of I Love Lucy when Lucy’s in Italy stomping on grapes with the other ladies of the vineyard. This is another way to crush grapes aside from using modern machinery.
They withstand various treatments that will alter the resulting acid levels, alcohol, and overall flavor.
Fermentation is a whole other process and each winery will have their own method of fermentation to create their trademark wine.
Some wines will undergo malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity levels, as is the case with Chardonnay. Other’s will undergo chaptalization where sugar is added to the grapes before fermentation to increase the alcohol content.
Some even have sulfur dioxide added into the mix while others will go through acidification and deacidification processes.
White wines usually ferment at a lower temperature than red wines. Generally, wines cannot ferment at too high a temperature otherwise the yeast dies and fermentation stops altogether.
Once fermentation is complete, are we done yet? Nope. Shockingly there’s still more to the process.
Racking takes place where wines transition from one vessel to another. They’re filtered to remove any leftover sediment and then subjected to aging processes.
Aging usually takes place in oak barrels but can also take place in other vessels. The oak is what gives some wines an oaky or vanilla flavor.
Fining is done to remove any suspended matter. After fining, the wine is filtered again, and then it’s bottled.
OK, now we’re getting to the juicy stuff – pun intended.
If you’re one of those people who doesn’t know enough about wine to save their own life well you’re not the only one.
Let’s take a cursory glance at some grape varietals and their wine processes to get a better idea of what’s out there.
Chardonnay is usually aged in either oak, concrete, or steel vessels. What ends up happening is that dead yeast, known as ‘lees’, settles out of the fermented wine.
There’s a technique called ‘batonnage’ to stir the wine and dead yeast together. This yeast is what gives Chardonnay it’s buttery bread taste.
Chardonnay also goes through malolactic fermentation to take away its acidity.
So where is it grown?
Chardonnay is most commonly grown in the Burgundy and Côte d’Or regions of France. In the US, California is known to grow Chardonnay.
Other international areas that grow Chardonnay include Chile, South Africa and Bulgaria.
Common flavors associated with Chardonnay are:
- Tree fruit
Sauvignon Blanc is one grape that translates the terroir very well.
If the grapes are grown in sand, then the resulting wine is more herbaceous. Clay gives the wine more fruit and body and Kimmeridgian give the wine more mineral qualities.
Fermentation temperature tends to have an effect on wine flavor.
A colder fermentation will give the wine more elements of tree and tropical fruit. Raise the fermentation temperature and you get more terroir and mineral aspects. Barrel fermentation will give the wine more body.
Areas in France known to grow Sauvignon Blanc are the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. Other famous areas are California and New Zealand.
Common flavors associated with Sauvignon Blanc are:
- Green apple
- Wet concrete
Pinot Noir is the one grape that is difficult to grow and make into a good wine.
It is susceptible to fungal disease, clusters grow very compact, and the vines lose its vibrant fruit at high temperatures.
The vines like to grow in either limestone or clay. Limestone will give the resulting wine a lighter more aromatic feel because clay will make the wine tannic and weighty.
Surprisingly enough, France is another notable region that grows Pinot. More specifically Burgundy and Champagne. Aside from France, other regions include Oregon, California, and New Zealand.
Common descriptors for Pinot are:
- Milk chocolate
These grapes are prone to rot and can over ripen very quickly which is why it’s important to pick them as soon as they’re ready. To avoid over-ripening, these grapes tend to do better in cool soils like clay.
The grapes have thinner skins than Cabernet grapes and tend to have softer tannins.
Bordeaux in France is popular for growing Merlot as is California, Italy and Washington state.
- Black fruit
- Chocolate or baking spices
Zinfandel was originally known as a table grape. It’s considered the ‘American’ grape, but it’s origin is uncertain.
The grape clusters like to ripen early and unevenly. Clusters are large and do well in warmer growing seasons.
What’s interesting about Zinfandel is that the grapes can be made into two different styles of wine.
One is a Rosé and is normally labeled as ‘White Zinfandel’ on the bottle. The second type is a typical red wine that is dry and concentrated.
California and Italy are most popular for growing Zinfandel and characteristics include:
- Cherry pie filling
- Black tea
Make no mistake about it, Cabernet grapes are a very hardy type.
They are not picky about the soil type they are grown in. They have thick skins and large seeds which hardens them against diseases.
These same skins are what gives Cabernet wines their strong tannins.
A warmer fermentation period and longer soak in the grape skins extract a lot of color and tannins. Wines then need some aging time to mellow out the tannins and color.
Go ahead and add France as a notable region that grows Cabernet. The left bank of the Bordeaux region, to be exact. Other regions include Napa in California and Australia.
Signature characteristics you’ll get on the nose and palate are:
- Black fruit
- Green vegetal element
- Cedar or wood chips
- Sweet hay if it’s from Napa
- Jam and minerals if it’s from Bordeaux
You’ll know a Cabernet is unripe if you get hints of green bell pepper so keep that in mind.
Food and Wine Pairing
One thing to note with food and wine is that not everyone will have the same opinion on what pairs well and what doesn’t. This is a completely subjective gray zone to enter.
One person may think that a sauvignon blanc would go great with seafood, drizzled in a cream sauce. Whereas someone else might find that pairing blasphemous. It’s left up to one’s personal taste palate and how they interpret their own food and wine pairings.
If you’re sitting there going, “Ok great…personal opinion matters big whoop…I still don’t know what to pair with what.”
Well…we’re getting there, sit tight.
That said, food and wine pairing have been whittled down to a science (an overly complicated one at that) although we’re here to simplify it for you.
Wine refreshes the palate between bites and elements in food or wine can compliment or take away from each other.
You could pair the weight of the wine to the weight of the dish. For example, it would be best to pair a bold meaty dish that is heavy in flavor with a rich red wine that is as bold or heavy in mouthfeel.
Wine flavor can compare or contrast with one’s food as well. Think about food combos that go well together: tomato and basil, peanut butter and jelly, you get the point. Same goes for wine and food.
They can pair well in the sense that they taste similar or they taste different but still taste good together.
One can also pair complex wines with simple dishes and vice versa or, if all else fails, pair the wine with food from the region the grapes were grown.
Here are some more tips to ponder when filtering through your many pairing options:
- Alcohol increases the perception of heat or spice in a dish
- Fat and protein reduce the perception of tannin in a wine
- Salt and acid also reduce the perception of tannin in a wine
- Sweetness increases the perception of acidity in a wine
- Sweetness can also reduce the perception of sweetness in a wine.
With these guidelines in mind, one option could be to pair an acidic dish with an acidic wine. This will, despite what some might believe, decrease the perception of acidity levels all around.
Spicy dishes with chili peppers could pair with fruity dry wines low in alcohol.
Some meat-heavy dishes could pair well with rich wines high in acidity that will cut through the protein and fat content.
The takeaway here is that there will be some food combos that will pair better with others from a logical approach. Ultimately, it will be up to the person to decide what works and what doesn’t work for them.
So next time you’re making buying wine, think about what your drinking.
Where is it from?
How was it made?
What are you going to eat and drink it with?
More importantly, remember to savor and enjoy it in good company.
Make sure to share this guide with anyone you think could use it!
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