Wine Basics

Some basic concepts are useful.

How Wine is Made

This is the short version of how most wine is made. Sparkling wine such as Champagne is made through a somewhat different process.

  1. First, lots of grapes are grown and harvested. (viticulture)
  2. These grapes are squished for their juice. This used to be done with feet; now machines are more common. (pressing)
  3. The juice is placed in a container (wood barrel or stainless steel tank) and is allowed to sit for a long time. (fermentation)
  4. The juice, which smells funny as a result of having been left out for a long time, is transfered to bottles where it may be allowed to sit around for a bit more. (aging)
  5. The bottle gets sold, and eventually you drink it.

That wasn't so hard, was it? Of course, the magic is in controlling each of the steps to produce a tasty result.

It is worth noting that the color of the grape and the color of the wine are not necessarily related. To make red wine, the (red) grape skins are left in with the juice during fermentation; in white wine, the skins (whatever color they might be) are omitted, resulting in white juice. Blanc de Noir Champagne, for example, is clearly white colored but is made from a grape with red skin.

Rose wines such as White Zinfandel are made by leaving the (red) grape skins in brief contact with the juice, resulting in a pinkish colored wine.

Wine Varietals

Wine grapes are almost exclusively of the vitis vinifera species. The grape comes in many rather different breeds, in the same way that canis familiaris comes in many different breeds (Labrador, Chihuahua, Pit Bull). These breeds are called varietals.

The following are some of the more common varietals that you're likely to see on a typical restaurant wine list.

Red Grapes

Merlot
A slightly spicy grape with solid fruit, it is very similar (and blends well with) Cabernet Sauvignon but is much softer.
Cabernet Sauvignon
A rich, tannic wine with spicy cherry flavors, "Cab" is usually made into bold, serious wines.
Pinot Noir
A medium body grape with very complex and sensuous fruit flavors, Pinot Noir is also one of the most finicky and cantankerous grapes to grow.
Syrah (Shiraz)
A bold and fruity grape that produces very forward wines. This Rhone (France) varietal has become an Australian specialty.
Zinfandel
California's specialty, this grape produces red wines of exceptional boldness and a distictive "jammy" fruit characteristic. It is also used to make a rather unremarkable rose wine, White Zinfandel.
Sangiovese
A red Italian grape that is an essential component of many Italian reds, as well as a few more adventurous New World wines.
Gamay
This is what is used in Beaujolais from France, and makes a delightful light red wine full of fruit.

White Grapes

Chardonnay
A crisp, relatively bland grape that is known to pair exceptionally well with oak.
Sauvignon Blanc
Known for a very grassy and herbal flavor, this grape makes a very crisp and lively wine that matches superbly with a wide range of food.
Riesling
Floral and fruity, with citrus and nectar flavors, this German grape makes excellent medium and light white wine, as well as sweeter dessert-style wines.
Chenin Blanc
A light, floral and fruity grape that is often made into slightly sweet wine.

There are other lesser-known varietals, such as Gruner Veltliner, Malbec, Voignier, and Muller-Thurgau. You needn't concern yourself too much with them unless you want to be a wine nut (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).

There are also a number of non-vinifera varietals grown in the US, based on the vitis labrusca grape. The best-known American varietals are Concord (yes, the jam grape), Niagara, and Cayuga. Unfortunately, while they are great for jam, they usually make mediocre or terrible wine.

Wood, or What's With the Oak?

A lot of wines proudly proclaim on their labels "Fermented in oak" and similar such comments. Does it matter?

In a word, yes. Wine that has been sitting in wood for a long time is bound to pick up some flavors, and you don't have to be a wine expert to learn to detect it quickly. For lack of better words, it tastes like it has been sitting in wood for a long time - which it has.

There is even a difference between French and American oak. This is not mere snobbery; they taste sufficiently different that rank amateurs can easily discern the difference. Roughly speaking, American oak has a spicy (like sawdust) and hickory barbecue flavor, while French oak has a toasted wood and vanilla flavor.

Real oak barrels do add to the price of the final wine. Oak barrels are not cheap (about $600 per barrel as of about 2000) and can be used only two or three times before they start to lose their flavor. An inexpensive wine with oak flavors almost certainly derives its flavor from oak chips; after a barrel has been "used up," it can be chopped into wood chips and stirred back into wine to impart some wood flavors. Typically a winemaker would reserve real barrels for higher-end wines and leave the wood chips to the lower quality wines.

Does Price Matter?

Like all things - yes, to a degree.

Wine that is dirt cheap often tastes dirt cheap. We're talking about wines that you buy in Liter quantities, or in boxes with spouts. You get what you pay for at that point, and you don't get much. Anyone with remotely passable taste buds can discern the differences between these wines and finer wines.

On the other hand, the differences on the higher end of the scale are also so vanishingly small that only professional tasters can tell any qualitative difference. This tends to occur around the $30-50 price range for most people, who will not notice any qualitative difference between Chateau Ferriere ($30) and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild ($225). To make the most of your money, you'd be better off buying a case of very good wine instead of a single bottle of an excellent wine where you can't tell the difference anyway.

You should take this to mean that the interesting wines (to you, that is, as opposed to professional wine reviewers and snobs) fall in this middle range. As always, the real gems are the wines that fall into the lower end of this range in price, but taste comparably to wines in the higher end of the range. These are wines that are good enough to please anyone, yet affordable enough to have more than once or twice in a lifetime.

Serving Wine

You can be all fancy about it, but for the most part, we just want to drink our wine.

Temperature is an important factor in both storage and serving. Leaving wines in hot areas (more than about 80 Fahrenheit) for long times is not good for the wine. Neither is leaving them in exceedingly cold temperature (less than 45 Fahrenheit). It goes without saying that wines should be neither frozen solid or boiled into vapor. You do not need to invest in an expensive custom wine cellar unless you are storing very expensive, very delicate and ageable wines for a long time, and if you're doing that, you don't need to read this guide. In general, your basement will suffice if you can keep the rats out.

Wines also are best served at certain temperatures. This is important. White wine should be served somewhat chilled, well below room temperature (put them in the refrigerator for an hour or two before serving). Most white wine that tastes good chilled tastes rather harsh and disgusting when warm.

Red wine should be served at "room temperature," according to the old rule. However, the old rule was designed for old drafty English castles, which are somewhat colder than your house with decadent soft modern climate control. Thus, red wine should be served slightly below room temperature. If your basement is slightly cooler than the rest of your house, it'll be just fine.

A good beginner experiment that really drives this point home is to pour two glasses of red wine and place one in the refrigerator and one in the kitchen, and drink them an hour later. They will taste very different. In particular, the colder one will taste muted and dull, while the warmer one will be much stronger and bolder. You can repeat this with white wine, where you will find that the colder one tastes good, while the warmer one is acidic, harsh, and generally "off."

It is also of some importance to let red wines "breathe" a bit before drinking. By leaving red wine exposed to air for some minutes, you give the wine a chance to open up flavors and smells (mostly smells), and since most of taste is smell, you will be able to pick out more complex flavors that way. If you want to be fancy, you can pour the wine into a decanter first, or you can just let the bottle sit open for a few minutes before drinking. Swirling the wine in the glass achieves the same effect, albeit somewhat faster.

The Restaurant Routine

Many people only drink wine at nice restaurants. I suspect this is because nice restaurants are special occasions worth splurging on, or they want to look classy in front of other people. The restaurant wine routine isn't hard at all, and is filled with extraneous things that you usually ignore.

The first step is to order the wine. Order whatever you like, preferably something that will match with the food. Good restaurants tend to have good wine lists, so you may see some nice stuff you haven't tried before. If it is a really really good restaurant, they may have a resident wine expert (sommelier) who can help you with the selection. If you're ordering to impress people, don't order White Zinfandel with Steak. That's dumb. Asking for "your best California Chablis" is even dumber, since the Chablis region of France isn't in California. You should expect to pay about 2 or 3 times as much for the bottle as you would at retail.

If a restaurant has a certified sommelier, that man or woman is your friend and wine advocate. Listen to him/her; the sommelier is the one who has chosen the wine list and knows much more about the specific wines on the list than you do. Arguing with the sommelier will not impress your date; it will just make you look like the arrogant, pretentious jackass that you are.

Some time after you make your selection, the waiter comes back with the bottle and opens it. You get handed the cork. You are not supposed to eat it. You can look at it and nod approvingly, or smell it, but that isn't really necessary. The purpose of this step is to make sure that the cork doesn't have mold or hasn't completely disintegrated. This doesn't usually happen, and if it does, you'll really know it.

After you nod approvingly, the waiter pours a bit into your glass. You're supposed to sniff and drink a sip, to make sure it is still good. If it isn't obviously bad (you'll know it when it is), you nod approvingly again and the waiter will fill your glass and everyone else's. That's about it.

You should NOT send the wine back unless there is something genuinely wrong with it. If you order a wine and it's perfectly fine except that you didn't like it, it is NOT acceptable to send it back. You can send it back only if it has turned into vinegar or severely oxidized or something similarly nasty.

If you're ordering by the glass or ordering the "house wine" none of the above is very relevant. The house wine and wines served by the glass are typically inexpensive wines that they expect to have high turnover. Wine doesn't keep very long after it has been opened, so only the popular and less expensive ones can be sold by the glass. Usually the best wines can be had by the bottle only, because of the lower turnover.

Finding a Wine

Sometimes you want to find a very specific bottle of wine and are having some difficulty. There are a few options.

The easiest thing to do is ask around at your local specialty wine shops and ask if they are willing to do special orders. Some shops may be able to obtain unusual wines this way. It is likely that you will have to commit to purchasing some amount, but if you really like the wine this probably isn't a problem.

Alternatively, you can search the Internet for a retailer willing to ship the wine in question to you. This can be made significantly more complicated by the crazy patchwork of liquor laws in the United States, which can often make it difficult to ship alcohol across state (or even county) lines. Be sure that you can get wine legally shipped to you if you want to investigate this option. As I have no personal experience buying wine online, I cannot vouch for any specific dealers.

Finally, it may be possible to order directly from the winemaker. This is often the only way to get local and regional wines that are not distributed nationally (such as Indiana or Texas wines outside of their home states). Again, the crazy US liquor laws may cause problems, so be sure to figure out these issues with the winemaker.