Prelude To Wine

 

You're in a wine shop looking for that "special" wine to serve at a dinner parry. Before you walked in, you had at least an idea of what you wanted, but now, as you scan the shelves, you're overwhelmed. "There are so many wines," you think to yourself," . . . and so many prices. "You take a deep breath, boldly pick up a bottle that looks impressive, and buy it. Then you hope that your guests will like your selection.

Does this sound a little farfetched? For some of you, yes. The truth is that this is a very common occurrence for the wine beginner, and even for the interme­diate, but it doesn't have to be that way. Wine should be an enjoyable experi­ence. By the time you finish this book, you'll be able to buy with confidence from a retailer, or even look in the eyes of a wine steward and ask with no hesitation for the selection of your choice. But first let's start with the basics­ the foundation of your wine knowledge. Read carefully, because you'll find this section invaluable as you relate it to the chapters that follow. You may even want to refer back to this section occasionally to reinforce what you learn. For the purpose of this book, wine is the fermented juice of grapes.

What's fermentation?

Fermentation is the process by which the grape juice turns into wine. The simple formula for fermentation is:

Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide (CO 2)

Sugar is present naturally in the ripe grape. Yeast also occurs naturally, as the white bloom on the grape skin. However, this natural yeast is not always used in today's winemaking. Instead, laboratory strains of pure yeast have been isolated, each strain contributing something unique to the style of wine. The fermentation process ends when all the sugar has been converted into alcohol, or the alcohol level has reached around 15 percent, which kills off the yeast. The carbon dioxide dissipates into the air, except in the case of Champagne and other sparkling wines, where this gas is retained through a special process.

Why do the world's fine wines come only from certain areas?

A combination of factors are at work. The areas with a reputation for fine wines have the right soil and favorable weather conditions, of course. But, in addition, these areas look at winemaking as an important part of their history and culture.

Is all wine made from the same kind of grape?

The major wine grapes come from the species Vitis vinifera. In fact, both European and American winemakers use the Vitis vinifera, which in­cludes many different varieties of grapes-both red and white. However, there are other grapes used for winemaking. The native grape variety in America is the species Vitis labrusca, which is grown widely in New York State. Hybrids, crosses between Vitis vinifera and Vitis labrusca, are planted primarily on the East Coast of the United States.

The following are the three major categories of grapes and a sampling of the varieties found in each one:

VITIS VINIFERA         VITIS LABRUSCA    HYBRIDS

Cabernet Sauvignon   Concord                    Baco Noir

Chardonnay                Catawba                   Seyval Blanc

What are the three major types of wine?

Table Wine: approximately 8 percent to 14 percent alcohol

Sparkling Wine: approximately 8 percent to 14 percent alcohol + CO2

Fortified Wine: 17 percent to 22 percent alcohol

All wine fits into at least one of these categories.

Winemaking begins in the vineyard, growing the grapes. This is crucial to the whole process.

Where are the best locations to plant grapes?

Grapes are agricultural products that require specific growing conditions. Just as you wouldn't try to grow oranges in New York State, you wouldn't try to grow grapes at the North Pole. There are limitations on where vines can be grown. Some of these limitations are: the growing season, the number of days of sunlight, the angle of the sun, average temperature, and rainfall. Soil is of primary concern, and proper drainage is a requisite. The right amount of sun ripens the grapes properly to give them the sugar/acid balance that makes the difference between fair, good, and great wine.

There are five important factors in winemaking:

1. Geographic location

2. Soil

3. Weather

4. Grapes

5. Vinification (the actual winemaking process)

Does it matter which types of grapes are planted?

Yes, it does. Traditionally, many grape varieties produce better wines when planted in certain locations. For example, most red grapes need a longer growing season than do white grapes, and red grapes are usually planted in warmer (more southerly) locations. In colder northern regions ­in Germany and northern France, for instance-most vineyards are planted with white grapes. In the warmer regions of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, the red grape thrives.

Vines are planted during their dormant periods, usually in the months of April or May. A vine doesn't usually produce grapes suitable for winemaking until the third year. (Don't forget that the seasons in the Southern Hemi­sphere-Australia and Chile, for example-are reversed.) Most vines will continue to produce good-quality grapes for up to 40 years.

When's the harvest?

Grapes are picked when they reach the proper sugar/acid ratio for the style of wine the vintner wants to produce. Go to a vineyard in June and taste one of the small green grapes. Your mouth will pucker because the grape is so tart and acidic. Return to the same vineyard-even to that same vine-in September or October, and the grapes will taste sweet. All those months of sun have given sugar to the grape as a result of photosynthesis. "Brix" is the winemaker's measure of sugar in grapes.

                        

What effect does weather have on the grapes?

Weather can interfere with the quality of the harvest, as well as with its quantity. In the spring, as vines emerge from dormancy, a sudden frost may stop the flowering, thereby reducing the yields. An April frost in Bordeaux destroyed over 50% of 1991's grape harvest. Even a strong windstorm can affect the grapes adversely at this crucial time. Several years ago in Burgundy, certain villages were pelted by a 15-minute hailstorm. Its effects will not soon be forgotten ­it caused almost $2 million worth of damage. Not enough rain, too much rain, or rain at the wrong time can also wreak havoc.

Rain just before the harvest will swell the grapes with water, diluting the juice and making thin, watery wines. Lack of rain, as in the drought period in California's North Coast counties in the late 1980s, will affect the balance of wines for those years. A severe drop in temperature may affect the vines even outside the growing season. Case in point: the winter of 1993-94, which vis­ited unusually bitter cold on the wine regions of New York State. The result was a severe loss of production for the following year, particularly in those vineyards planted with the less-than-hardy European grape varieties.

What can the vineyard owner do in the case of adverse weather?

A number of countermeasures are available to the grower. Some of these measures are used while the grapes are on the vine; others are part of the winemaking process.

Problem                  Results In         Solution

Frost                          Reduced yield    Various frost protection methods: giant flamethrowers to warm vines

Not enough sun           Unripe grapes    Chaptalization (the addition of sugar to the must-fresh grape juice-during fermentation)

Too much rain              Thin, watery    Move vineyard to

wines          drier climate

Mildew                        Rot                   pray with copper sulfate

Phylloxera                   Dead vines        Graft vines onto resistant rootstock

Drought                       Scorched grapes Irrigate or pray for rain

What's Phylloxera?

Phylloxera, a grape louse, is one of the grapevine's worst enemies, since it eventually kills the entire plant. An epidemic infestation in the 1870s came close to destroying all the vineyards of Europe. Luckily, the roots of native American vines were immune to this louse. After this was discovered, all the European vines were pulled up and grafted onto phylloxera-resistance American rootstocks. California vineyard owners are now having problems with phylloxera in their grapevines.

Can white wine be made from red grapes?

Yes. The color of wine comes entirely from the grape skins. By removing the skins immediately after picking, no color is imparted to the wine, and it will be white. In the Champagne region of France, a large percentage of the grapes grown are red, yet most of the resulting wine is white. California's White Zinfandel is made from red Zinfandel grapes.

What's tannin, and is it desirable in wine?

Tannin is a natural substance that comes from the skins, steins, and pips of the grapes, and even from the wooden barrels in which certain wines are aged. It acts as a preservative; without it, certain wines wouldn't continue to improve in the bottle. In young wines, tannin can be very astringent and make the wine taste bitter. Generally, red wines have a higher level of tannin than do whites, because red grapes are usually left to fer­ment on their skins.

Is acidity desirable in wine?

All wine will have a certain amount of acid. Winemakers try to have a balance of fruitiness ("fruit") and acidity. In general, white wines have more acidity than do reds. An overly acidic wine is usually described as tart, sour, or acidic.

What's meant by "vintage"? Why is one year considered better than another?

A vintage indicates the year the grapes were harvested, so every year is a vintage year. A vintage chart reflects the weather conditions for various years. Better weather results in a better rating for the vintage.

Are all wines meant to be aged?

No. It's a common misconception that all wines improve with age. In fact, more than 90 percent of all the wines made in the world are meant to be consumed within one year, and less than 1% of the world's wines are meant to be aged for more than 10 years.

How is wine production regulated worldwide?

Each major wine-producing country has government-sponsored control agencies and laws that regulate all aspects of wine production and set certain minimum standards which must be observed. Here are some examples:

FRANCE: Appellation d'Origine Controlee (A.O.C.)

ITALY: Denominazione di Origine Controllata (D.O.C.)

UNITED STATES: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (B.A.T.F)

GERMANY: Ministry of Agriculture

SPAIN: Denominacion de Origen (D.O.)

 

ON

TASTING WINE

You can read all the books (and there are plenty) written on wine to become more knowledgeable on the subject, but you should taste wines to truly enhance your understanding. Reading covers the more academic side of wine, while tasting is more enjoyable and practical. A little of each will do you the most good.

The following are the necessary steps for tasting wine. You may wish to follow them with a glass of wine in hand. Wine tasting can be broken down into five basic steps: Color, Swirl, Smell, Taste, and Savor.

color-

The best way to get an idea of the color of the wine is to get a white background-a napkin or a linen tablecloth-and hold the glass of wine in front of it. The range of colors that you may see depends, of course, on whether you're tasting a white or red wine. Here are the colors for both:

White Wine

 

Red Wine

pale yellow-green

old gold

purple red-brown

straw yellow

yellow-brown

ruby brown

yellow-gold

maderized

red

gold

brown

brick red

Color tells you a lot about the wine. For instance, as white wines age, they gain color. Red wines, on the other hand, lose color as they age. In gen­eral, if you can see through a red wine, it's ready to drink.

Since we start with the white wines, I'll tell you three reasons why a white wine may have more color:

l. It's older-.

2. Different grape varieties give different color (For example, Chardonnay usually gives off a deeper color than does Riesling.)

3. The wine was aged in wood.

In class, l always begin by asking my students what color the wine is. It's not unusual to hear that some believe that tile wine is pale yellow-green, while others say it's gold. Everyone begins with the same wine, but color percep­tions vary. There are no right answers, because perception is subjective. So you can imagine what happens when we actually taste the wine!

SWIRL-

Why do we swirl the wine? To allow oxygen to get into the wine: Swirling re leases tile esters, ethers, and aldehydes which combine with oxy­gen to yield the bouquet of the wine. In other words, swirling aerates the wine and gives you a better smell.

Everyone does a great job swirling wine. You can do it any way you want --with your left hand, your right hand, with two fingers, behind your back.... But 1 must warn vou right now: You will start swirling everything-your milk, soft drinks, your morning coffee!

SMELL-

This is the most Important part of wine tasting. You can only Perceive four tastes-sweet, sour, bitter, and salt-but the average per­son can smell over ?,()()fl different scents, and wine has over ?(I() or its own. Now that you've Swirled the wine and released tile bouquet, 1 want you to smell the wine at least three times. You will find that the third smell will give you more information than the first smell did. What does the wine smell like? What type of nose does it have? The "nose" is a word that wine tasters use to describe the bouquet and aroma of the wine. Smell is a very Important step in the tasting process that people simply don't spend enough time on.

Pinpointing the nose of the wine helps you to identify certain character­istics. The problem here is that many people in class want III(, to tell them what the wine smells like. Since I prefer not to use pretentious words, I may say that the wine smells like a French white Burgundy Still, I find that this doesn't satisfy the majority of tic, class. I hey want to know more. I ask these people to describe what steak and onions smell like. They answer. "Like steak and onions." See what 1 mean?

Tile best way to learn what your own preferences are for styles of wine is to "memorize" tile smell of the individual gripe varieties. For white, just try to memorize the three major grape varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Keep smelling them, and smelling them, and smelling them until you can identify the differences, one from the other. For the reds it's a little more difficult, but you still can take three major grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Try to memorize those smells without using flowery words, and you'll understand what I'm talking about.

For those in the wine school who remain unconvinced, I hand out a list of 500 different words commonly used to describe wine. Here is a small ex­cerpt:

acetic

character

legs

seductive

aftertaste

corky

light

short

aroma

delicate

maderized

soft

astringent

developed

mature

stalky

austere

earthy

metallic

sulphury

baked-burnt

finish

mouldy

 

tart

balanced

flat

nose

thin

big-full-heavy

fresh

nutty

tired

bitter

grapey

off

vanilla

body

green

oxidized

woody

bouquet

hard

petillant

yeasty

bright

hot

rich

young

Another question inevitably, comes up. People often ask me, "What kind of wine do you like?" I'd have to say I like my wine bright, rich, mature, developed, seductive, and with nice legs!! Another interesting point is that you're more likely to recognize some of the defects of a wine through your sense of smell. Following is a list of some of the negative smells in wine:

Smell                                   Why

Vinegar                                   Too much acetic acid in wine

Sherry                             Oxidation

Cork (dank wet cellar smell,    Wine absorbs taste of defec­

sometimes mouldy)                tive cork

Sulphur (burnt matches)          Too much sulphur dioxide

Sulphur dioxide is used in many ways in winemaking. It kills bacteria in wine, prevents unwanted fermentation, and acts as a preservative. However, a good wine should never have the sense of sulphur dioxide, which causes a burning and itching sensation in your nose.

TASTE­

To many people, tasting wine means taking a sip and swallowing Immediately. This isn't tasting. Tasting is something you do with your taste buds. And remember, you have taste buds all over your mouth. They're on both sides of the tongue, underneath, on the tip, and they extend to the back of your throat. If you do what many people do, you take a gulp of wine and bypass all of those important taste buds.

What should you think about when tasting wine?

Be aware of the most important sensations of taste and where they occur on your tongue and in your mouth. As I mentioned earlier, you can only perceive four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salt (but there's no salt in wine, so we're down to three). Bitterness in wine is usually created by high alcohol and high tannin. Sweetness only occurs in wines that have some residual sugar left over after fermentation. Sour (sometimes called "tart") indicates the acidity in wine.

Sweetness-Found on the tip of the tongue. If there is any sweetness in a wine whatsoever, you'll get it right away.

Fruit and Varietal Characteristics-Found in the middle of the tongue.

Acidity-Found at the sides of the tongue, the cheek area, and the back of the throat. It's most commonly present in white wines and some lighter-­style red wines.

Tannin-The sensation of tannin begins in the middle of the tongue. Tan-nin frequently exists in red wines or wood-aged white wines. When the wines are too young, it dries the palate to excess. If there's a lot of tannin in the wine, the tannin can actually coat your whole mouth.

Aftertaste-This is the overall taste and balance of the components of the wine that lingers in your mouth. How long does the balance last? Usually a sign of a high-quality wine is a long, pleasing aftertaste. The taste of many of the great wines lasts anywhere from 1 minute to 3 minutes, with all of their components in harmony.

SAVOR­

After you've had a chance to taste the wine, sit back for a few moments and savor it. Think about what you just experienced and ask yourself the following questions to help focus your impressions. Was the wine:

Light, medium, or full-bodied? (Think: skim milk, whole milk, heavy cream.)

For a white wine: How was the acidity? Very little, just right, or too much?

For red wine: Is the tannin in the wine too strong or astringent? Is it pleasing? Or is it missing?

How long did the balance of the components last? (1() seconds, 60 seconds, etc.)

To your taste, is the wine worth the price?

Is the wine ready to drink?

What is the strongest component (residual sugar, fruit, acid, tannin)?

What kind of food would you enjoy with the wine?

This brings us to the most important point. The first thing you should consider after you've tasted a wine is whether or not you like it. [s it your style?

You can compare tasting wine to browsing in an art gallery. You wander from room to room looking at the paintings. Your first impression tells whether you like one or not. Once you decide you like a piece of art, you want to know more: Who was the artist? What is the history behind the work? How was it done? And so it is with wine. Usually, once oenophiles discover a new wine that they like, they have to know all about it-the winemaker, the grapes, exactly where the crop was planted, the blend, if any, and the history behind the wine.

How do you know if a wine is good or not?

The definition of a good wine is one that you enjoy. Do not let others dictate taste to you!

When's a wine ready to drink?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions at the Windows on the World Wine School. The answer is very simple-when all components of the wine are in balance to your particular taste.

THE 6O-SECOND WINE EXPERT

Over the last few, years I have insisted that my students spend at least one minute of silence after they swallow the wine. l use a "one-minute wine expert" tasting sheet in my classes for students to record their impressions-the minute is divided into four sections: 0-15 seconds, 15-3() seconds, 30­45 seconds, and the final 45-60 seconds. Try this with your glass of wine.

I never rate the wine in the first 15 seconds as the first taste is a shock to the taste buds. I will begin to formulate my opinion of the wine from 30 seconds to 60 seconds. This is what I am looking for:

0-15 seconds: If there is any residual sugar/sweetness in the wine, I will expe­rience it in the first 15 seconds. If there is no sweetness in the wine, the acidity is usually at its strongest sensation in the first 15 seconds. I am also looking for the fruit level of the wine.

15-30 seconds: After the sweetness or acidity I am looking for great fruit sensation. After all, that is what I am paying for! By the time I reach 30 seconds I am hoping for balance of all the components. By that time, I can identify the weight of the wine. Is it light, medium, or full-bodied? I can now start to think about what kind of food I can pair with the wine. (See pages 154-155.)

30-45 seconds: Not all wines need 60 seconds of thought. Lighter-style wines such as Riesling will usually show their best at this point. The fruit, acid, and sweetness of a great German riesling should be in perfect harmony from this point on. For quality red and white wines, acidity-which is a very strong component (especially in the first 30 seconds)-should now blend in with the fruit of the wine. It is at this point that I look for the balance in the components.

45-60 seconds: Very often wine writers use the term "length" to describe how long the components, balance, and flavor continue in the mouth. I am concen­trating on the length of the wine in this last 15 seconds, and I will make the decision whether T like the wine or not. In big, full-bodied red wine such as Bordeaux, Rhone wines, California Cabernets, and Italian wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco, and in some white wine made with Chardonnay I am concen­trating on the level of tannin in the wine. As the acidity, and fruit balance are my major concerns in the first 30 seconds, it is now the tannin and fruit balance that I am looking for in the last 30 seconds. If the fruit, tannin, and acid are all in balance at 60 seconds, then I feel that the wine is probably ready to drink. Does the tannin overpower the fruit? If it does at the 6(1 second mark, I will then begin to question the drinkability of the wine.

It is extremely important to me that if you want to learn to taste wine you take at least one minute to concentrate. In my classes it is amazing to see over 100 students silently taking one minute to analyze a wine. Some close their eyes, some bow their heads in deep thought, while others write notes.

One last note: 6() seconds to me is a minimum time to wait before making a decision about the wine. Many great wines continue to show balance well past 120 seconds, and the best wine that I have ever tasted lasted over three minutes. That's three minutes of perfect balance of all components!

 

For further reading: Michael Broadbent's Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting and Jancis Robinson's Vintage Timecharts.