Want to learn about wine? You are on the right website. Wine is an ancient beverage. Apparently, it was discovered by accident. Grapevines grow up around the trees. They grow wild. Back in the age in ancient Egypt and even before that, thousands of years ago, somebody picked many grapes.
Let’s Start to Learn About Wine
Wine Was Safe
They put them in a bowl somehow or other. They got crushed. The yeast on the skins worked on the juice, and they wound up with something that made them happy. And remember, three, four thousand years ago, people lived lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. And it was terrible back then. So number one. Anything that you could drink that took that edge off a little bit and made you feel a little bit better was a good thing. And number two, the water would kill you. You go to drink the water out of the stream where the animals are, and you die. Water wasn’t safe to drink. Milk wasn’t safe to drink because it wasn’t pasteurized. So wine was the only thing you could drink that wouldn’t kill you.
Wine Is Luxury and Holy
And when people want to illustrate the good life and when they want to show luxury, and when they want to show charm and enjoyment and romance, what do they show you? They show you the wine. If you’re going to eat in the Tour d’Argent, believe me, you better have a tower of money. And if you spend a lot of money on wine, it’s good to know which wine is the best and why. So you have to learn about wine. Wine is a sacrament. It’s a holy drink to the Catholics. It’s a holy beverage in addition to everything else about it that we like.
First, You Have To Grow the Grapes
Wine involves a two-step process. First, you have to grow the grapes, and the farmer does that. Then you have to make the wine, and the winemaker does that. So when we talk about viticulture and learn about wine, we’re talking about three things. We’re talking about the vineyard. We’re talking about where it is. The best way to understand wine is the three G’s—the grape, the ground, and the guy or the gal who makes it. So we have the vineyard. We have a terroir thing, which is everything that has to do with where the grape is grown. It’s the elevation. It’s the soil. It’s the climate. It’s the fog that rolls in off the Pacific. It is all these things that influence the quality of the grape. And you can make bad wine out of good grapes, but you can’t make good wine out of bad grapes.
Learn About Wine and Terroir
So terroir fits the French word. French have a word for everything, and then we have the Appalachians, where the wine from the Appalachian is a legally designated name for a particular wine-growing region. But this terroir thing is essential. You hear people talk about it. So let’s say you and me. We have vineyards, and yours is over here, and mine’s over here. And it’s separated by a cart path that’s maybe six feet wide. And I’m getting $5,000 a ton for my grapes, and you only get 2000 dollars a ton for yours. Because I’m five feet further up the hill, I get better drainage. I have a vein of limestone running under my vineyard. And the grapes are the vines; the roots pick up this minerality that he doesn’t have. There are all kinds of little things that affect the wine’s quality. So, the soil, the climate, the age of the vine.
If you go looking for, especially for Zinfandel, you’ll see on the label say ancient vines because these roots go down into the soil 50, 60, 70 feet as they age. And there are the vines in California. There are over 100 years old. They’re still producing grapes. The further down those roots grow, the more nutrition and the more minerality and the more good stuff they bring up out of the soil. In Slovenia, we have a vine that is 400 years old. It is supposed to be the oldest vine in the world.
And you have the winemaker’s decisions when you pick the grapes. What should the sugar content be? How ripe do you let them get? Am I going to crush them with whole clusters, or will I destem them first? Am I going to ferment it and oak? Am I going to ferment it in stainless steel? All of these many decisions affect what finally winds up in the bottle.
Learn About Wine Diseases
And then you’ve got diseases. There are all kinds of things that affect vines. The vine louse Phylloxera is a microscopic insect that attacks the vines’ roots. And this little thing, it’s huge up there. But it is microscopic. You can’t see him. Wiped out the entire wine industry in Europe in the 1800s. And the only way they could survive was by bringing in vines from America because American vines are resistant. Almost all of the grapes grown in the world today come from American rootstock because phylloxera doesn’t affect them.
Then you have a sharpshooter. This bug spreads a disease called Pierce’s disease that kills the vines. There are all kinds of things working against us when we try to make excellent wine. There’s another one, noble rot. Now, this happens to be a good thing. Noble rot attacks grapes, especially in places like Bordeaux in France, and this is where we make one of the finest, most prized, most expensive sweet wines in the world.
Only one Harvest
The other problem is that we have only one harvest per year. This fact must be taken into account when you learn about wine. If you’re growing corn, you get three. You’re growing weed; you get winter wheat; you get spring wheat. A winemaker has one chance to make a decent bottle of wine every year. So you in the northern hemisphere, obviously September, October is when we harvest. In the southern hemisphere, February, March. So you only get one shot at it.
Grapevine Is an Interesting Plant
The grapevine is an interesting plant, and it grows only in certain places of the world. We cut back the vine in the winter. We go through the vineyard with our little pruning hook, and we drop clusters. We do that because if we have too much fruit on the vine, the juice gets diluted, making tasteless wine. So it’s a heartbreaking thing. It’s like killing your babies. You go through there, and you drop those clusters on the ground that you wind up with less fruit. But the less fruit you have, the more concentrated the juices and the better the wine is. And then we harvest.
Two Sides of River and Such a Big Difference
Take a look at some rivers. You can see that there are vineyards on one side and vineyards on the other side. I guarantee you that the grapes that come from the vineyards on each side will be very different. One side gets five minutes more Sun. The other side is a little bit cooler. Little bitty differences make huge differences in the quality of fruit you get. We talk about the concept of terroir, the climate, the soil, the elevation, the limestone underneath, and the composition. All of these things are important, and there are many different kinds of climates that affect what finally winds up in the bottle.
Learn About Wine And Harvesting
Then we harvest. When we harvest, we harvest according to what’s called Brix. Brix is a measure of sugar content. You go through the vineyard with this little box. It’s got batteries in it. It’s got a little-LED readout, and it’s got little numbers on it. And you take a pic a drop of juice, pour it on there, and it tells you that you are 23, 24, 25 Brix. And then you have people sitting there, and as the grapes come in from the vineyard, you sort them by hand if you’re making high-quality wine. So we have to sort, then we crush the grapes, then we put them in a vat and some sort of that. We put them in oak; we put them in stainless steel; we put them in a glass; we put them in something to let the fermentation take place.
Learn About Wine And Fermentation
Fermentation yeast eats sugar and spits out alcohol. It sounds effortless, but it’s not. It’s magic. Why does yeast grow on grapes, and why does it when the crush does it ferment and make wine? Because God wants us to be happy. That’s what Benjamin Franklin said.
Some winemakers will crush whole clusters; some winemakers will put it through a Destemmer and take the stems off. There are different reasons for doing it both ways. So we have all different kinds of fermentation. All different kinds of ways that we get the juice to become wine. And to turn into the kind of product we want.
Learn About Wine and Its Blending
A lot of the wines that we drink are blended. For example, the Bordeaux blend famous wines from Bordeaux, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a couple of other red grapes. There are reasons for this. Some of them are traditional. Because this grape adds color, this grape adds perfume, this grape adds body, and this grape adds tannins. There are all different reasons why we blend. There are all different kinds of blends that are very traditional. In Chateauneuf-du-pape in the southern Rhone, they can blend up to 13 different grapes in their wine. Not everybody uses all 13, of course. But you could if you wanted to, eight of them are red, and five of them are white. You still wind up with red wine. So there are traditions for that. I have to mention Cviček in this concept also—an exceptional and traditional blended wine from Slovenia.
So then you have the barrel. Barrels are made of flames. So when the barrels with staves are bent, the inside gets toasted. The sugars in the wood caramelized. They add flavors to the wine, like coffee, vanilla, cola coffee, and chocolate flavors. That’s what the wine looks like in the barrel before it’s clarified, and that’s basically what wine is.
Enjoying wine means you like it, but appreciating wine means knowing why you like it. So you have to learn about wine. When you’re looking at the wine, there are certain things you can tell about it. First of all, you can tell whether it’s red or white. You know, that’s always a good thing to know. If it’s evidently clear, if you can see through it, it’s going to be fairly light-bodied. If you can’t see through it, if it’s inky black or dar, it will be a more full-bodied wine. You can tell the age of the wine by looking at it.
Flavor Components of Wine
We can tell these things by looking and by sipping and sniffing. So white fruit wine has fruit flavors; it has floral flavors and aromas. Red wines, red flowers. White wines, white flowers. Jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia, things like that spice. Red wine sometimes has cinnamon or nutmeg or baking spices, or vegetal flavors like mushroom or green pepper or bell pepper. There are a lot of things that oak does to wine. Wines, especially wines from Europe, have a kind of an, I call it, like a petroleum sort of thing. Sounds terrible; why do I want to drink petroleum? But in wine, many of these flavors work. So yeah, we’re going to see it; we may be able to tell the varieties. Light red wine; maybe it’s Pinot Noir. If it’s a dark red wine, maybe it’s a Cabernet or Syrah. We can tell the condition of the wine. We can tell aged red wines lose color as they age. White wines gain color as they age. Red wines fade; they become like bricks. White wines get darker and golden, and brown.
The smell is the most important sense. Your sense of taste is 80% of your sense of smell, and what we want to try to do is build sense memory. When you smell something, the smell goes right to your hindbrain, right to the back. So you can tell right away what’s the first thing you smell. Do you smell grapefruit in a Sauvignon Blanc? Do you smell black plum? Do you smell cherry? Do you smell red cherry? Do you smell black cherry? These things are part of the understanding and appreciation of wine. And plum cherry in red grapes. Citrus, melon, peach, pear, and apple in white wines. Sometimes we find faults and flaws. Old-world wines may get a little earthy. It may get a little funky.
New world wines, maybe just the flavors fade a little bit.
How to Taste
We have to swirl it. We have to put our noses in the glass, close our eyes take a couple of short snips like a puppy because it keeps your olfactory glands from getting tired out. It’s better than taking one long snort. You really don’t want to do that. So we have to taste. We sip the wine, and we have to chew it around in our mouths a little bit because our tongues taste flavors in four different places. There are four flavors. Sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Our tongues taste these flavors in four different places. So you want to get that wine in your mouth. You want to chew it around a little bit to expose all your taste buds to all the different flavors in the wine.
Other components, fruit flavors, earth, tannins, acidity, and all of these things you learn to understand and learn to detect in a wine. I have one basic bit of advice for you. Drink a lot of wine. That’s the only way. It’s the only way to learn about it. The longer the flavors stay in your mouth, the better the wine is likely to be.
Don’t Swallow All
When you learn about wine, you also have to learn how to taste it. If you are at a wine tasting where you’re going to taste 100 different wines, you really don’t want to swallow them all. You can go home in an ambulance in such a case. And when we go to grand tastings or go to trade tastings, and there are dozens of tables and dozens of wines, believe me, when you do this professionally, you don’t swallow at all.
So there are all different kinds of flaws that wine can have. Sometimes you can taste sulfur. You can taste oxidation. Or Brettanomyces of bread give you the kind of a barn barnyard flavor. These are all things that we have to watch out for when we’re learning to appreciate wine and taste professionally.
Corks Versus Screw
I think a lot of people associate poor-quality wine with screw caps. And there was a time when that was true. Look at these facts. American wine got to be excellent and important and significant and of world-class quality. You had people like Carlo Rossi, who still make wine. You had Ernest and Giulio Gallo. And they would put wines and these great big jugs with a screw cap on top. And they call them pink Chablis Hardy Burgundy. You can’t do that anymore because you can’t call it Burgundy unless it comes from the Burgundy region and France. You can’t call it Shibley unless the grape is Chablis. So they would use these old-world trade names, and they put anything they wanted in the bottle. They get 20 tons an acre off their vineyards. And they throw all the grapes into the crusher along with weeds and field mice and grasshoppers and anything else they could put in there. And they would make this terrible stuff. So the screw cap, even today, has an image of poor quality.
So back in the old days, we would use terracotta clay pots to store wine: two, three, four thousand years ago. And we stuff rags on the top and maybe put some beeswax over it to keep the wine from falling out.
Corks are Organic
But now, of course, we use corks. We use corks because they’re number one. They’re renewable. Corks are nothing more than the bark of a certain kind of oak tree. So we can always grow more. They’re organic. They’re natural, and they are slightly permeable. So little bitty bits of air get in and out of the bottle. And little bitty bits of air can help the wine age a little bit. Now, some people are making very high-quality wines and who are putting them in screw tops and putting them away for ten years to find out whether the wines that are bottled under cork and the wines bottled under screwcap developed the same way in a bottle. They may or may not. We don’t know yet. But people are putting very high-quality wines into screwtops. To see what will happen.
The Portuguese got lucky. They got 50% of the cork trees in the world. You go in there every nine years, and you strip the bark off the trees. You take these flat panels of bark. You put them in all kinds of baths to sanitize them and clean them, and you punch out corks. You punch out engine gaskets. You punch out bulletin boards and trivets and things like that. But that’s the way it’s done.
Corks are Degradable
We don’t want to use cork because it’s degradable, and later, we can have problems because of this—problems during the opening of the bottle or because of diseases of wine. Remember, the corks are organic, and all organic things are subject to disease.