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Wine: a quick and dirty guide



Wine is, at its most basic, fermented juice. Although generation after generation has built up a mystique around the production, culture, and enjoyment of wine, it is useful to keep its humble origins in mind when embarking on an educational journey. Taking wine too seriously can ruin one’s enjoyment, while expanding one’s knowledge while understanding the fundamentally unpretentious nature of the juice can open up amazing new worlds.

In practice, when we speak of wine we are generally referring to grape wine – although wine may be made from blackberries, blueberries, apples, barley, rice, and virtually anything else with a high-sugar juice. Mankind has been producing wine from grapes for almost 9,000 years, and in that time the methods and end product have changed surprisingly little.

The vast majority of wine is made from a grape species known as Vitis vinifera – not to be confused with Concord or many other food grapes. Over the centuries, Vitis vinifera has subtly changed – due to migration, weather, insects, soil, or human design – and branched out into a myriad of sub-species, which we called varieties.

There are more than 10,000 different varieties of grape used to make wine, but most are used in isolated pockets of the world, and do not make what wine experts would consider ‘good’ wine. There are roughly one-hundred varieties of grape used in everyday practice, ranging from well-known varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, and merlot to lesser-known varietals such as grüner veltliner, negroamoro, and vranac. An understanding of the major twenty or thirty varietals will give you a strong foundation to confidentially order off a wine list, taste, and build your personal cellar.

women_drinking_wineWine comes in five major types: red, white, rosé, sparkling, and sweet. All of these wines may be made from any type of grape (white wines can be made from red grapes, sparkling wines can be made from virtually anything, and sugar can be left in any wine or added later).

Throughout the world, wine labeling and rating practices differ widely. In most of the New World (Australia, the United States, Canada, South Africa, etc.), wines are labeled based on the varietal. In most of the Old World (France, Italy, Spain), wines are labeled based on the region (appellation) where the grapes are grown. These regions in turn have strict requirements as to which grape varieties may be used in production. For that reason, many people find ordering New World wines less intimidating – since they know what they’ll be getting – but it is relatively easy to learn a handful of major Old World regions and what varieties are used.

Ultimately, what makes a wine ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a matter of personal taste. But there are definite benchmarks that can be used to judge how much prestige a wine has – the region the grapes were grown, the year (vintage) of the wine for that region, the winery that produced it, the quality of oak used in aging. Learning the basics of what makes a respectable wine is the first step towards opening the door on a whole new world.

If you're tasting with a group, discussing what you've smelled and tasted can add another dimension to your tasting, awakening in you flavors that you hadn't noticed at first glance. It is recommended, however, to taste silently first, before sharing, as other's views can greatly influence your own experience and stop you from the journey of discovery that makes wine tasting such a magical experience.

The world of French wine can seem daunting. With hundreds of regions, each with their own rules and regulations, even navigating a wine label to identify what grapes are found within can seem exceedingly difficult to the novice. Thankfully, a basic knowledge of a dozen major regions, and some general rules of thumb can quickly level the playing field.