What’s the difference between wines?

We thought it would be a good idea to talk about all the different kinds of wines and what makes them different. What is wine, anyway?

Wine is some kind of fruit juice that has been allowed to ferment. Fermenting mean the sugar in the juice has been eaten by micro organism called yeast, which are everywhere. The yeasts give off two things as they eat, grow, reproduce and die: alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wine is the oldest intoxicating drink known to humankind. It is made from various juices all around the world. The only places wine isn’t made are very cold climates where conventional fruit does not grow. Wine is usually made from grapes because this fruit has the best balance of acidity, sugar and amount of juice. Wine can also be made from any fruit juice and from some grains such as rice and barley. Most starchy grains are used to making brewed beverages, like beer, or distilled liquor, like vodka or whiskey. It’s believed that the earliest wines were made in the area around what is today Iran about 8,000 years ago.

Wine is named for the variety of grape used, the method and/or the region in which was made. For example, Chianti applies only to wine made mostly from Sangiovese grapes specifically grown in the Tuscany region of Italy. Champagne can be made from several different grape varieties, but can only come from the Champagne region of France. The method used is called Champagnoise, which can be applied to any sparkling (bubbly) wine but does not confer the name Champagne.

Laws generally state that a wine with a varietal name, such as Chardonnay, has to contain mostly Chardonnay grapes. Other juices can be added in small amounts to create a particular or consistent flavor. Wines that do not meet the majority grape requirements are called blends and usually have a trademarked marketing name, such as Meritage. Wine made from grapes mostly from a single harvest are called Vintage. This designation can mean a lot or mean nothing at all depending on the type, style and region of the wine. Winemakers try to make their products consistent from year to year, so vintage often doesn’t mean anything.

There are hundreds of wine grape varieties, many of them you have probably never heard of. Some of the more obscure grapes don’t make a very good wine by themselves, but are used as blending juices to create a particular taste. In addition to red and white, wines are also divided into dry and sweet. Most of the best wines are dry because sugar often hides the delicate combination of flavors that can exist in wine. But there are places for sweet wines, like Muscat, usually drank as a dessert. Rose or blush wines are always blends and are often sweeter than many popular wines. White Zinfandel, for example, has nothing to do with real Zinfandel, which is a hearty red wine. The sickeningly sweet White Zinfandel is a blend of chablis and whatever leftover red wine they have lying around. It is usually drank by people who don’t like the dry quality of most wines. The only good thing I can say for it is it doesn’t taste like wine.

What’s classified as sweet in wine terms is often not what most people consider sweet in food terms. Gew├╝rztraminer, for example, is considered a sweet wine but its taste in food terms would probably be called semi-sweet.

You’ve probably seen on TV wine tasters swish the wine around their mouths and spit it out before precisely naming it down to the year. There are really very few people who can do that. The only reason they spit out the wine is because they are usually tasting so much that they would otherwise become too drunk to be able to identify the wine. The real way to taste wine is to use your nose. When a wine is presented to you, the waiter should hold the bottle so you can read the label and make sure it’s what you ordered. He or she should then lay the cork next to you after removing it from the bottle. Don’t smell the cork! That would only tell you something if the wine had gone bad, called corked, by reacting to some small germs in the cork itself. Cork is a natural product and even though they go through elaborate procedures to clean them, sometimes something slips through. Corked wine will smell of ammonia and dirty latrine. Believe me, there will be no question. Just return it. People in the wine and food business know this happens and factor that into their costs of doing business. All the cork can tell you most of the time is whether the wine has been stored properly. Wine should be stored long-term laying on its side so the liquid touches the cork. Keeping the cork wet makes it less likely the seal will be broken and air allowed into the bottle, which would make it go bad. Because of a shortage of cork oak trees, many corks today are made from a synthetic material that does not require being kept moist and will not allow the wine to become corked.

Wine should never completely fill the glass. It reacts with air, and you will want to swish the wine around inside the glass, causing some agitation to add air into the wine. Take your time, there’s no rush, even if some wait person is standing anxiously at your elbow. Some wine lovers like to look at how the wine coats the side of the glass. What this means is not always clear. Next, you want to smell the wine. Go ahead and stick your nose well down into the glass, as far as you can without actually getting your nose wet. The smell, or bouquet, of the wine is as much a part of the taste as what hits your tongue. The smell should give you some idea of the taste. You should smell fruit and other scents from around the vineyard. Lavender and earth smells might be present. Enjoy the smells whatever they might be.

Now, you’re finally ready to taste it. Sip a small amount into your mouth and swish it around a little. But NOT like mouthwash! Pucker your lips and suck in a little air, making bubbles in the wine in your mouth. This wakes up flavors you might not otherwise detect. Try to do this as quietly as you can. You’re not sucking down a shake with a straw, you know. Now, you can swallow. Pay attention to how the wine tastes as to goes to the back of your mouth and into your throat. There may be a lingering flavor, called a finish.

Red wines should be served at room temperature or just below, around 70 F. White wines should be cool but not cold, about 60 F. Icing down wine longer than needed to bring it down to temperature will kill the taste.

Now, enjoy it! Wine is an amazingly complex substance and has fascinated people for thousands of years. After all this, we still have more to cover, and we’ll do that soon.