By Mary Hunt
Sure, you love a glass of the stuff with a meal, but do you really know where those wonderful whites and ravishing reds come from? If your answer runs along the lines of “the liquor store on the corner, of course,” then you’re definitely due for a primer on the fundamentals of wine. Before we begin, keep this point in mind: There’s no reason for wine to intimidate you. It’s simply a beverage made by grapes, rain, sunshine, and the winemaker’s skill. You don’t have to spend a lifetime, or a fortune, getting to know wine in order to enjoy it.
Great GrapesLet’s start with the basics. All wine is made from grapes—either one grape or several. Red wine is made from the fruit and skin of—surprise—red grapes (actually often blue or purple in color); white wine is made from white grapes (usually green or yellow). Rosé or blush wines are made from the fruit of red grapes, tinted a little by the skins. It’s possible to make a white wine from red grapes, but it’s an expensive process; the only common example is the champagne known as Blanc de Noir, which is a white champagne made from the (red) Pinot Noir grape.
The names of the grapes are what we call varietals . Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc: Those are grape names. American wines usually use the name of the grape to categorize the wine.
France, among other countries, names its wines by the regions or areas they come from. This regional-naming system sounds confusing, but it’s actually no big deal if know these facts:
All red Burgundy wine from France is made entirely from the Pinot Noir grape All white Burgundy wine, including Chablis, is made from Chardonnay. Wines from St. Emilion are made mostly of Merlot. Most French red Bordeaux wines are a mix of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
So, if you’re a fan of American Merlot and want to try something new, a French Bordeaux or a Chilean Merlot will be different, but not totally foreign. Or, if you like Chianti, try an American Sangiovese, which is made from the same grape.
All About AgeAnother major consideration in wine is how old it is. White wines tend to be fine drunk young; only a few benefit from aging. Many red wines need some time in the bottle to settle down.
Vintage —that date on the bottle—means more than age. Wine is really affected by weather. A year with a lot of rain tends to produce a thin wine that is better drunk young. A dry season can damage grapes and cause shortages (and therefore higher prices). Perfect growing weather (rain and sun at all the right times) can create great wine that is worth collecting.
Since, as we’re all aware, the weather is different from location to location, it helps to know what vintages are best from what places. Get yourself a good vintage chart before you go shopping for wine (they are readily available in wine magazines and online at sites like winespectator.com). This chart will tell you what wines are better and worse, and which are ready to drink now. If you drink a wine too young, you’ll never get a sense of what it’s really supposed to taste like.
Expense ReportNot surprisingly, wine that needs aging—and that matures beautifully with age—is pricier than wine that can be picked, bottled and sold right away. Wines from small, boutique vineyards are more expensive than wines grown in vast vineyards, because their overhead is spread out among fewer bottles.
Many countries make wine today. On the American market, the most popular wines are from California, France and Italy. Australian wines are just starting to increase in popularity, but their prices are also heading northward. If you’re in search of a steal, check out Chilean wines—they’re improving in quality yet are still inexpensive. Also, many wines from Spain and Italy offer good bang for the buck.
Becoming a ConnoisseurThink you’ve got to buy bottle after bottle to boost your wine know-how? Think again. These inexpensive ideas will have you headed down the path to vino expertise with your wallet intact:
Mary Hunt is a former managing editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine and has completed training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
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