How To: Understand the Very Basic Basics of Wine
© The Flash List
“When you’re thirsty, you drink water; when you want pleasure, you drink wine.”
Wine is like art. It has a little to do with what’s pleasing to most, but everything to do with what pleases you. And with these few tips, you’ll be well on your way to becoming an oenophile [ee nuh file], a person or connoisseur who enjoys wine.
Show the bottle with the label clearly displayed to the person who ordered it so that they may check the winery name and vintage to ensure order accuracy.
Use a curved knife or a ‘waiter’s friend’ (a ‘Swiss army knife’ looking corkscrew and knife in one) to cut the metallic wrapper from the top of the bottle. Then insert the corkscrew, twist, and remove the cork with little noise. Your goal is to remove the cork without spilling wine or allowing bits of cork to fall into the bottle. If you want to re-cork the bottle later, turn the cork upside down for easier reinsertion. Sometimes the cork is offered for viewing to ensure that it is wet which is an indication that the wine has been properly stored on its side. If a bottle of wine is stored upright for an extended period of time, the cork may dry out, allowing oxygen into the bottle and ruining the wine.
Despite new wine cork technologies, a small percentage of wine bottles end up "corked." This does not refer to having bits of cork in your wine, but instead means that a mold naturally found in tree bark has come from the cork and has tainted the wine's flavor. This contamination occurs before the cork closure ever goes into the bottle; and if corked, the wine may taste like cardboard, wet paper, moldy fruit, or rotten eggs. The reason for smelling and/or tasting a sample of wine is to see if you detect these odors.
Hold the bottle near the bottom with your thumb in the ‘punt’ (the indentation in the bottom of the bottle.) Service is generally given clockwise around the table, pouring at the right shoulder of each person. Only fill a glass up about halfway so that the person drinking it has plenty of room to swirl the wine in order to release its aromas. Refill glasses as needed. Turn the bottle a little as you finish pouring to prevent dripping.
Tasting Wine - See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Slurp, Swish, Swallow or Spit
Hold your glass by the stem to maintain the temperature of the wine and to also see the color of the wine (you want it to be clear, not cloudy.)
Swirl the wine briskly in a half full glass in order to release its aroma. You will see the visible ‘legs’ of the wine along the insides of the glass which are indications of the alcohol content, most obvious in wines over 12% alcohol.
Wine glasses are typically narrow at the top in order to allow the wine’s flavor aroma to gather. Feel free to put your nose right down into the glass and breathe in deeply. This way, you get a sense of the ‘nose’ of the wine, be it a single smell or a full bouquet.
Sip wine first to make sure it is not corked. If it’s not corked, but does seem tart to you, you can lick a lemon or lime along with salt from your hand and then drink your wine again. This will remove the bitter taste and bring forward the fruity flavors, thus making the wine taste milder. You can also put salt and lemon on foods to balance the food and wine better.
Take a drink of wine into your mouth, make a pucker shape with your lips, and then pull air into your mouth in order to ‘bubble up’ the wine’s flavor. This is in some way a little similar to gargling and can sound a bit obnoxious, but it is quite common and a great way to get a better, fuller taste of the wine. Be careful though not to let the wine pour out of your mouth when you’re trying to suck in air.
Swish the wine around vigorously in your mouth to more fully appreciate the taste. Some people have more taste buds than others (especially bitter,) so people’s tastes vary. The best wines are the ones that you like personally.
Swallow or Spit
If you are at a tasting event that calls for not overindulging and you’ve been provided a receptacle, you may spit out the wine. Otherwise, swallow and enjoy. Be aware of the ‘finish’ or aftertaste. Taste for sweetness or dryness (non-sweetness), tannins (the mouth drying component that's like tea), astringency (the drying of the mouth which is different from a dry, non-sweet wine), and the ‘body’ of the wine (the sense of alcohol.)
Aromas and Flavors of Wine
The tongue tastes four flavors - salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. So not all flavors can be detected with the tongue. The rest of the flavor information comes from your nose. Therefore, you may also get a sense that the wine reminds you of something familiar, like green apples perhaps. The endless combination of the smells and tastes of various wines leads to long lists of wine tasting descriptors used to express various wine flavors. Some wine descriptors might include black cherries, chocolate, cut grass, spice, tropical fruit, honeysuckle, black pepper, or tobacco, etc... The wine is not actually made of any of these things, but the taste of a wine might call to memory any one or more of these or other flavors.
Types of Wine
There are so many types of wines that learning them can get very confusing very quickly. One thing to know to make things a bit clearer is that most European wines are named for the place the grapes were grown, while American wines are generally named for the type of grape from which the wine is made. For instance, a white Vouvray wine is produced in the town of Vouvray in the Loire Valley of France from the chenin blanc grape. The same type of wine produced in America is called chenin blanc. In the same way, “champagne” is produced in the Champagne region of France. ‘Champagne’ produced in America is called sparkling wine. So you might hear of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais, or Chablis - these are wines named after regions in France. Conversely, American wines (mostly made in California, New York, Oregon, Texas and Washington) may be named after grapes such as the Merlot grape, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, etc…
A Few Common Wines
Sparkling Wines (Served chilled.)
Sparkling wine and Champagne [sham-pain] - A light, carbonated, apéritif wine (an alcoholic drink used to stimulate the appetite.)
Whites (Served chilled.)
Riesling [rees-ling] - A very light, sweet, (almost apple-juice-ish) German white wine that is low in alcohol. An easy introduction to wine.
Gewürztraminer [guh-vertz-tra-mee-ner] - A very fragrant, aromatic, full-body white wine.
Chenin Blanc [shen-in blahnk] - A floral, but often quite acidic white wine.
Pinot Grigio [pee-no gree-zhee-oh] - A very crisp white wine.
Sauvignon Blanc [sah-ven-yawn blahnk] - A tart, highly acidic white wine that is low in fruitiness.
Chardonnay [shar-doh-nay] - A dry (non-sweet) wine which is the most popular wine in the world.
Blush (Served chilled.)
White Zinfandel [zin-fuhn-del] - A mild, sweet, pink-colored wine that is low in alcohol, making it popular with those who drink wine infrequently.
Reds (Serve cool, but not chilled.)
Merlot [mair-lo] - A medium intensity red wine with herbal and fruity flavors.
Pinot Noir [pee-no nwar] - A uniquely rich, velvety, fruity red wine that accompanies a wide variety of foods.
Cabernet Sauvignon [cab-ur-nay sah-veen-yong] - A somewhat stout, complex, and full-bodied red wine.
Syrah/Shiraz [see-rah] [sheh-raz] - A very stout, highly aromatic, full-bodied red wine known as Shiraz in Australia and often in the US.
Port (Serve cool, but not chilled.)
Port - A sweet, red dessert wine fortified with spirits to boost alcohol content.
Be encouraged to ask for assistance when making a purchase in a wine shop. If you’re not sure what to buy, just say so - wine specialists tend to be extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and are a great resource for learning and saving money.
You may also purchase tasting flights at many wine lounges. A tasting flight is a selection of small portions of a variety of wines for the purpose of sampling and comparing. Many wine shops also occasionally offer free tastings as well as instructional classes and seminars.
In the end, don’t worry about trying to fit into the world of wine. Rather fit wine into your world. The best wines are the ones you love the most.