A DiVine Pleasure: Wine!
So, we've got a wine primer that's just what you need to know, nothing fancy, nothing complicated... just a compact information on the great and more than 8000 year old art of the grape processing.
Time to Get Labeled
Labels are key to understanding the vine within. Fortunately, although wine labels differ depending on what part of the world they hail from, they almost always list some essential descriptors. Learn to decode just two of these descriptors, and you've pretty much got the basics of wine.
Variety – The grape's the thing. Different varieties of grapes get made into different kinds of wines. "Varietal" wines contain only one type of grape; others are a blend of two, sometimes three, types. Most wines produced in the New World get labeled based on what kind of grape produced the wine.
Seeking Chardonnay? Considering Cabernet? Maybe Merlot? These are all kinds of grapes, and so it pays to know a bit about the differences inherent in different grape varieties.
Note that while white grapes make white wine, red grapes can be switch hitters. All grape juice is white. To make red wine, wine makers ferment the grapes' red skins along with the golden juice.
Region – Location, location, location. Wine labels from many European countries, most notably France, don't highlight the grape variety. Rather, they give top billing to the geographic region that produced the wine. Many of these Old World regions have become synonymous with the wine itself. Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chablis, Chianti... all of these are regions in France or Italy famous for producing their specific brand of wine. France,
in particular, has rigorous laws that regulate what wine makers may call Burgundy or Bordeaux or any of hundreds of other region-specific "appellations."
6 Great Grapes to Know
Wine is really just spoiled grape juice. Any substance high in natural sugars... grape juice, apple juice, even honey... will sooner or later start to ferment if it comes into contact with yeast. The yeast feeds on the sugar and produces alcohol as a waste product.
Still, wine makers have learned a thing or two in 8,000 years about what sort of grape juice makes the best wine. Almost all wine production comes from a single species of vine native to Europe and the Near East... Vitis vinifera, "the wine-bearing grape." That species has three natural advantages for wine production: high sugar content, relatively low acidity, and more than 10,000 different subtypes, for endless variety. Out of those 10,000 grapes, here are today's top 6... the ones you're most likely to see headlining a bottle.
Chardonnay. Chardonnay is queen of the white grape prom. Wine makers like it because it's easy, both in the field and in the winery... these golden grapes grow practically anywhere and make great wine. Drunk young, such as in Chablis, Chardonnay is dry and crisp, with a tart-apple quality. More often, though, Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, where it acquires a sophisticated, rich, buttery taste, with a hint of vanilla or wood smoke.
Cabernet Sauvignon. If Chardonnay is queen of the white grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is king of the reds.
It epitomizes all that most wine drinkers consider noble in a red wine: complexity, velvety texture, and unapologetically high tannins (a group of compounds in wine that can impart a rough, almost astringent mouth-feel that some call wine's "wool sweater on the tongue"). Cabernet Sauvignon demands time to mature so that those initially intrusive tannins can mellow, but rewards patience with a classic black currant taste, held aloft by everything from cedar to dark chocolate. Wine makers sometimes blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot to offset the tannins and smooth out its hard edges.
Sauvignon Blanc. Whereas Chardonnay often relies on an oak-barrel evening dress to acquire its flavor, Sauvignon Blanc gets its way with its own piercingly distinct perfume. Sauvignon Blanc's natural, unaged
taste ranges from ripe, bursting green fruits to smoky espresso, and layers run the gamut of fruit and even vegetable flavors. High acidity makes it crisp and refreshing. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand can have remarkably uninhibited fruit flavors; some critics think they've outdone the French.
Merlot. The fleshy, blue, early-ripening Merlot grape has, until relatively recently, been condemned to sing background vocals behind Cabernet Sauvignon, as it is typically blended with the bolder Cabernet to form a smooth, harmonious red. Lately, however, Merlot has gotten some press of its own for its softer, less tannic presence. With oak aging, the taste of blackberries and black plums acquires mellow chocolate notes. California Merlot is among the most well regarded... a comfortable everyday red.
Pinot Noir. Notoriously difficult to grow and even more difficult to turn into a great wine, Pinot Noir taunts
wine makers with the promise of its voluptuous richness and stunning complexity. Under the right growing conditions, Pinot Noir is lighter, less tannic, and somewhat fruitier than Cabernet Sauvignon and can age gracefully toward earthy if somewhat pungent and even gamey notes. Pinot Noir is the base grape for classic red Burgundy, regarded by many as among the most sumptuous reds in the world.
Syrah (Shiraz). Vibrant blue Syrah grapes, or Shiraz, as they are known in Australia, produce some the deepest, darkest, most intense reds around. Rich peppery flavors mingle with dark berries and cherries to yield a wine that can age for decades, particularly when influenced by oak barrels. Syrah from the Rhône valley in France attracts the connoisseurs, while Australian Shiraz grabs the dollars (and some connoisseurs too).
Legions of Regions
Back to the French again. Not to be out wined by anyone, the French take the multitude of factors that conspire to affect their vines very seriously. One variable, la territoir (literally "earth"), reflects the concept that wine is at least partly an expression of the environment in which the grapes grow, right down the soil. In fact, no two micro climates are ever the same; the same variety of grapes made into wine by the same wine maker but harvested from different vineyards will not yield the same wine. You can take the wine out of the region,
but you can't take the region out of the wine.
Reckoning with la territoir means that wine makers must choose only the best, most suitable grape varieties for their locale to have a good shot at making a great wine. The French embrace this concept more fully than anyone and actually regulate these choices, with their appellation contrôlée ("controlled name") system of production.
This hierarchical system of increasingly rigorous standards is region-specific. Wine makers may plant only the grape varieties approved for their specific, legally defined region if they want they their wine to wear the region's prestigious name. The Italians have a similar system. The bottom line for wine drinkers is that French and Italian wines are typically identified by these regional appellations and not by the variety of grape used. Here's the five of the best known.
Bordeaux. Surrounding the Ciron Gironde Estuary on France's southwestern coast, Bordeaux is for many the world's consummate wine-growing region. Bordeaux's magisterial Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot-based reds (or clarets, as the British call them) dominate the consciousness of connoisseurs and the cash of wine investors alike. If any wine is art, it's Bordeaux. (If nothing else, it trades like art, with auctions of old bottles fetching insanely high per-sip prices.)
Burgundy. North of Lyon, south of Dijon, the Burgundy region is a narrow strip of central France that has historically orbited with Bordeaux as the binary star of fine wine. Its output is microscopically small compared to that of Bordeaux, but so renowned that a winery's production is often entirely purchased within moments of availability. Burgundy's reds are voluptuous Pinot Noirs, traditionally regarded as the sensual foil to Bordeaux's cerebral Cabernet Sauvignons, while Burgundy's whites hail most famously from the area around Chablis, known for its dry, unoaked Chardonnays.
Beaujolais. Though technically part of the Burgundy region, and located at its southerly stretches, Beaujolais doesn't fit the Burgundy profile. The region grows sunny Gamay grapes, used practically nowhere else, and employs a wine making style all its own, in which the grapes aren't crushed or pressed but allowed to ferment whole. The result is the lightest, easiest-drinking red wine imaginable, with the flavor of wild strawberries. As much as a third of each year's vintage is drunk with no aging whatsoever in Beaujolais Nouveau, released in the third week of each November.
Champagne. The most northerly of France's fine wine regions, Champagne is home to the world's most beloved sparkling wines. The trademark bubbles were originally considered a fault by regional wine makers. Yeasts rendered dormant by winter cold would fire up again with spring warmth, causing more fermentation and by-product carbon dioxide. Legend says that a wise Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon took a taste and declared, "Behold, I am tasting stars!" Well, not quite. Brother Pérignon made a number of real contributions to the region's wine making, but his efforts with what we now call Champagne revolved around finding a way to prevent the damnable fizz. Champagne actually gained prominence among the partying 17th-century crowds of London's cafes and playhouses, who thought the fizz was fun.
Chianti. For most folks, Chianti is Italian red wine. Actually, it hails exclusively from Tuscany, between Florence and Siena. Chianti is famous for dried-fruit flavors counterbalanced with a bit of pepper. The best Chianti, typically labeled Chianti Classico or Chianti Rufina, offers more savory finishes and richer color than the orange-red average.
Of course, regions outside France and Italy have become famous for their wines too, even if they don't give the region top billing. California's Napa Valley, just north of San Francisco, is now recognized as one of the world's best wine-growing regions, on par, according to some, with France's Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. Napa is barely 20 miles long from end to end, but it's packed with vines that yield some of the best Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Merlots in the world.
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