Friday, January 12, 2007

All You Need To Know

What follows is my attempt to put down what I think are the most basic things one needs to know about wine. My belief is that if you understand these things then you pretty much understand wine, not it all its glorious complexities or unfortunate pretensions, but in a way that not only will help you enjoy it more but will enable you to make informed decisions concerning it. What follows should help you when confronted with a restaurant wine list or when standing in a wine shop in front of row after row of bottles. My faith is that once you master these basic things your love of wine will carry you on to further explore these and other aspects of how it is made, where it comes from, and why it is what it is.

1. Wine is made from fruit, in this case grapes. As with any fruit, each
variety of grape has distinctive flavors and characteristics. These flavors
and characteristics are influenced by the conditions surrounding the
growth of the grapes, in particular the soil from which the vines feed
and the weather conditions that foster or impede their development.

2. Fruits that please us contain sugar, and the riper the fruit the more
sugar it contains and the more it display those characteristic flavors that
make it what it is. All unripe fruit tends to taste similar – green and sour
– but once it ripens it manifests those qualities that allow us to
distinguish, let’s say, a plum from an apricot.

3. Turning fruit into wine involves transforming its sugar into alcohol.
The more sugar available for conversion, the higher the alcohol level of
the resulting wine.

4. From these first three points follow some useful conclusions: if you
have two wines made from the same grape, the one with the higher
alcohol level will display more fruit flavor. In wine terms it will be a
richer, more full-bodied, more intense example of the grape variety
from which it is made. A Cabernet Sauvignon with an alcohol level of
14% will register differently on you palate than one of 12% . Try it.

5. Alcohol content alone does not make a wine. From a taste point of
view a wine’s acid level is of equal if not greater importance. Acid in
wine does two essential things: it provides structure and it enhances
flavor. Acid is said to form the “backbone” of a wine around which the
other elements are organized. Without it a wine lacks definition and is
said to be flaccid, dull, monochromatic, and uninteresting. Acid is what
is responsible for that crisp, clean, well-knit taste we experience in good
wines. Finally, the effect of acid on wine has been likened to that of salt
on food – it brings out flavors. Just as food without salt is bland, wine
without acid is insipid. Acidity is also the most important element when
it comes to matching wine with a meal.

6. From all this we can see the first challenge a winemaker faces. Acid
and sugar are natural elements of all fruit. That green and sour taste of
unripe fruit is the result of acid not yet balanced by sugar. Sugar takes
longer to develop, and is the product of photosynthesis, which in turn
requires sunlight. So the first big challenge facing a winemaker is when
to pick his or her grapes. If picked too early, or if the conditions do not
allow the fruit to fully ripen, it will be green and the wine made from it
will be acidic; if picked too late, the fruit will contain so much sugar it
can not be balanced by the available acid, so the wine will taste flabby
and unfocused. There are other risks to waiting too long to pick, such as
frost, hail storms, mildew, and rot. This is called farming.

7. It should now be apparent that a wine can be only as good as the fruit
from which it is made. Winemakers can do virtually nothing to improve
the quality of a wine produced from unripe grapes. Unfortunately, he or
she can easily spoil the potential of mature grapes. In short, one can not
make good wine from bad grapes, but one can indeed make bad wine
from good grapes. Hence the role of the winemaker is critical, and the
best of them follow what might be termed a conservative philosophy;
i.e., they try and intervene as little as possible in the process.

8. Knowing all this, plus a little geography (you should have paid better
attention in the 5th grade), can allow you to make some initial informed
judgements concerning what a wine will likely taste like just by looking
closely at its label. Let’s say you are looking for a Riesling in a wine
shop. One is from the steep hillside-vineyards of the Mittelrhein region
of Germany and has an alcohol level of 11.5%; a second is from the
Alsace region of France and shows an alcohol level of 13.5%; and the
third is from South Africa with an alcohol level of 14%. What should
we expect from each?

First the geography. The Mittelrhein area is located in central Germany,
up towards the far northern limit of where Riesling is grown. Alsace is
located at the middle of France on its eastern boarder, while South Africa is way
down south. What does this geography suggest regarding climate and
the ripening of fruit? Well, generally speaking, the further north one
travels the fewer days of sunshine and the shorter the summers one will
encounter. If sunlight determines ripeness, and if ripeness determines
sugar, and sugar determines alcohol and flavor, then one would expect a
wine from a cool area to be light of body, low in alcohol, but crisp with
acid. The label on the German Riesling confirms the low alcohol level
and your conclusion that it is a light-bodied, high-acid wine is what I’d
call an informed good guess.

Alsace is situated pretty much at the middle of the temperate zone where
wine grapes do their best, which means Alsace experiences few radical
extremes and often has the perfect combination of warm days and cool
nights that help fruit develop in a balanced way. A moderate climate
means a slow and steady growth period in which plants absorb sunlight
during the day and then get to rest and relax during the night. It also
means the fruit can be left on the vine longer, giving it time to absorb
nutrients from the soil and transform them in the complex flavors one
finds in exceptionally good tasting fruit. Both the sugar level and the
acid level have time to develop slowly and in harmony. Out of this, at
least in good growing years (vintage year is important, especially with
European wines), one would expect ripe, rich, well balanced fruit, fruit
that would produce a wine with a respectable alcohol level but with a
good acid component to match. At 13.5% the Alsatian Riesling does
indeed have a solid alcohol level (for most quality wines the range is
from 12% to 15%), and one would be justified in assuming it will be a
rounder, more mouth-filling, more delicious Riesling than the one from

What of South Africa? Well, we can certainly count on sunlight, and
lots of it. Maybe too much. In overly warm environments fruit can
come of age too quickly. It can develop so fast it outstrips the plant’s
ability to provide a balance of components. Like an overly developed
adolescent, it can prove somewhat shallow and awkward. It might look
beautiful, grown up, and ready to perform, but when challenged it hasn’t
had time to put it all together. It has lots of sugar, but normally lacks
adequately acidity. This produces a fruit-forward wine that is high in
alcohol, lush of taste, but lacking in character. It’s initial impression
may be seductive, but the more you’re around it the less interesting it
becomes. When you try to engage it at the dinner table you are often
disappointed. It’s assertive and hot-headed (overly alcoholic wines are
said to be “hot”), but alas has trouble holding it’s own in company and
in the end has little to add to the dialogue between the food and itself.

We would be right to suspect our South African Riesling is like this. It
has a higher than normal alcohol level and it comes from a background
where it probably developed quickly. It grew up in hot days and warm
nights. The fruit was not allowed to remain on the vine as long as in
Germany or Alsace because it ripened too quickly. As such it missed
out on developmental possibilities. It may be ripe, but it’s not mature.

So, which wine will you select? The answer to this question is not as
straightforward as it might appear. None of these wines is poorly made
and each has its place. What they represent are different styles made
from the same grape. Which one you pick will depend on your personal
tastes and the circumstances in which the wine will be consumed. If
you’re going to sit and sip it while watching the NFL on CBS then you
might pick the succulent number from South Africa, an uncomplicated,
good tasting companion for an afternoon. If you’re having it with a
meal, then the question becomes What are you having it with? If you’re
having a delicate fish in a lemon-butter sauce, then you might want the
light-bodied German wine. It’s subtle flavors will not overpower the
fish and it’s higher acidity will stand up to, and be off-set by, the lemon
taste. The result will be an enhancement of both the food and the wine.
If you are having a richer dish, foie gras let’s say, or roasted port with a
fruit glaze, then the Riesling from France might be just the ticket. It has
both good body and acidity and so should be able to hold it’s own in
such “meaty” company.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, with a little knowledge you can make
informed decisions about wines you have never tasted. You don’t need
to be a wine “expert.” You don’t need to be a Robert Parker who has
tasted half the wines in the known universe. You don’t need fancy
vocabularies or an in-depth knowledge of viticulture or viniculture, but
you do need to know the few basics I’ve tried to outline here. It goes
without saying you will also have to develop an appreciation for what,
in general, the basic fruits from which wine is made taste like. You’ll
need to know what Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like and how it differs
from Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Syrah. You’ll need to get a
handle on why a Chardonnay is not a Riesling, a Pinot Gris (Grigio), a
Sauvignon Blanc, or Gewurztraminer. In order to do this you’ll have to
drink a lot of wine and pay at least a little attention to what you’re
doing. There could be worse fates. But if you know how these various
fruits taste to you, which you prefer, any why, and if you know about
the relationships amongst geography, climate, ripeness, sugar, alcohol,
and acidity, then you will have moved a long way towards knowing
what wine is all about. These are the heart of the matter, almost all the
rest is just fascinating details.


Susan said...


This is very useful information. I do need to brush up on my geography and knowledge of climates! Thanks for posting this.


Anonymous said...

Awesome information, a definite need to know. This information is a must have for the amateur. Thanks


Marjean said...

Interesting to know.

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