Wine For Dummies book cover

Wine For Dummies

By: Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan Published: 11-13-2018

Wine enthusiasts: raise a glass!

The global wine market has expanded rapidly in the past few years and is forecasted to increase through 2019.   Consumption, new wine styles, online wine purchasing, and a growing younger population of wine enthusiasts are all contributing factors.

In Wine For Dummies, the authors—both recognized wine authorities and accredited Certified Wine Educators—share their expertise, revealing the latest on what's in, what's out, and what's new in wine.  Featuring information on both classic and cutting-edge wines, it’s packed with everything you need to hold your own in tasting rooms, shops, and beyond!  

  • Includes updated information on navigating wine shops and selecting wines in restaurants
  • Covers the latest expert advice on buying wine online thanks to the online retail boom
  • Provides updated vintage charts and price guidelines
  • Offers information on trends in wine, including packaging innovations such as wine in a can, kegs, and boxes 

Whether you’re a beginner or intermediate wine enthusiast, this is your no-nonsense guide to choosing wine, understanding wine lists, exploring new varieties, serving, sharing, and more!

Articles From Wine For Dummies

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The Dynamics of Food and Wine

Article / Updated 09-01-2021

Every dish is dynamic: it’s made up of several ingredients and flavors that interact to create a (more or less) delicious whole. Every wine is dynamic in exactly the same way. When food and wine combine in your mouth, the dynamics of each change; the result is completely individual to each dish-and-wine combination. When wine meets food, several things can happen: The food can exaggerate a characteristic of the wine. For example, if you eat walnuts (which are tannic) with a tannic red wine, such as a Bordeaux, the wine tastes so dry and astringent that most people would consider it undrinkable. The food can diminish a characteristic of the wine. Salt diminishes the impression of tannin, for example, and an overly tannic red wine — unpleasant on its own — could be delightful with a well-salted rare steak or roast beef. The flavor intensity of the food can obliterate the wine’s flavor or vice versa. If you’ve ever drunk a big, rich flavorful white wine with a delicate filet of sole, you’ve had this experience firsthand. The wine can contribute new flavors to the dish. For example, a red Zinfandel that’s gushing with berry fruit can bring its berry flavors to the dish, as if another ingredient had been added. The combination of wine and food can create an unwelcome third-party flavor that wasn’t in the wine or the food originally. Fortunately, certain elements of food react in predictable ways with certain elements of wine, giving you a fighting chance at making successful pairings. The major components of wine (alcohol, sweetness, acid, and tannin) relate to the basic tastes of food (sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness) the same way that the principle of balance in wine operates: Some of the elements exaggerate each other, and some of them compensate for each other. The following notes about pairings illustrate some of the ways that food and wine interact, based on the components of the wine. Keep in mind that each wine and each dish has more than one component, and the simple relationships described can be complicated by other elements in the wine or the food. Whether a wine is considered tannic, sweet, acidic, or high in alcohol depends on its dominant component. Tannic wines Tannic wines include most wines based on the cabernet sauvignon grape (including red Bordeaux), northern Rhône reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, and any wine — white or red — that has become tannic from aging in new oak barrels. These wines can Taste less bitter when paired with salty foods Taste astringent, or mouth-drying, when paired with spicy-hot foods Taste bitter with bitter foods Sweet wines Many so-called dry wines today actually have some sweetness, particularly inexpensive (about $12 or less) wines from California. Wines with unmistakable sweetness include most moscato wines, white zinfandel, many rieslings (unless they’re labeled dry or trocken), and medium-dry vouvray. Sweet wines also include dessert wines such as port, sweetened sherries, and late-harvest wines. Depending on their level of sweetness, these wines can Taste fruitier when matched with salty foods Make salty foods more appealing Go well with foods as sweet as they are, but not sweeter Acidic wines Acidic wines include most Italian white wines; Sancerre, Pouilly-fumé, and Chablis; traditionally made red wines from Rioja; most dry rieslings; and fully dry wines based on sauvignon blanc. These wines can Counterbalance oily or fatty heaviness in food Taste smoother and less acidic when served with salty foods Stand up to foods that have some acidity High-alcohol wines High-alcohol wines include many California wines, both white and red; southern Rhône whites and reds; southern Italian reds; fortified wines such as port and sherry; and most wines produced from grapes grown in warm climates. These wines can Overwhelm lightly flavored or delicate dishes Seem less rich and full with slightly sweet foods Seem less rich and full with umami-rich foods

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Wine For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 08-06-2021

Selecting a wine you like is easy when you can correctly pronounce wine names, use appropriate terms to describe wine, decode wine names, and approach the selecting process with confidence.

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The Special Technique for Tasting Wine

Article / Updated 07-09-2019

You drink beverages every day, tasting them as they pass through your mouth. But when it comes to wine, drinking and tasting are not synonymous. Wine is much more complex than other beverages: There’s more going on in a mouthful of wine. For example, most wines have a lot of different (and subtle) flavors, all at the same time, and they give you multiple simultaneous sensations, such as softness and sharpness together. If you just drink wine by gulping it down the way you do soda, you miss a lot of what you paid for. But if you taste wine, you can discover its nuances. In fact, the more slowly and attentively you taste wine, the more interesting it tastes. And with that, we have the two fundamental rules of wine tasting: Slow down. Pay attention. The process of tasting a wine — of systematically experiencing all the wine’s attributes — has three steps, which we discuss in the following sections. The first two steps don’t actually involve your mouth at all: First, you look at the wine, and then you smell it. Finally, you get to sip it. Savoring a wine’s appearance We enjoy looking at the wine in our glass, noticing how brilliant it is and the way it reflects the light, trying to decide precisely which shade of red it is and whether it will stain the tablecloth permanently if we tilt the glass too far. To observe a wine’s appearance, tilt a (no more than half-full) glass away from you and look at the color of the wine against a white background, such as the tablecloth or a piece of paper (a colored background distorts the color of the wine). Notice how dark or how pale the wine is and what color it is. Also notice whether the wine is cloudy, clear, or brilliant. (Most wines are clear. Some unfiltered wines can be less than brilliant but shouldn’t be cloudy.) Eventually, you’ll begin to notice patterns, such as deeper color in younger red wines and older white wines. If you have time, at this point you can also swirl the wine around in your glass (see the following section) and observe the way the wine runs back down the inside of the glass. Some wines form legs or tears that flow slowly down. Once upon a time, these legs were interpreted as the sure sign of a rich, high-quality wine. Today, we know that a wine’s legs are a complicated phenomenon having to do with the surface tension of the wine and the evaporation rate of the wine’s alcohol. If you’re a physicist, feel free to show off your expertise and enlighten your fellow tasters — but otherwise, don’t bother drawing conclusions from the legs. The nose knows: Sniffing wine After you observe a wine’s appearance, you get to the really fun part of tasting wine: swirling and sniffing. This is the stage when you can let your imagination run wild, and no one will ever dare to contradict you. If you say that a wine smells like wild strawberries to you, how can anyone prove that it doesn’t? Before we explain the smelling ritual, and the tasting technique that goes along with it (described in the next section), we want to assure you that (a) you don’t have to apply this procedure to every single wine you drink; (b) you won’t look foolish doing it, at least in the eyes of other wine lovers (we can’t speak for the rest of the human population); and (c) it’s a great trick at parties to avoid talking with someone you don’t like. To get the most out of your sniffing, swirl the wine in the glass first. But don’t even think about swirling your wine if your glass is more than half full. Keep your glass on the table and rotate it three or four times so that the wine swirls around inside the glass and mixes with air. Then quickly bring the glass to your nose. Stick your nose into the airspace of the glass and smell the wine. Free-associate. Is the aroma fruity, woodsy, fresh, cooked, intense, mild? Your nose tires quickly, but it recovers quickly, too. Wait just a moment and try again. Listen to your friends’ comments and try to find the same things they find in the smell. As you swirl, the aromas in the wine vaporize so that you can smell them. Wine has so many aromatic compounds that whatever you find in the smell of a wine is probably not merely a figment of your imagination. The point behind this whole ritual of swirling and sniffing is that what you smell should be pleasurable to you, maybe even fascinating, and that you should have fun in the process. But what if you notice a smell that you don’t like? Hang around wine geeks for a while, and you’ll start to hear words like petrol, sweaty saddle, burnt match, and asparagus used to describe the aromas of some wines. “Yuck!” you say? Of course you do! Fortunately, the wines that exhibit such smells are not the wines you’ll be drinking for the most part — at least not unless you really catch the wine bug. And when you do catch the wine bug, you might discover that those aromas, in the right wine, can really be a kick. Even if you don’t come to enjoy those smells (some of us do, honest!), you’ll appreciate them as typical characteristics of certain regions or grapes. Wine can also have bad smells that nobody will try to defend. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, because wine is a natural, agricultural product with a will of its own. Often, when a wine is seriously flawed, it shows immediately in the nose of the wine. Wine judges have a term for such wines. They call them DNPIM — Do Not Put in Mouth. Not that you’ll get ill, but why subject your taste buds to the same abuse that your nose just took? Sometimes a bad cork is to blame, and sometimes the problem lies with some issue in the winemaking or even the storage of the wine. Just rack it up to experience and open a different bottle. When it comes to smelling wine, many people are concerned that they aren’t able to detect as many aromas as they think they should. Smelling wine is really just a matter of practice and attention. If you start to pay more attention to smells in your normal activities, you’ll get better at smelling wine. Tips for smelling wine Try these techniques for getting more out of wine when you sniff: Be bold. Stick your nose right into the airspace of the glass where the aromas are captured. Don’t wear a strong scent; it will compete with the smell of the wine. Don’t knock yourself out smelling a wine when strong food aromas are present. The meat you smell in the wine could really be a stew cooking on the stove. Become a smeller. Smell every ingredient when you cook, everything you eat, the fresh fruits and vegetables you buy at the supermarket, even the smells of your environment — like leather, wet earth, fresh road tar, grass, flowers, your wet dog, shoe polish, and your medicine cabinet. Stuff your mental database with smells so you’ll have aroma memories at your disposal when you need to draw on them. Try different techniques of sniffing. Some people like to take short, quick “rabbit sniffs,” while others like to inhale a deep whiff of the wine’s smell. Keeping your mouth open a bit while you inhale can help you perceive aromas. (Some people even hold one nostril closed and smell with the other, but we think that’s a bit kinky.) 10 aromas (or flavors) associated with win The following are some of the most common aromas you can find in wine: Fruits of all sorts Herbs Flowers Earth Grass Tobacco Butterscotch Toast Vanilla Coffee, mocha, or chocolate The mouth action when wine tasting After you’ve looked at the wine and smelled it, you’re finally allowed to taste it. This is the stage when grown men and women sit around and make strange faces, gurgling the wine and sloshing it around in their mouths with looks of intense concentration in their eyes. You can make an enemy for life if you distract a wine taster just at the moment when he’s focusing all his energy on the last few drops of a special wine. Here’s the procedure to follow: Take a medium-sized sip of wine. Hold the wine in your mouth, purse your lips, and draw in some air across your tongue, over the wine. (Be utterly careful not to choke or dribble, or everyone will strongly suspect that you’re not a wine expert.) Swish the wine around in your mouth as if you’re chewing it. Swallow the wine. The whole process should take several seconds, depending on how much you are concentrating on the wine. Wines have noses — and palates, too With poetic license typical of wine tasters, someone once dubbed the smell of a wine its nose — and the expression took hold. If someone says that a wine has a huge nose, he means that the wine has a very strong aroma. If he says that he detects lemon in the nose or on the nose, he means that the wine smells something like lemons. In fact, most wine tasters rarely use the word smell to describe how a wine smells because the word smell (like the word odor) seems pejorative. Wine tasters talk about the wine’s nose or aroma. Sometimes they use the word bouquet, although that word is falling out of fashion. Just as a wine taster might use the term nose for the smell of a wine, he might use the word palate in referring to the taste of a wine. A wine’s palate is the overall impression the wine gives in your mouth, or any isolated aspect of the wine’s taste — as in, “This wine has a harmonious palate,” or “The palate of this wine is a bit acidic.” When a wine taster says that he finds raspberries on the palate, he means that the wine has the flavor of raspberries. Feeling the tastes Taste buds on the tongue can register various sensations, which are known as the basic tastes — sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami, a savory characteristic. Of these tastes, sweetness, sourness, and bitterness are those most commonly found in wine. By moving the wine around in your mouth, you give it a chance to hit all your taste buds so that you don’t miss anything in the wine (even if sourness and bitterness sound like things you wouldn’t mind missing). As you swish the wine around in your mouth, you’re also buying time. Your brain needs a few seconds to figure out what the tongue is tasting and make some sense of it. Any sweetness in the wine often registers in your brain first; acidity (which, by the way, is known to normal people as sourness) and bitterness register subsequently. While your brain is working out the relative impressions of sweetness, acidity, and bitterness, you can be thinking about how the wine feels in your mouth — whether it’s heavy, light, smooth, rough, and so on. Tasting the smells of wine Until you cut your nose in on the action, all you can taste in the wine are those three sensations of sweetness, acidity, and bitterness and a general impression of weight and texture. Where have all the wild strawberries gone? They’re still there in the wine, right next to the chocolate and plums. But to be perfectly correct about it, these flavors are actually aromas that you taste, not through tongue contact, but by inhaling them up an interior nasal passage in the back of your mouth called the retronasal passage (see the following figure). When you draw in air across the wine in your mouth, you’re vaporizing the aromas just as you did when you swirled the wine in your glass. There’s a method to this madness. After you go through all this rigmarole, it’s time to reach a conclusion: Do you like what you tasted? The possible answers are yes, no, an indifferent shrug of the shoulders, or “I’m not sure, let me take another taste,” which means that you have serious wine-nerd potential.

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How to Read a Wine Label

Article / Updated 01-30-2019

Once upon a time, wine labels were boring, colorless (literally and in spirit), and the opposite of inviting. Now, many wine labels are fun. They catch your eye, draw you in for a closer look, and maybe make you smile. Although we tend to have classic tastes in wine, we love the variety of wine labels because it makes browsing for wine more enjoyable than ever. But wine labels have an important purpose besides making their bottles stand out on the shelves. Wine labels contain information about the wine that’s inside the bottle — and knowing what the information means can make you a smarter buyer. Sometimes that information is straightforward — like the name of the region where the grapes grew — and sometimes it’s tricky, like long phrases in a foreign language that you don’t speak. The mandatory sentences on wine labels The government authorities in the United States (and other governments) mandate that certain information appear on the main label of all wine bottles — basic stuff, such as the alcohol content, the type of wine (usually red table wine or white table wine), and the country of origin. Such items are generally referred to as the mandatory. These items include the following: A brand name Indication of class or type (table wine, dessert wine, or sparkling wine) The percentage of alcohol by volume (unless it’s implicit — for example, the statement table wine implies an alcohol content of less than 14 percent) Name and location of the bottler Net contents (expressed in milliliters; the standard wine bottle is 750 milliliters, which is 25.6 ounces) The phrase Contains Sulfites (with very, very few exceptions) The government warning (that we won’t dignify by repeating here; just pick up any bottle of wine, and you’ll see it on a label) The following figure shows you how all the details come together on a label of an American varietal wine. Wines made outside the United States but sold within it must also carry the phrase imported by on their labels, along with the name and business location of the importer. The mandatory information required on U.S. and Canadian wine labels is also required by the E.U. authorities for most wines produced in European Union countries (although the wording of the warning label can vary). The labels of those E.U. wines must contain one additional item of information not required on labels of wines from elsewhere. This additional item is a phrase indicating that the wine comes from an officially recognized wine zone (see the next section for the scoop). Indications of origin The European Union has set up a system to recognize and protect agricultural products (such as wine, cheese, olives, hams, and so forth) that come from specific places so that companies in other places can’t make products with the same name and thus confuse consumers. Wines from all the classic wine regions of E.U. member countries (France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and so forth) are covered under this system. When you see the label of a European wine that’s from a recognized, protected place, you’ll find a phrase to that effect. Actually, two different phrases exist because European wines from protected places fall into two categories: Wines named for places where production is highly regulated so that the very place-name of the wine not only defines the territory of production but also connotes the wine’s grape varieties, grape-growing methods, and winemaking techniques Wines that carry the protected names of larger places where winemakers have more freedom in terms of the grape varieties and production methods they use The E.U.’s mandated phrases for these two types of place-name wines are the following: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), for the most regulated wines. The classic wines mentioned in the sidebar “Decoding common European place-names,” for example, are all in this category. Protected Geographic Indication (PGI), for the less regulated wines from registered regions. In theory, every bottle of European wine — except for the most broadly sourced, least expensive wines — carries one of these two phrases on its label. But in practice, the situation is much more complicated, especially at the moment. How so? For one thing, each country can, and does, translate the words Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographic Indication into its own language on its labels. Second, because these E.U. designations went into full effect only in 2012, some wine labels still carry the phrases that were previously used by each country to designate a wine’s category of origin. And finally, each country can permit its wineries to continue using the former phrases rather than the new phrases. If you’re getting into French, Italian, or other European wines and see a long, foreign phrase on the label that’s adjacent to the place-name or region of the wine, know that it indicates an officially protected geographic zone. If you really want to know which of the two protected categories the wine falls into, refer to the lists in the next two sections. Incidentally, the phrase for a registered place-name in the United States is American Viticultural Area (AVA). But the phrase doesn’t appear on wine labels. Nor does any such phrase appear on labels of Australian or South American wines. Nor do two different degrees of regulations exist, as they do in the European Union. Label terms that mean PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) Here are the phrases — first in the new terminology and then in the original terminology — that you might find on labels of PDO wines from the major European countries. In all cases, the phrases translate more or less as “Protected Designation of Origin”: France: Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) or Appellation Contrôlée or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AC or AOC, in short) Italy: Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC); and for certain wines of an even higher status, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) Spain: Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP) or Denominación de Origen (DO), as well as Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) for regions with the highest status (of which only two exist: Rioja and Priorat) Portugal: Denominação de Origem Protegida (DOP) or Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) Germany: Qualitätswein; and for wines of higher ripeness, Prädikatsweine This figure shows a European wine label as it would appear in the United States, using the original place-name terminology. Label terms that mean PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) Here are the phrases — first in the new terminology and then in the original terminology — that you might find on labels of PGI wines from the major European countries. In all cases, the phrases translate more or less as “Protected Geographic Indication”: France: Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) or Vin de Pays followed by the name of an approved area Italy: Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP) or Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) and the name of an approved area Spain: Indicación Geográfica Protegida (IGP) or Vino de la Tierra followed by the name of an approved area Portugal: Indicaçõa Geográfica (IG) to refer to a region, but on a label, the original phrase, Vinho Regional (regional wine) and the name of an approved area Germany: Landwein Some optional label lingo Besides the mandatory information required by government authorities, all sorts of other words can appear on wine labels. These words include meaningless phrases intended to make you think that you’re getting a special quality wine, and words that provide useful information about what’s in the bottle. Sometimes the same word can fall into either category, depending on the label. This ambiguity occurs because some words that are strictly regulated in some producing countries aren’t regulated at all in others. Vintage The word vintage followed by a year, or the year listed alone without the word vintage, is the most common optional item on a wine label (refer to Figure 4-2). Sometimes the vintage appears on the label itself, and sometimes it has its own small label closer to the neck of the bottle. The vintage year is nothing more than the year in which the grapes for a particular wine grew; the wine must have 75 to 100 percent of the grapes of this year, depending on the country of origin. (Non-vintage wines contain wines from more than one year.) But an aura surrounds vintage-dated wine causing many people to believe that any wine with a vintage date is by definition better than a wine without a vintage date. In fact, no correlation exists between the presence of a vintage date and the wine’s quality. Generally speaking, what vintage a wine is — that is, whether the grapes grew in a year with perfect weather or whether the grapes were meteorologically challenged — is an issue you need to consider (a) only when you buy top-quality wines, and (b) mainly when those wines come from parts of the world that experience significant variations in weather from year to year — such as many European wine regions. Reserve Reserve is our favorite meaningless word on U.S. wine labels. The term is used to convince you that the wine inside the bottle is special. This trick usually works because the word does have specific meaning and does carry a certain amount of prestige on labels of wines from many other countries: In Italy and Spain, the word reserve (or its foreign language equivalent, which looks something like reserve) indicates a wine that has received extra aging at the winery before release. Implicit in the extra aging is the idea that the wine was better than normal and, therefore, worthy of the extra aging. Spain even has degrees of reserve, such as Gran Reserva. In France, the use of reserve isn’t regulated. However, its use is generally consistent with the notion that the wine is better in quality than a given producer’s norm. In the United States, the word reserve has historically been used in the same sense — as in, Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve, the best Cabernet that Beaulieu Vineyards makes. But these days, the word is bandied about so much that it no longer has meaning. For example, some California wines labeled Proprietor’s Reserve are the least expensive wines in a particular producer’s lineup and some of the least expensive wines, period. Other wines are labeled Special Reserve, Vintage Reserve, Vintner’s Reserve, or Reserve Selection — all utterly meaningless phrases. Estate-bottled Estate is a genteel word for a wine farm, a combined grape-growing and winemaking operation. The words estate-bottled on a wine label indicate that the company that grew the grapes and made the wine also bottled the wine. In other words, estate-bottled suggests accountability from the vineyard to the winemaking through to the bottling. In many countries, the winery doesn’t necessarily have to own the vineyards, but it has to control the vineyards and perform the vineyard operations. Estate-bottling is an important concept to those who believe that you can’t make good wine unless the grapes are as good as they can possibly be. If we made wine, we’d sure want to control our own vineyards. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that great wines must be estate-bottled, though. Ravenswood Winery — to name just one example — makes some terrific wines from the grapes of small vineyards owned and operated by private landowners. And some large California landowners are quite serious about their vineyards but don’t make wine themselves; they sell their grapes to various wineries. None of those wines would be considered estate-bottled. Sometimes French wine labels carry the words domaine-bottled or château-bottled (or the phrase mis en bouteille au château/au domaine). The concept is the same as estate-bottled, with domaine and château being equivalent to the U.S. term estate. Vineyard name Some wines in the medium-to-expensive price category — costing about $25 or more — might carry on the label the name of the specific vineyard where the grapes for that wine grew. Sometimes one winery will make two or three different wines that are distinguishable only by the vineyard name on the label. Each wine is unique because the terroir of each vineyard is unique. These single vineyards might or might not be identified by the word vineyard next to the name of the vineyard. Italian wines, which are really into the single-vineyard game, will have vigneto or vigna on their labels next to the name of the single vineyard. Or they won’t. It’s optional. Even more optional words on the label You’ll be pleased to know that we have just about exhausted our list of terms that you could find on a wine label. One additional expression on some French labels is Vieilles Vignes (vee-yay veen), which translates as “old vines,” and appears as such on some Californian and Australian labels. Because old vines produce a very small quantity of fruit compared to younger vines, the quality of their grapes and of the resulting wine is considered to be very good. The problem is the phrase is unregulated. Anyone can claim that his vines are old. The word superior can appear in French (Supérieure) or Italian (Superiore) as part of a PDO place-name. It traditionally meant that the wine attained a higher alcohol level than a non-superior version of the same wine would have — a distinction not worth losing sleep over. Now, the term is also used in Italy to designate a specific type of wine. Soave Superiore, for example, is a wine that’s distinct from the wine Soave by virtue of its vineyard location, winemaking, and so forth. The word Classico appears on the labels of some Italian PDO wines when the grapes come from the heartland of the named place.

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Wine Quality: How to Judge Good or Bad Wines

Article / Updated 01-30-2019

Instead of worrying about crisp wines, earthy wines, and medium-bodied wines, wouldn’t it just be easier to walk into a wine shop and say, “Give me a very good wine for dinner tonight”? Isn’t quality the ultimate issue — or at least, quality within your price range, also known as value? In fact, a good deal of wine marketing revolves around the notion of quality, except in the case of the least expensive wines. Wine producers constantly brag about the quality ratings that their wines receive from critics, because a high rating — implying high quality — translates into increased sales. However, quality wines come in all colors, all degrees of sweetness and dryness, and all flavor profiles. Just because a wine is high quality doesn’t mean that you’ll actually enjoy it, any more than a three-star rating means that you’ll love a particular restaurant. Personal taste is simply more relevant than quality in choosing a wine. Degrees of quality do exist among wines. But a wine’s quality is not absolute: How great a wine is or isn’t depends on who’s doing the judging. The instruments that measure the quality of a wine are a human being’s nose, mouth, and brain, and because everyone is different, everyone has a different opinion on how good a wine is. The combined opinion of a group of trained, experienced tasters (also known as wine experts) is usually considered a reliable judgment of a wine’s quality. In the following sections, we explore what makes a good wine good and what makes a poor wine inferior. What’s a good wine? A good wine is, above all, a wine that you like enough to drink, because the whole purpose of a wine is to give pleasure to those who drink it. After that, how good a wine is depends on how it measures up to a set of (more or less) agreed-upon standards of performance established by experienced, trained experts. These standards involve mysterious concepts like balance, length, depth, complexity, finish, and trueness to type (typicity in Winespeak), which we explain in the following sections. None of these concepts is objectively measurable, by the way. Taste is personal. Literally! The perception of the basic tastes on the tongue varies from one person to the next. Research has proven that some people have more taste buds than others, and are, therefore, more sensitive to characteristics such as sourness or bitterness in food and beverages. The most sensitive tasters are called, somewhat misleadingly, supertasters — not because they’re more expert, but because they perceive sensations such as bitterness more acutely. If you find diet sodas very bitter, or if you need to add a lot of sugar to your coffee to make it palatable, you might fall into this category — and you, therefore, might find many red wines unpleasant, even if other people consider them great. Balance The three words sweetness, acidity, and tannin represent three of the major components (parts) of wine. The fourth is alcohol. Besides being one of the reasons we often want to drink a glass of wine in the first place, alcohol is an important player in wine quality. Balance is the relationship of these four components to one another. A wine is balanced when nothing sticks out, such as harsh tannin or too much sweetness, as you taste the wine. Most wines are balanced to most people. But if you have any pet peeves about food — if you really hate anything tart, for example, or if you never eat sweets — you might perceive some wines to be unbalanced. If you perceive them to be unbalanced, then they are unbalanced for you. (Professional tasters know their own idiosyncrasies and adjust for them when they judge wine.) Tannin and acidity are hardening elements in a wine (they make a wine taste firmer and less giving in the mouth), while alcohol and sugar (if any) are softening elements. The balance of a wine is the interrelationship of the hard and the soft aspects of a wine — and a key indicator of quality. Balance in action: To experience the principle of taste-balance firsthand, try this: Make a very strong cup of black tea and chill it. When you sip it, the cold tea will taste bitter, because it’s very tannic. Now add lemon juice; the tea will taste astringent (constricting the pores in your mouth), because the acid of the lemon and the tannin of the tea are accentuating each other. Now add a lot of sugar to the tea. The sweetness should counterbalance the acid-tannin impact, and the tea will taste softer and more agreeable than it did before. Length When we call wines long or short, we’re not referring to the size of the bottle or how quickly we empty it. Length describes a wine that gives an impression of going all the way on the palate — you can taste it across the full length of your tongue — rather than stopping short halfway through your tasting of it. Many wines today are very upfront on the palate — they make a big impression as soon as you taste them, but they don’t go the distance in your mouth. In other words, they’re short. Length is increasingly used also to describe a wine with a long aftertaste. (See the section, “Finish,” just ahead.) Length in the mouth can more precisely be called palate length, to avoid confusion. Long palate length is a sure sign of high quality. Depth Depth is another subjective, unmeasurable attribute of a high-quality wine. We say a wine has depth when it seems to have a dimension of verticality — that is, it doesn’t taste flat and one-dimensional in your mouth. A “flat” wine can never be great. Complexity Nothing is wrong with a simple, straightforward wine, especially if you enjoy it. But a wine that keeps revealing different things about itself, always showing you a new flavor or impression — a wine that has complexity — is usually considered better quality. Generally, experts use the term complexity specifically to indicate that a wine has a multiplicity of aromas and flavors; some people use the term it in a more holistic (but less precise) sense, to refer to the total impression a wine gives you, but this use is becoming uncommon. Finish The impression a wine leaves in the back of your mouth and in your throat after you swallow it is its finish or aftertaste. In a good wine, you can still perceive the wine’s flavors, such as fruitiness or spiciness, at that point. The more enduring the positive flavor perception is, the longer the finish is. Some wines may finish hot, because of high alcohol, or bitter, because of tannin — both shortcomings. Or a wine may have nothing much at all to say for itself after you swallow, which tells you that it is probably not a great wine. Typicity In order to judge whether a wine is true to its type, you have to know how that type of wine is supposed to taste. So you have to know the textbook characteristics of wines made from the major grape varieties and wines of the world’s classic wine regions. (For example, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape typically has an aroma and flavor of black currants, and the French white wine called Pouilly-Fumé typically has a slight gunflint aroma.) What’s a bad wine? Strangely enough, the right to declare a wine good because you like it doesn’t carry with it the right to call a wine bad just because you don’t. In this game, you get to make your own rules, but you don’t get to force other people to live by them. The fact is that very few bad wines exist in the world today. And many of the wines we could call bad are actually just bad bottles of wine — unlucky bottles that were handled badly so that the good wine inside them got ruined. Here are some characteristics that everyone agrees indicate a bad wine (or a bad bottle). We hope you never meet one. Vinegar: In the natural evolution of things, wine is just a passing stage between grape juice and vinegar. Most wines today remain in the wine stage because of technology or careful winemaking. If you find a wine that has crossed the line toward vinegar, it’s bad wine. Chemical or bacterial smells: The most common are acetone (nail polish thinner) and sulfur flaws (rotten eggs, burnt rubber, bad garlic). Bad wines. Oxidized wine: This wine smells flat, inexpressive, or maybe cooked, and it tastes the same. It might have been a good wine once, but air — oxygen — got in somehow and killed the wine. Bad bottle. Cooked aromas and taste: When a wine has been stored or shipped in heat, it can actually taste cooked or baked as a result (wine people use the term maderized for such wines). Often there’s telltale leakage from the cork, or the cork has pushed up a bit inside the bottle. Bad bottle. (Unfortunately, every other bottle of that wine that experienced the same shipping or storage will also be bad.) Corky wine: The most common flaw, corkiness comes across as a smell of damp cardboard that gets worse with air, along with diminished flavor intensity. It’s caused by a defective cork, and any wine in a bottle that’s sealed with a cork is at risk for it. Bad bottle. (Fortunately, only a very small percentage of wines are corky.) Let’s not dwell too long on what can go wrong with a wine. If you find a bad wine or a bad bottle — or even a wine that’s considered a good wine, but you don’t like it — just move on to something you like better. Drinking a so-called great wine that you don’t enjoy is as time-wasting as watching a television show that bores you. Change the channel. Explore.

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How to Describe a Wine's Taste

Article / Updated 01-30-2019

The tastes of a wine reveal themselves sequentially as the tongue detects them and your brain registers them. We recommend that you follow the natural sequence we describe in the next sections when you try to put words to what you’re tasting. Sweetness in wine As soon as you put the wine into your mouth, you can usually notice sweetness or the lack of it. In Winespeak, dry is the opposite of sweet. Classify the wine you’re tasting as either dry, off-dry (in other words, slightly sweet), or sweet. Is it sweetness or fruitiness? Beginning wine tasters sometimes describe dry wines as sweet because they confuse fruitiness with sweetness. Here’s the difference: A wine is fruity when it has distinct aromas and flavors of fruit. You smell the fruitiness with your nose; in your mouth, you “smell” it through your retronasal passage (see the earlier section “Tasting the smells”). Sweetness, on the other hand, is a tactile impression on your tongue. When in doubt, try holding your nose when you taste the wine; if the wine really is sweet, you’ll be able to taste the sweetness despite the fact that you can’t smell the fruitiness. Acidity of wine All wine contains acid (mainly tartaric acid, which exists in grapes), but some wines are more acidic than others. Acidity is a key taste factor in white wines more than in reds. For white wines, acidity is the backbone of the wine’s taste (it gives the wine firmness in your mouth). White wines with a high amount of acidity feel crisp, and those without enough acidity feel flabby. You generally perceive acidity in the middle of your mouth — what wine-tasters call the mid-palate. How much you salivate after tasting a wine can be a clue to its acidity level, because high acidity triggers saliva production. You can also sense the consequences of acidity (or the lack of it) in the overall style of the wine — whether it’s a tart little number or a soft and generous sort, for example. Classify the wine you’re tasting as crisp, soft, or Pillsbury Doughboy. Softness and firmness are actually textural impressions a wine gives you as you taste it. Just as your mouth feels temperature in a liquid, it also feels texture. Some wines literally feel soft and smooth as they move through your mouth, while others feel hard, rough, edgy, or coarse. In white wines, acid is usually responsible for impressions of hardness or firmness (or crispness); in red wines, tannin is usually responsible. Low levels of either substance can make a wine feel pleasantly soft — or too soft, depending on the wine and your taste preferences. Unfermented sugar also contributes to an impression of softness, and alcohol can, too. But very high alcohol — which is fairly common in wines these days — can give a wine an edge of hardness. Initially, it’s enough to notice a wine’s texture, without figuring out what factor is creating that sensation. Tannin in wine Tannin is a substance that exists naturally in the skins, seeds (or pips), and stems of grapes. Because red wines are fermented with their grape skins and pips, and because red grape varieties are generally higher in tannin than white varieties, tannin levels are far higher in red wines than in white wines. Aging wine in new oak barrels can also contribute tannin to wines, both reds and whites. Have you ever taken a sip of a red wine and rapidly experienced a drying-out feeling in your mouth, as if something had blotted up all your saliva? That’s tannin. To generalize a bit, tannin is to a red wine what acidity is to a white: a backbone. Tannins alone can taste bitter, but some wine tannins are less bitter than others. Also, other elements of the wine, such as sweetness, can mask the perception of bitterness. You sense tannin — as bitterness or as firmness or richness of texture — mainly in the rear of your mouth, on the inside of your cheeks, and on your gums. Depending on the amount and nature of its tannin, you can describe a red wine as astringent, firm, or soft. Is it acid or tannin? Red wines have acid as well as tannin, and distinguishing between the two as you taste a wine can be a real challenge. When you’re not sure whether you’re perceiving mainly tannin or acid, pay attention to how your mouth feels after you swallow the wine. Acid makes you salivate (saliva is alkaline, and it flows to neutralize the acid). Tannin leaves your mouth dry. A wine's body A wine’s body is an impression you get from the whole of the wine — not a basic taste that registers on your tongue. It’s the impression of the weight and size of the wine in your mouth, which is usually attributable mainly to a wine’s alcohol. We say impression because, obviously, one ounce of any wine will occupy exactly the same space in your mouth and weigh the same as one ounce of any other wine. But some wines seem fuller, bigger, or heavier in the mouth than others. Think about the wine’s fullness and weight as you taste it. Imagine that your tongue is a tiny scale and judge how much the wine is weighing it down. Classify the wine as light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied. The flavor dimension Wines have flavors (uh, we mean mouth aromas), but wines don’t come in a specific flavor. Although you may enjoy the suggestion of chocolate in a red wine that you’re tasting, you wouldn’t want to go to a wine store and ask for a chocolaty wine, unless you don’t mind the idea of people holding their hands over their mouths and trying not to laugh at you. Instead, you should refer to families of flavors in wine. You have your fruity wines (the ones that make you think of all sorts of fruit when you smell them or taste them), your earthy wines (these flavors make you think of minerals and rocks, walks in the forest, turning the earth in your garden, dry leaves, and so on), your spicy wines (cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, or Indian spices, for example), your herbal wines (mint, grass, hay, rosemary, and so on), and so on, and so on. So many flavors exist in wines that we could go on and on (and we often do!), but you get the picture, don’t you? (By the way, chocolate-like flavors would fall into the family of nuts or kernels, along with flavors of coffee and of nuts themselves.) If you like a wine and want to try another wine that’s similar but different (and it will always be different, we guarantee you), one method is to decide what families of flavors in the wine you like and mention that to the person selling you your next bottle. In Parts 3, 4, and 5, you find wines that fit these specific flavors. Another aspect of flavor that’s very important to consider is a wine’s flavor intensity — how much flavor the wine has, regardless of what those flavors are. Some wines are as flavorful as a chili cheese dog, while others have flavors as subtle as ungarnished fillet of sole. Flavor intensity is a major factor in pairing wine with food, and it’s also an issue in determining how much a wine appeals to you.

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The Differences between Red and White Wines

Article / Updated 01-30-2019

Your inner child will be happy to know that when it comes to wine, it’s okay to like some colors more than others. You can’t get away with saying “I don’t like green food!” much beyond your sixth birthday, but you can express a general preference for white, red, or pink wine for all your adult years. (Not exactly) white wine Whoever coined the term white wine must have been colorblind. All you have to do is look at it to see that it’s not white; it’s yellow (sometimes barely yellow, sometimes a deeper yellow). But we’ve all gotten used to the expression by now, so white wine it is. White wine is wine without any red color (or pink color, which is in the red family). Yellow wines, golden wines, and wines that are as pale as water are all white wines. Wine becomes white wine in one of two ways: First, white wine can be made from white grapes — which, by the way, aren’t white. (Did you see that one coming?) White grapes are greenish, greenish yellow, golden yellow, or sometimes even pinkish yellow. Basically, white grapes include all the grape types that aren’t dark red or dark bluish. If you make a wine from white grapes, it’s a white wine. The second way a wine can become white is a little more complicated. The process involves using red grapes — but only the juice of red grapes, not the grape skins. The juice of almost all red grapes has no red pigmentation — only the skins do — therefore, a wine made with only the juice of red grapes can be a white wine. In practice, though, very few white wines come from red grapes. (Champagne is one exception.) In case you’re wondering, the skins are removed from the grapes either by pressing large quantities of grapes so that the skins break and the pulpy juice flows out — sort of like squeezing the pulp out of grapes, the way kids do — or by crushing the grapes in a machine that has rollers to break the skins so that the juice can drain away. You can drink white wine anytime you like, but typically, people drink white wine in certain situations: Most people drink white wines without food or with lighter foods, such as fish, poultry, or vegetables. White wines are often considered apéritif wines, meaning that people consume them before dinner, in place of cocktails, or at parties. (If you ask the officials who busy themselves defining such things, an apéritif wine is a wine that has flavors added to it, as vermouth does. But unless you’re in the business of writing wine labels for a living, don’t worry about that. In common parlance, an apéritif wine is just what we said.) A lot of people like to drink white wines when the weather is hot because they’re more refreshing than red wines, and they’re usually drunk chilled (the wines, not the people). White wine styles: there's no such thing as plain white wine White wines fall into four general taste categories, not counting sparkling wine or the really sweet white wine that you drink with dessert. Here are our four broad categories: Fresh, unoaked whites: These wines are crisp and light, with no sweetness and no oaky character. Most Italian white wines, like Soave and Pinot Grigio, and some French whites, like Sancerre and some Chablis, fall into this category. Earthy whites: These wines are dry, fuller-bodied, unoaked or lightly oaked, with a lot of earthy character. Some French wines, such as Mâcon or whites from the Côtes du Rhône region have this taste profile. Aromatic whites: These wines are characterized by intense aromas and flavors that come from their particular grape variety, whether they’re off-dry (that is, not bone-dry) or dry. Examples include a lot of German wines and wines from flavorful grape varieties, such as Riesling or Viognier and, in some cases, Sauvignon Blanc. Rich, oaky whites: These wines are dry or fairly dry and full-bodied with pronounced oaky character. Most Chardonnays and some French wines — like many of those from the Burgundy region of France — fall into this group. We serve white wines cool, but not ice cold. Sometimes, restaurants serve white wines too cold, and we actually have to wait a while for the wine to warm up before we drink it. If you like your wine cold, fine; but try drinking your favorite white wine a little less cold sometime, and we bet you’ll discover it has more flavor that way. Popular white wines These types of white wine are available almost everywhere in the United States. Chardonnay: Can come from California, Australia, France, or almost any other place Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris: Can come from Italy, France, Oregon, California, and other places Prosecco: Comes from Italy (and it’s a bubbly wine) Riesling: Can come from Germany, California, New York, Washington, France, Austria, Australia, and other places Sauvignon Blanc: Can come from California, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, and other places Soave: Comes from Italy Red, red wine In this case, the name is correct. Red wines really are red. They can be purple red, ruby red, or garnet, but they’re red. Red wines are made from grapes that are red or bluish in color. So, guess what wine people call these grapes? Black grapes! We suppose that’s because black is the opposite of white. The most obvious difference between red wine and white wine is color. The red color occurs when the colorless juice of red grapes stays in contact with the dark grape skins during fermentation and absorbs the skins’ color. Along with color, the grape skins give the wine tannin, a substance that’s an important part of the way a red wine tastes. The presence of tannin in red wines is actually the key taste difference between red wines and white wines. Red wines vary quite a lot in style — partly because winemakers have so many ways of adjusting their red winemaking to achieve the kind of wine they want. For example, if winemakers leave the grape juice in contact with the skins for a long time, the wine becomes more tannic (firmer in the mouth, like strong tea; tannic wines can make you pucker). If winemakers drain the juice off the skins sooner, the wine is softer and less tannic. And heating the crushed grapes can extract color without much tannin. Traditionally, people have consumed red wine as part of a meal or with accompanying food rather than as a drink on its own, but plenty of red wines today are made to taste delicious even without food. Red wine styles: There's no such thing as plain red wine, either Here are four red wine styles: Soft, fruity reds have a lot of fruitiness and fairly little tannin (like Beaujolais Nouveau wine from France, some Pinot Noir wines from California, and many under-$15 U.S. wines). Mild-mannered reds are medium-bodied with subtle flavors that are savory more than fruity (like less expensive wines from Bordeaux, France, and some inexpensive Italian reds). Spicy reds are flavorful, generally fruity wines with spicy accents and some tannin (such as some Malbecs from Argentina and Dolcettos from Italy). Powerful reds are full-bodied and tannic (such as the most expensive California Cabernets; Barolo, from Italy; Priorat, from Spain; the most expensive Australian reds; and lots of other expensive reds). Thanks to the wide range of red wine styles, you can find red wines to go with just about every type of food and every occasion when you want to drink wine. The one exception is times when you want to drink a wine with bubbles: Although bubbly red wines do exist, most bubbly wines are white or pink. One sure way to spoil the fun in drinking most red wines is to drink them too cold. Those tannins can taste really bitter when the wine is cold — just as in a cold glass of very strong tea. On the other hand, way too many restaurants serve red wines too warm. (Where do they store them? Next to the oven?) If the bottle — or the glass of wine — feels cool to your hand, that’s a good temperature. Popular red wines You find descriptions and explanations of these popular and widely available red wines all through this book. Barbera: Comes from Italy, but can also come from other countries Beaujolais: Comes from France Bordeaux: Comes from France Cabernet Sauvignon: Can come from California, Australia, France, Chile, and other places Chianti: Comes from Italy Côtes du Rhône: Comes from France Malbec: Comes from Argentina, France, Chile and other places Merlot: Can come from California, France, Washington, New York, Chile, and other places Pinot Noir: Can come from California, France, Oregon, New Zealand, and other places Zinfandel: Usually comes from California Rosé wines Rosé wine is the name that wine people give to pinkish wine. These wines are made from red grapes, but they don’t end up red because the grape juice stays in contact with the red skins for just a short time — only a few hours, compared to days or weeks for red wines. Because this skin contact (the period when the juice and the skins intermingle) is brief, rosé wines also absorb very little tannin from the skins. Therefore, you can chill these wines and drink them as you’d drink white wines. Rosé wines are not only lighter in color than red wines, but they are also lighter in body (they feel less heavy in your mouth). They have a fascinating range of color, from pale orange to deep pink, depending on the grape variety that they come from. Some rosé wines are actually labeled “White [red grape name]” — “White” Zinfandel is the most common — as a marketing gimmick. The rosé wines that call themselves white are fairly sweet; they are sometimes referred to as blush wines, although that term rarely appears on the label. Wines labeled rosé can be sweetish, too, but some wonderful rosés from Europe, including Champagne (and quite a few from the United States) are dry (not sweet). The popularity of rosé wines has varied over the years, but in the decade of the 20-teens, it is at an all-time high (about five times as popular in the U.S. now, compared to 30 years ago). Even hard-core wine lovers are discovering what a pleasure — not to mention what a versatile food partner — a good rosé wine can be. Five occassions to drink rosé Here are some of our favorite reasons to drink pink: When she’s having fish and he’s having meat (or vice versa) When a red wine just seems too heavy On the patio or deck on warm, sunny days To wean a son/daughter, mate, friend (yourself?) off cola When serving ham (hot or cold) or other pork dishes How to choose wine color Your choice of a white wine, red wine, or pink wine will vary with the season, the occasion, and the type of food you’re eating (not to mention your personal taste). Choosing a color usually is the starting point for selecting a specific wine in a wine shop or in a restaurant. Most stores and most restaurant wine lists arrange wines by color before making other distinctions, such as grape varieties, wine regions, or taste categories. Certain foods can straddle the line between white wine and red wine compatibility — grilled salmon, for example, can be delicious with either a rich white wine or a fruity red. But your personal preference for red, white, or rosé wine will often be your first consideration in pairing food with wine. Pairing food and wine is one of the most fun aspects of wine, because the possible combinations are almost limitless. Best of all, your personal taste rules! Red wine sensitivities: Some people complain that they can’t drink red wines without getting a headache or feeling ill. Usually, they blame the sulfites in the wine. We’re not doctors or scientists, but we can tell you that red wines contain far less sulfur than white wines. That’s because the tannin in red wines acts as a preservative, making sulfur dioxide less necessary. Red wines do contain numerous substances derived from the grape skins that could be the culprits. Whatever the source of the discomfort, it’s probably not sulfites. Other Ways of Categorizing Wine We sometimes play a game with our friends: We ask them, “Which wine would you want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?” In other words, which type of wine could you drink for the rest of your life without getting tired of it? Our own answer is always Champagne, with a capital C (more on the capitalization later in this section). In a way, Champagne is an odd choice because, as much as we love Champagne, we don’t drink it every day under normal circumstances. We welcome guests with it, we celebrate with it after our team wins a Sunday football game, and we toast our cats with it on their birthdays. We don’t need much of an excuse to drink Champagne, but it’s not the type of wine we drink every night. What we drink every night is regular wine — red, white, or rosé — without bubbles. These wines have various names. In the United States, they’re called table wines, and in Europe, they’re called light wines. Sometimes, we refer to them as still wines, because they don’t have bubbles moving around in them. In the following paragraphs, we explain the differences among three categories of wines: table wines, dessert wines, and sparkling wines. Table wine Table wine, or light wine, is fermented grape juice whose alcohol content falls within a certain range. Furthermore, table wine isn’t bubbly. (Some table wines have a very slight carbonation but not enough to disqualify them as table wines.) According to U.S. standards of identity, table wines may have an alcohol content no higher than 14 percent; in Europe, light wine must contain from 8.5 percent to 14 percent alcohol by volume (with a few exceptions). So unless a wine has more than 14 percent alcohol or has bubbles, it’s a table wine or a light wine in the eyes of the law. The regulation-makers didn’t get the number 14 by drawing it from a hat. Historically, most wines contained less than 14 percent alcohol — either because the juice didn’t have enough sugar to attain a higher alcohol level or because the alcohol killed the yeasts when it reached 14 percent, halting the fermentation. That number, therefore, became the legal borderline between wines that have no alcohol added to them (table wines) and wines that might have alcohol added to them (dessert or fortified wines). But today, the historical phenomenon of 14 percent alcohol as the natural limit of fermentation is, well, history. Many grapes now grow in warm climates where they become so ripe and have so much natural sugar that their juice attains more than 14 percent alcohol when fermented. The use of gonzo yeast strains that continue working even when the alcohol exceeds 14 percent is another factor. Most red Zinfandels, Cabernets, and Chardonnays from California — and many red wines from almost everywhere — now have 14.5 or even 15 to 16 percent alcohol. While U.S. government definitions have not changed, the U.S. tax code has recognized the new reality by raising to 16 percent the upper limit for a wine to be taxed at the table-wine rate of excise tax, which is lower than for a higher-alcohol dessert wine. Here’s our own, real-world definition of table wines: They’re the normal, non-bubbly wines that most people drink most of the time. How to (sort of) learn the alcohol content of a wine: Regulations require wineries to state a wine’s alcohol percentage on the label (again, with some minor exceptions). It can be expressed in degrees, like 12.5 degrees, or as a percentage, like 12.5 percent. If a wine carries the words Table Wine on its label in the United States but not the alcohol percentage, it should have less than 14 percent alcohol by law. But for wines sold within the United States — whether the wine is American or imported — there’s a big catch. The labels are allowed to lie. U.S. regulations give wineries a 1.5 percent leeway in the accuracy of the stated alcohol level. If the label states 12.5 percent, the actual alcohol level can be as high as 14 percent or as low as 11 percent. For wines with a stated alcohol level above 14 percent, the leeway is just 1 percent; a wine with a stated alcohol content of 14.5 percent, can legally fall within the 13.5 to 15.5 range. Many winemakers have told us that wineries (their competitors, surely!) routinely understate the alcohol content of their wines. When you read a wine’s label, bear in mind that the number you see is not necessarily what you get. Dessert wine Some wines have more than 14 percent alcohol because the winemaker added alcohol during or after the fermentation. That’s an unusual way of making wine, but certain parts of the world, like the Sherry region in Spain and the Port region in Portugal, have made quite a specialty of it. Dessert wine is the legal U.S. terminology for such wines, even if they’re not necessarily sweet and not necessarily consumed after dinner or with dessert. (Dry Sherry is categorized as a dessert wine, for example, but it’s dry, and we drink it before dinner.) In Europe, this category of wines is called liqueur wines, which carries that same unfortunate connotation of sweetness. We prefer the term fortified, which suggests that the wine has been strengthened with additional alcohol. But until we get elected to run things, the term will have to be dessert wine or liqueur wine. Sparkling wine (and a highly personal spelling lesson) Sparkling wines are wines that contain carbon dioxide bubbles. Carbon dioxide gas is a natural byproduct of fermentation, and winemakers sometimes decide to trap it in the wine. Just about every country that makes wine also makes sparkling wine. In the United States, Canada, and Europe, sparkling wine is the official name for the category of wines with bubbles. Isn’t it nice when everyone agrees? Champagne (with a capital C) is the most famous sparkling wine — and probably the most famous wine, for that matter. Champagne is a specific type of sparkling wine (made from certain grape varieties and produced in a certain way) that comes from a region in France called Champagne. It is the undisputed Grand Champion of Bubblies. Unfortunately for the people of Champagne, France, their wine is so famous that the name champagne has been borrowed again and again by producers elsewhere, until the word has become synonymous in people’s minds with practically the whole category of sparkling wines. For example, until a recent agreement between the United States and the European Union (E.U.), U.S. winemakers could legally call any sparkling wine champagne — even with a capital C, if they wanted — as long as the carbonation was not added artificially. Even now, those U.S. wineries that were already using that name may continue to do so. (They do have to add a qualifying geographic term such as American or Californian before the word Champagne.) For the French, limiting the use of the name champagne to the wines of the Champagne region is a cause célèbre. E.U. regulations not only prevent any other E.U. country from calling its sparkling wines champagne but also prohibit the use of terms that even suggest the word champagne, such as fine print on the label saying that a wine was made by using the “Champagne method.” What’s more, bottles of sparkling wine from countries outside the European Union that use the word champagne on the label are banned from sale in Europe. The French are that serious about Champagne. To us, this seems perfectly fair. You’ll never catch us using the word champagne as a generic term for wine with bubbles. We have too much respect for the people and the traditions of Champagne, France, where the best sparkling wines in the world are made. That’s why we stress the capital C when we say Champagne. Those are the wines we want on our desert island, not just any sparkling wine from anywhere that calls itself champagne. When someone tries to impress you by serving a wine labeled “champagne” that’s not French, don’t fall for it. Nearly all the respectable sparkling wine companies in the United States refuse to name their wines champagne, out of respect for their French counterparts. (Of course, many of California’s top sparkling wine companies are actually owned by the French — so it’s no surprise that they won’t call their wines champagne — but many other companies won’t use the term, either.)

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How is Wine Made?

Article / Updated 01-30-2019

Wine is essentially just fermented fruit juice. The recipe for turning fruit into wine goes something like this: Pick a large quantity of ripe grapes from grapevines. You could substitute raspberries or any other fruit, but 99.9 percent of all the wine in the world is made from grapes, because grapes make the best wines. Put the grapes into a clean container that doesn’t leak. Crush the grapes somehow to release their juice. Once upon a time, feet performed this step. Wait. In its most basic form, winemaking is that simple. After the grapes are crushed, yeasts (tiny one-celled organisms that exist naturally in the vineyard and, therefore, on the grapes) come into contact with the sugar in the grapes’ juice and gradually convert that sugar into alcohol. Yeasts also produce carbon dioxide, which evaporates into the air. When the yeasts are done working, your grape juice is wine. The sugar that was in the juice is no longer there — alcohol is present instead. (The riper and sweeter the grapes, the more alcohol the wine will have.) This process is called fermentation. Fermentation is a totally natural process that doesn’t require man’s participation at all, except to put the grapes into a container and release the juice from the grapes. Fermentation occurs in fresh apple cider left too long in your refrigerator, without any help from you. We read that even milk, which contains a different sort of sugar than grapes do, develops a small amount of alcohol if left on the kitchen table all day long. Speaking of milk, Louis Pasteur is the man credited with discovering fermentation in the 19th century. That’s discovering, not inventing. Some of those apples in the Garden of Eden probably fermented long before Pasteur came along. (Well, we don’t think it could have been much of an Eden without wine!) Now if every winemaker actually made wine in as crude a manner as we just described, we’d be drinking some pretty rough stuff that would hardly inspire us to write a book about wine. But today’s winemakers have a bag of tricks as big as a sumo wrestler’s appetite, which is one reason no two wines ever taste exactly the same. The men and women who make wine can control the type of container they use for the fermentation process (stainless steel and oak are the two main materials) as well as the size of the container and the temperature of the juice during fermentation — and every one of these choices can make a real difference in the taste of the wine. After fermentation, winemakers can choose how long to let the wine mature (a stage when the wine sort of gets its act together) and in what kind of container. Fermentation can last three days or three months, and the wine can then mature for a couple of weeks or a couple of years or anything in between. (If you have trouble making decisions, don’t ever become a winemaker.) Obviously, one of the biggest factors in making one wine different from the next is the nature of the raw material, the grape juice. Besides the fact that riper, sweeter grapes make a more alcoholic wine, different varieties of grapes (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot, for example) make different wines. Grapes are the main ingredient in wine, and everything the winemaker does, he does to the particular grape juice he has. Of course, grapes don’t grow in a void. Where they grow — the soil and climate of each wine region, as well as the traditions and goals of the people who grow the grapes and make the wine — affects the nature of the ripe grapes and the taste of the wine made from those grapes. That’s why so much of the information about wine revolves around the countries and regions where wine is made.

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Attending a Wine Tasting Event

Article / Updated 01-30-2019

Wine tastings are events designed to give enthusiasts the opportunity to sample a range of wines. The events can be very much like classes (seated, seminar-like events), or they can be more like parties (tasters milling around informally). Compared to a wine class, the participants at a wine tasting are more likely to have various levels of knowledge. Tastings don't come in beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels — one size fits all. Wine tastings are popular because they override the limitations of sampling wine alone, at home. How many wines can you taste on your own (unless you don't mind throwing away nine-tenths of every bottle)? How many wines are you willing to buy on your own? And how much can you learn by tasting wine in isolation — or with a friend whose expertise is no greater than yours? At wine tastings, you can learn from your fellow tasters, as well as make new friends who share your interest in wine. Most importantly, you can taste wine in the company of some individuals who are more experienced than you, which is a real boon in training your palate. To find out about wine tastings in your area, contact your local wine merchant. Your local shop might sponsor wine-tasting events occasionally (apart from informal sampling opportunities in the store itself) and staff should also be aware of wine schools or other organizations that conduct wine tastings in your area. The website Local Wine Events is also an excellent source of information about wine-tastings and a platform for registering for many of the events listed on the site. In case you’ve never been to a wine tasting or wine class, we should warn you that a few matters of etiquette apply. Familiarizing yourself with the etiquette in the following sections will help you feel more comfortable. Otherwise, you’re likely to be appalled by what you see or hear. Why are those people behaving like that?! To spit or not to spit when tasting wine? Professional wine tasters long ago discovered that if they swallow every wine they taste, they're far less thoughtful tasters by the time they reach wine nine or ten. So spitting became acceptable. In wineries, professional tasters sometimes spit right onto the gravel floor or into the drains. In more elegant surroundings, they spit into a spittoon, usually a simple container like a large plastic cup (one per taster) or an ice bucket that two or three tasters share. At first, naturally, some tasters are loath to spit out wine. Not only have they been brought up to believe that spitting is uncouth, but they've also paid good money for the opportunity to taste the wines. Why waste them? Well, you can drink all of your wine at a wine tasting, if you wish — and some people do. But we don't advise that you do, for the following reasons: Evaluating the later wines will be difficult if you swallow the earlier ones. The alcohol you consume will cloud your judgment. Swallowing isn't really necessary in order to taste the wine fully. If you leave the wine in your mouth for eight to ten seconds, you'll be able to taste it thoroughly — without having to worry about the effects of the alcohol. If you're driving to the tasting, you're taking a risk driving home afterwards if you drink instead of spit. The stakes are high — your life and health, others' lives, and your driver's license. Why gamble? The simple solution: Spit out the wine. Just about all experienced wine tasters do. Believe it or not, spitting will seem to be a very normal thing to do at wine tastings after a while. (And, in the meantime, it's one sure way to appear more experienced than you are!) If you know that you can't bring yourself to spit, be sure to have something substantial to eat before going to a wine tasting. You absorb alcohol more slowly on a full stomach — and the simple crackers and bread at most wine tastings are not sufficient to do the trick. More fine points of wine etiquette Because smell is such an important aspect of wine tasting, courteous tasters try not to interfere with other tasters’ ability to smell. This means Smoking (anything) is a complete no-no at any wine tasting. Using any scent (perfume, after-shave lotion, scented hair spray, and so on) is unacceptable. These extraneous odors can really interfere with your fellow tasters’ ability to detect the wine’s aroma. Courteous wine tasters also don’t volunteer their opinions about a wine until other tasters have had a chance to taste the wine. Serious tasters like to form their opinions independently and are sure to throw dirty looks at anyone who interrupts their concentration. Most of these wine-tasting etiquette guidelines apply to wine classes as well — and are also relevant when you visit wineries around the world.

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How to Describe and Rate Wines

Article / Updated 01-30-2019

When we first got excited about wine, we tried to share our enthusiasm with a friend who appeared to have some interest in the subject (well, he drank a glass now and then). Each time we served a wine, we’d talk about it in great detail. But he wasn’t interested. “I don’t want to talk about wine — I just want to drink it!” he proclaimed. On the fundamental level where wine is just a generic beverage, it’s certainly possible to drink wine without talking about it. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to talk about food, or if you’ve been bitten by the wine bug, you know that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to enjoy wine without talking about it at least a little. Wine is a social pleasure that’s enhanced by sharing your opinions with others. Ironically, the experience of a wine is highly personal. If you and three other people taste the same wine at the same time, each of you will have your own impression of that wine based on personal likes and dislikes, physiology, and experience. Maybe some day, if humans learn how to link their minds through Bluetooth, someone else will be able to experience your experience of a wine — but until then, your taste is singular. The only way you can share your impressions with others is through conversation. The Challenge of Putting Taste to Words Language is our main vehicle for communicating our entire experience of life. Our vocabulary of taste is undeveloped, however. When we were young, we were taught a visual vocabulary: what green is, and what yellow, gold, and orange are — and for that matter, what pine green is, or jungle green, olive green, forest green, and sea green (thanks, Crayola!). But no one ever taught us the precise difference in the words bitter, astringent, and tart. Yet to talk about wine taste, we use these words as if we all agree on what they mean. That’s one reason wine descriptions can sound like mumbo jumbo. Another reason wine descriptions are challenging is that a wine’s taste is complicated. Wine is a complex beverage that gives us multiple taste sensations: Aromatic sensations (all those flavors we perceive by smelling them in our mouths) Basic taste sensations (sweetness, sourness, and bitterness) Tactile sensations (the bite of astringency, for example, as well as the prickliness, roughness, smoothness, richness, or other textural impressions of a wine in our mouths) Sensations on the holistic level, a synthesis of all the wine’s characteristics taken together For example, say we just tasted an oaked Sauvignon Blanc from California. We may perceive the wine as intense in herbaceous and fruity, melonlike flavors with some smokiness (aromatic impressions), very slightly sweet, yet with firm acidity (basic taste impressions), smooth and rich (tactile impressions), a vibrant wine with personality to spare (holistic impression). That description risks sounding like some insufferable wine snob showing off, when it’s actually just a wine lover trying his best to report the taste data the wine is sending him. You’ve probably gotten many a laugh from wine descriptions you’ve read. At face value, they sound preposterous: Unctuous, with butter and vanilla flavors that coat the sides of your mouth. Supple and smooth, showing some fatness in the mouth, and a long finish. (Wait! They forgot to say wet and “liquidy.”) Imperfect medium that language is, however, it’s the only way we have of communicating the taste of wine. Reading wine descriptions (or tasting notes, as they’re often called) in wine newsletters or magazines can be as difficult as writing them. We must admit that our eyes often glaze over when we try to read tasting notes. And we’re not alone. The late Frank Prial, long-time wine columnist of The New York Times, once wrote that “a stranger’s tasting notes, to me anyway, are about as meaningful as a Beijing bus schedule.” When It’s Your Turn to Speak Describing your experience or impression of a wine involves two steps: First, you have to form the impression; second, you have to communicate it. When you drink wine with friends purely for enjoyment and appreciation — over dinner, for example — simple impressions and silly comments are perfectly appropriate. If a wine strikes you as exotic, full and voluptuous, why not say that it’s like Kim Kardashian? If a wine seems tight and unyielding, go ahead and call it Ebenezer Scrooge. Everyone will know exactly what you mean. In other circumstances, though, such as when you’re attending a wine-tasting event, you probably want to form more considered impressions of each wine in order to participate in the discussion and gain the most from the event. To form a considered impression, you need to taste thoughtfully. The guidelines in the following sections will help. Organizing your thoughts The language you use to describe a wine starts with your own thoughts as you taste the wine. Thus, the process of tasting a wine and the process of describing it are intertwined. Although wine tasting involves examining wine visually and smelling it as well as tasting it, those first two steps are a breeze compared to the third. When the wine is in your mouth, the multiple taste sensations — flavors, texture, body, sweetness or dryness, acidity, tannin, balance, length — occur practically all at once. In order to make sense of the information you receive from the wine, you have to impose some order on those impressions. One way of organizing the impressions a wine sends you is to classify those impressions according to the nature of the “taste”: The wine’s aromatics (all the flavors you smell in your mouth) The wine’s structure (its alcohol/sweetness/acid/tannin makeup, that is, its basic tastes — the wine’s bricks and mortar, so to speak) The wine’s texture (the tactile data, how the wine feels in your mouth; texture is a function of the wine’s structural components — a high acid, dry, low-alcohol white wine may feel thin or sharp, for example, whereas a high-alcohol red wine with moderate tannin may feel soft and silky) Another way of organizing the impressions a wine sends you is by the sequence of your impressions. The words that tasters use to describe the sequence are Attack: The first impression of the wine, which may involve sweetness, dryness, richness or thinness of texture, or even fruitiness (although most of the wine’s flavors register a few moments later). Evolution: The development of the wine in your mouth. You can think of this stage in two parts: The mid-palate impression, a phase when you tend to notice the wine’s acidity, perhaps get a first impression of its tannin (in red wines), and notice its flavors and their intensity The rear-palate impression, which involves persistence that the wine’s flavors have (or don’t have) across the length of your mouth, the amount and nature of the wine’s tannins, and any indication of a burning sensation from overly high alcohol Finish or aftertaste: Flavors or impressions that register after the wine has been spat or swallowed. Both the duration of the aftertaste and its nature are noteworthy. (A long finish is commendable, for example, and a bitter one is not.) A suggestion of concentrated fruit character on the finish often can indicate that a wine is age-worthy. Describing a wine Some people have a special ability to remember tastes. But other people need to take notes in order to remember what wine they tasted, and what they thought of it. If you have the slightest difficulty remembering wine names, jot down the names of wines you try and like, or take a picture of the label; doing so will enable you to find and enjoy those wines — or similar wines — again. It’s a good idea to write comments about the wines, too. Even if you’re one of those lucky few who can remember everything you taste, we recommend that you write tasting notes now and then because the exercise of taking notes helps discipline your tasting methods. When we take notes on wines, we automatically write the letters C (for color and appearance in general) N (for nose) T (for taste, or mouth impressions) We put one below the other, under the name of each wine on our tasting sheet, leaving space to record our impressions. When we taste, we take each wine as it comes: If a wine is very aromatic, we write lots of things next to N, but if the aroma is understated, we can just write subtle or even not much. When the wine is in our mouths, we approach it sequentially, noting its attack and evolution; we hold the wine long enough to note its balance and texture, too. Then (having spat), we sometimes taste the wine again to determine what else it may be saying. At that point, we could arrive at a summary description of the wine, like a huge wine packed with fruitiness that’s ready to drink now, or a lean, austere wine that will taste better with food than alone. Our tasting notes are a combination of fragmented observation — high acid, very crisp — and summary description. At first, your own notes will be brief. Just a few comments, like soft fruity or tannic austere are fine to remind you later what the wine was like. And as an evaluation of overall quality, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with yummy! Just keep in mind that the taste of a wine is more than just aromas and flavors. Instead of searching for ever more fruit or flower descriptors, move on to consider the dryness or sweetness, the body, or the texture. Tese characteristics are more important in pairing wine with food than the wine’s actual flavors are. Sometimes, if a wine is really a great wine, tasters stumble into the most controversial realm of wine description: poetry. We never try to come up with picturesque metaphorical descriptions for wines, but sometimes a wine just puts the words in our mouths. One memorable wine in our early days of tasting was a 1970 Brunello di Montalcino that we described as a rainbow in the mouth, its flavors so perfectly blended that each one was barely perceptible individually. A friend of ours described a glass of great but too-young Vintage Port as “like rubbing a cat in the wrong direction.” If a wine inspires you to such fanciful description, by all means go with it. The experience of that wine will become memorable through the personal words you use to name it. When you do lapse into metaphor over a wine, though, don’t expect others to necessarily understand what you mean. Beware of anyone who is moved to poetry over every wine, however. The vast majority of wines are prosaic, and their descriptions should be, too. In the end, the experience of wine is so personal that the best any of us can do is to try to describe the experience to others. Your descriptions will be meaningful to people who share your approach and your language, especially if they’re tasting the wine along with you. But someone else picking up your notes could find them incomprehensible. Likewise, you’ll find some wine descriptions you read incomprehensible. Such is the nature of the exercise. Rating Wine Quality When a wine critic writes a tasting note, he usually accompanies it with a point score, which is a judgment of the wine’s quality on a scale of 20 or 100. You see these numbers plastered all over the shelves in your wine shop, in wine advertisements, and in wine blogs. Because words are such a difficult medium for describing wine, the popularity of number ratings is almost universal. Many wine lovers don’t bother to read the descriptions in a critic’s wine reviews — they just run out to buy the wines with the highest scores. (Hey, they’re the best wines, right?) Wines that receive high scores from the best-known critics sell out almost overnight as the result of the demand generated by their scores. Numbers do provide convenient shorthand for communicating a critic’s opinion of a wine’s quality. But number ratings are problematic, for several of reasons: The sheer precision of a score suggests that the score is objective, when in fact it represents either the subjective opinion of an individual critic or the combined subjective opinions of a panel of critics. Different critics can apply the same scale differently. For example, some may assign 95 points only to wines that are truly great compared to all wines of all types, while others could assign the same score to a wine that’s great among wines of its own type. The score probably reflects an evaluation of a wine under different circumstances than those in which you’ll taste it. Most critics rate wines by tasting them without food, for example, while most wine drinkers drink wine with food. Also, the wine glass the critic uses can be different from what you use, and even this detail can seriously affect the way the wine presents itself. Number scores tell you absolutely nothing about how the wine tastes. This last point, for us, is the most important. You may hate a wine that’s rated highly — and not only that, but you may end up feeling like a hopeless fool who can’t recognize quality when it’s staring him in the face. Save your money and your pride by deciding what kinds of wine you like and then trying to figure out from the words whether a particular wine is your style — regardless of the number rating. Despite the pitfalls of number ratings, you might be inclined to score wines yourself — and we encourage you to do that. Numbers can be meaningful to the person assigning them. Here are some basic steps to follow: 1. To start, decide which scale you’ll use. We suggest a scale with 100 as the highest score, because it’s more intuitive than a scale ending at 20, which some British writers use. (Most 100-point scales are actually only 50-point scales, with 50 points, not 0, representing the poorest conceivable quality. And in practice, they are 20-point scales, because few wines score below 80.) 2. After deciding your scale, create several groupings of points, and write down the quality level that each group represents. It can be something like this: 95–100: Absolutely outstanding; one of the finest wines ever 90–94: Exceptional quality; excellent wine 85–89: Very good quality 80–84: Above-average quality; good 75–79: Average commercial quality (a “C” student) 70–74: Below average quality Below 70: Poor quality Then assign a number to a wine after you have tasted it thoughtfully. At first, you could give each wine a range rather than a precise score, such as 80 to 84 (good) or 85 to 89 (very good). As you gain experience in tasting wine and rating wine quality, you become more opinionated and your scores will naturally become more precise. Just remember that like every other critic, you have your own taste preferences that inevitably influence your scores, no matter how objective you try to be. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all your wine friends should agree with you.

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