Learning to Taste: Wine Basics

I’ve been drinking wine for years, but only in the last year or so have I taken an interest in learning more about it. I prefer reds and have a few white favorites, so that has sparked a desire to learn why I like certain wines and not others. As my interest in knowing where my food comes from and how it was produced has increased, so has my interest in learning more about the wine I drink.


The subject is exhaustive. Books, magazines, newsletters, websites and television shows are devoted to it. The bits of info I present here will seem very rudimentary and fragmentary to wine connoisseurs, but hopefully they will prove interesting and useful to those just getting interested in wine drinking along with me.


– There are two main types of grapes – red and white. From them, there are four basic types of wine that can be produced – Rose, Red, White and Sweet/Dessert. Rose wines are created with either red grapes or a blend of red and white grapes. Red wine is from red grapes. White wine is from white grapes. Sweet/Dessert wines can be made from either red or white grapes (though typically white). Of course, all of these wines require different processing methods (Oz Clarke has a handy chart explaining these methods on page 28 of his book “Grapes & Wines” which has been my basic text for my wine education).


– Grape vines are an amazing plant – they thrive in poor soil and do poorly in rich soils. The theory behind this is that the more the vine has to struggle to survive, the more character the wine will have. Wine grapes cannot be grown everywhere. They generally grow and thrive between 32° and 51° N (latitudinally speaking), which encompasses the United States and Europe, as well as 28° and 44° S, which includes southern South American and Australia. Today, all of these regions are recognized wine-growing regions, and you can easily find wine grown there in most major grocery stores and shops. There are more factors to where wine grows, but that’s the very basic bit of it.


– Within the distinction of “red wine” and “white wine” there are many different grape varieties used to produce each. This, as well as bottle labeling, is where it gets complicated for most people. Wine labels can be identified by any of the following – wine variety, name of the vintner/vineyard (the producer), region the wine was produced in, a made up name for the wine, or all of the above. The three most common (in my opinion) red wine grape varieties are Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The three most common (again, in my opinion) white wine grape varieties are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. And everyone seems to recognize Zinfandel, which can produce either red, white or rose wines.


– Cellaring wines (aging them by storing them in the bottle) is best with red wines high in tannin that are full-bodied and bold. What does this mean? Here’s a cheat for you – Cabernet Sauvignon is probably the best for aging, because it has all of these qualities. And as wine lovers for centuries have noted and taken advantage of, Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends thereof) are the best for cellaring when they come from the Bordeaux or Burgundy regions of France. Why? Because of their terroir – which is the French word for saying the way the grape was grown – the climate, the temperature, the soil, the treatment of the vine – all of the ingredients that go into a particular vine in a particular place. Superior vintages (a wine of a given year) of Bordeaux and Burgundy can be aged for decades. “Vintages of the century” (these are few and far between) can be drunk after as long and still be good. Most of us cellar wine for 1-10 years, if at all. Most wines you can purchase in a store at a reasonable price are meant to be drunk “young” (a few years or less after bottling). Of course, you can cellar wines from other regions and other grapes – it’s just a matter of learning which characteristics produce benefits from time in the bottle.


– As it turns out, 2005 was a superior vintage. Basically, all of the stars lined up right to create the perfect conditions for growing red wine. 2005 is lauded by Joshua Greene, the editor of Wine & Spirits magazine, as being “a range of wines with the capacity to produce exceptional drinking over the next 20 years” (Wine & Spirits, October 2008, p.1). He echoes nearly all of his peers in this sentiment. Because I was married in 2005, I’m interested in purchasing a few Bordeaux worthy of cellaring for a few key anniversaries down the road. And my favorite wine happens to be Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux. The stars lined up right again on this one (for me, anyway). First growth chateaux (the oldest, most renowned wine producers in France) are selling single bottles of their 2005 for prices in the thousands. And most of those are in limited supply. They are just coming onto market over the last year (as they are aged in the barrel at the winery for several years before bottling), so now is a good time to buy in terms of selection. But you don’t necessarily have to be flush with cash to make a good investment. If you’re interested in cellaring these, I strongly urge you to get a copy of the October 2008 issue of Wines & Spirits. It’s an excellent primer on what’s what for 2005 Bordeaux, and they have a Best Buys selection – stuff we can actually afford. For my cellar (as it were) I’ve got my eyes on Chateau Lagrange 2005 St. Julien at $70.00. That’s a splurge in my budget, but it’s recommended as a wine that can age a minimum of ten years, and is likely to be even better after twenty – which would be perfect for our twentieth wedding anniversary (and hopefully by then $70.00 won’t be a splurge!). And I’d like to stock up on a few bottles of Chateau Liversan 2005 Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois Superieur – a steal at $20 since it’s predicted it will age ten years or more.


– Italian Chianti (a region, not a grape) is also a wine I favor. Most people recognize the curvy bottle with the straw bottom (whose clichéd use as a candle holder in Italian restaurants has made its way into nearly every Italian movie produced in the last twenty years). An interesting tidbit about straw bottled Chianti (as Waverly Root mentions in “The Food of Italy”) is the fact that Chiantis packaged thus should be drunk young and not cellared. Why? Because the straw would rot and disintegrate in storage. So if you want a fresh young Chianti, go ahead and buy the straw bottle. Chianti that is still good after a few years will be bottled in the traditional tall wine bottles, without the fetching straw adornment. There is also another factor when choosing Chianti – you’ve probably noticed some bottles labeled as just “Chianti” and others labeled as “Chianti Classico”. This has to do with the regional distinction – wines produced in the Chianti method within the actual region of Chianti have the privilege of labeling their wines as “Classico” – it’s the real deal. Wine produced in the Chianti method but just outside the region, in the surrounding areas, is not allowed to use the “Classico” distinction. Another hallmark of regional authenticity is the crest of the guild, which is a black rooster on a gold background with a red frame. The crest will likely be located around the neck of the bottle, while “Classico” will be printed on the label. And I agree with Root that Ruffino makes an excellent Chianti Classico, the best one being Riservato Ducale.


That’s it for this go around – plenty to think about and digest in one sitting for sure. The great thing about wine is that there is so much to learn, and of course, it’s a fabulous drink for dinner (and so many other occasions) as well. As I drink and learn more, I’ll share it with you.