Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.
I suppose it’s only natural that I bring up my chosen career field sooner, rather than later: Wine. As you read this, I will be down in the wine country of Southern Arizona, for the crush, making white wines for our tasting room. The process is a long one, and much preparation goes into it. The process itself is one that generally takes a year before fruition. And in some cases, like an exquisite Barolo or Barbaresco from Italy, may take almost 40 years. (Which is why I plan to buy a young Barolo and age it for that long—the idea is to buy something that will finally be ready to drink in two decades when I’ve finally finished paying off my student loans from seminary.)
Yet, that being said, wine is an incredibly complex drink, with an even longer, often-times more complex history. How to expound upon it in such a short space? Better yet, how to make it simple? Wine has so many connotations these days; a drink of the rich, while rose is often seen as a drink for women, and then there’s the omnipresent evil of White Zinfandel.
(I’m sorry. I hate Zinfandel. There. I’ve said it. Its name sounds like the name of a character from Lord of the Rings. Or rather, I should say, I strongly dislike many of the wines that are made from this grape, when it has so much more potential than to be mediocre.)
Wine experts like to throw around crazy words about how a wine tastes, and how a wine smells, but, as a worker in a tasting room, I can tell you that there’s one thing that really matters, more than anything else: Do you like what you’re drinking? If you do, then keep drinking it. If you don’t, then…don’t. (Unless someone offers it to you. Then you drink it, and gladly give thanks. In my opinion, refusing a bad wine that is freely given is just as prideful as refusing a cheeseburger an innocent soul makes for you during Lent.)
To dramatically oversimplify things, I’m going to split wine somewhat arbitrarily into five categories. These categories can be further subdivided, of course, and will likely have separate entries altogether in the very, very long run. I admit, there’s certain grapes and styles of wine I like more than others. Some of these are not widely known outside of their growing regions, but with the dramatic increase in the popularity of the wine industry, it’s only a matter of time.
Whites: Some examples of white wines are those made from the grapes of Pinot Grigo, Chardonnay, Viognier (which is awesome), Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc. Blends are common, of course, and many blends from certain regions of Europe will only be labeled as a “White Bordeaux” for example, if it’s a white blend from the Bordeaux region of France. Champagne is a certain style of white wine made from certain grapes, in a certain part of France. There are wines made in the same method from all over the world, but cannot be classified as a true Champagne due to regions of appellation. (We’ll get into that shortly.) Most whites do not age terribly well, with the exception of Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Drink these within 6 years, generally. Not all Whites are sweet. Dry whites are more common than you’d think.
Rose: There are two ways to make a rose. One is to blend a red grape with a white grape (say, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a Malvasia), the other is to take a red grape, (like Syrah), and ferment it on the skins for only a few days, then remove it from the skins entirely. Rose can be either dry, or sweet. White Zinfandel is an example of a sweet Rose; many of the roses produced in Provence, France, are dry (as are most of those produced here in Arizona.) These wines, especially the dry rose, are really fantastic chilled on a hot summer day. As I write this, I have next to me a glass of a Rose made from Sangiovese.
Red: There are THOUSANDS of different reds. Sangiovese, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Merlot are among the most popular, but Tempranillo is gaining popularity (with good reason, it’s very tasty.) There are also multiple different styles of reds. It is kind of a dizzying topic to comprehend. There are also, as in whites, many popular blends. Also, Syrah is the same grape as Shiraz, but for some reason, marketers in Australia decided to mess with our heads. That being said, if you want to detect variability in a wine, Syrah is a REALLY good example.
Here’s a fun experiment: each week, drink a Syrah/Shiraz from a different place. Drink one from France, then one from Washington, then one from California, then one from Australia, then one from Arizona, one from Chile/Argentina and then, if you can, finish up the experiment with one from Turkey or Lebanon. It will hardly seem like the same grape. This is an effect of Terroir. Terroir, in a nutshell, is how the local environment and geology affect a particular grape one way or another. It’s a good buzzword to know if you’re talking about wine.
Dessert: These are super sweet wines, often made from whites. Eiswein is an excellent example, usually made from Reisling. There are relatively few sweet red wines that aren’t technically ports, though sometimes one can stop the fermentation process, leaving some sugars unchanged into alcohol.
Fortified: Ports and Madeiras are the best example of wines in this category, which almost fit better in a post with Brandy. Chances are many of you have already had a port and didn’t know it: the traditional wine in Greek Orthodox Churches, Mavrodaphne of Patras, is technically a port. Whether this means that Port is theologically superior to other wines is up for debate, but what is worth mentioning is that Ports and Gentlemen have often been paired together (along with cigars). A port can be made from white or red wines, though I’ve noticed it’s much harder to find a white port. It’s worth noting that a Porto is a port from Portugal, and they make some of the best.
The main reason Ports and Madeiras (Madeira is a separate, fortified white wine, by the way, made from grapes such as Malvasia, Verdehlo, and Bual) became so popular was that during the age of sail, due to their being fortified, they would not go bad during long sea voyages. Nowdays, these are often categorized as dessert wines, which I think is somewhat of a bad characterization. They’re great on their own, or paired with strong foods. Or Cigars and Latakia-heavy pipe blends.
Not all wines are created equal. In general, wines from the West Coast of the United States tend to have a super-high alcohol content, while those from elsewhere (France, Italy, Greece, Spain, the SW US) tend to be lighter in alcohol, and more amenable to food pairings. It’s really up to your palate to discern what you like, and what you don’t like. I admit, I tend to like European wines more than those from California. (Arizona wines tend to be similar overall to those from the Rhone valley, in case you were wondering.) European wines are also highly connected to the idea of appellations.
Appellations, by the way, are legally defined and protected forms of geographical indication. They’re used to identify where the grapes for a wine were grown, and often-times include other restrictions, such as what grapes may be grown in a region, and which grapes are used in a wine. As a quick example, there are only certain grapes which can be used to make a Red Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carménère.
Whew. That was a huge info-dump. Sorry guys. Next post will be much simpler, I promise. I originally wanted to cover how to approach a glass of wine, but…I ran out of space and time. We’ll save that for later, lest the whining begin.
Next post: All for you.