Wine 101

In Uncategorized on February 7, 2012 at 12:03 am

This post is as much to remind myself of the common questions I get when teaching beginners about wine as anything else.

This is my third year teaching annual Wine 101 classes. The first year I taught it as just one class. But there is so much information to be covered, I broke it into 3 classes, the first being a general overview, the second focused on white, pink, and bubbly wine, and the last focused on red wine. This is the second year in the 3-class format, and it seems to be going quite well.

Since the class is intended as a very basic introduction to wine, one of the topics I always make a point to cover is the basic chemistry of winemaking. If you work in the beverage industry this may seem elementary, but many people who don’t make this their livelihood have never given much thought to the very basic process of fermentation. I discuss the important differences between making red and white wine, and the basic steps from determining appropriate ripeness levels, through alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, and on to barrel or tank aging, and finally bottle aging and shipping wines off for sale.

Another topic that often comes up has to do with cellaring. The overwhelming majority of bottles sold in the US are consumed within 48 hours of purchase. And since I’ve seen first hand what fantastic things can happen when a wine, even an inexpensive one, is allowed to age for a few years, I am a very outspoken proponent of cellaring wine. While this does require at least a moderate level of dedication to the cellaring project, it does not generally mean any huge investment. You don’t have to drop tens of thousands of dollars into building  a full wine cellar in your house, all you need is a spot where you can fit a few cases of wine, and which is a cool and consistent temperature year-round.

I’ve also been asked how you can tell when you taste a wine that it will be good for cellaring. The bad news is that this is also a learning experience more than anything. I could come up with hard numbers for elements like acid, tannin, sugar content, etc, and give guidelines, but the truth is that the best way to figure out what wines will age to your liking is to pick wines that you like in their youth, and begin cellaring them. The good news is that most wines will not just up and go bad overnight, or even over the course of a few months. So here’s a basic way  to begin cellaring wine: you buy 6 bottles of the same vintage of a certain wine that you like. You find a place in your house with a cool and consistent temperature, and you keep them there. You try a bottle every few months. As the wine ages, you will see how it changes. Again, I could give descriptors for common complaints about a wine that has aged too long, but these are mostly subjective, and the important thing is what you enjoy. If you’re liking the wine more and more every time you try it, then it’s continuing to improve. This gives you valuable information about the wine itself, the skill of the winemaker, the vintage, and the relative age-worthiness of wines of this style. So, let’s say you bought 6 bottles of a 2006 Napa Cabernet, and you drank them over the course of a year and a half, and when you got to the last bottle it still seemed youthful, like it could have aged for a few more years. Well now you know that in a good vintage, that particular wine can age for, 5 years or more. This information can be applied tangentially, with caution, to other Napa Cabernets as well. I say ‘with caution’ because you do still need to pay attention to who’s making the wine, and what their track record is. No matter what any wine writer says about any wine, if it’s a style of wine that you don’t like, all the points in the world aren’t going to change your mind.

And on the subject of wine writers, I’ve made some pretty strong statements about the wine press and the 100-point system, but the one thing I will say in defense of both is that wine writers, and the scores they give are generally consistent. So if you find yourself liking wines that a particular writer consistently rates highly, it is not unreasonable to trust that writer’s judgement. That being said, if you come to me and tell me that you like wines that Robert Parker rates 90 points or higher, chances are I’m judging you on the inside.

Another topic that comes up in the 101 class has to do with varietals and blends. The people in charge of marketing wine to Americans seem to have decided some time ago that dumbing things down for consumers was fundamentally important to their sales. As a result, they made a very big point of building varietal names like brand identities. That’s why a lot of people think they like Merlot, but don’t like Cabernet, or vice versa. The truth is, if given 10 Merlots and 10 Cabernets in a blind tasting, most people, even professionals, would have a hard time telling which were which. To further confuse this issue, most people don’t realize that in most cases wines only have to be 75% of the varietal stated on their label.

So, I guess the point I’m trying to get to is that, the more you learn about wine, the more complicated it gets. And I think one of the things I need to try to focus on accomplishing for my wine 101 class is un-complicating things. Because if wine weren’t something that I cared so much about, I would have a really hard time motivating myself to learn all the minutia about it just so I could pick out something to drink with dinner.

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