What is wine?
Let’s get right down to it. Any fruit or berry can produce wine, but if it just says wine on the label without any specification, then it certainly comes from grapes. Because wine is so easy to make and because grapes can grow in many climates, wine from grapes is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages on Earth dating back to 6000 B.C. Archaeologists recently traced the fermented delight back to Georgia, the country not the state, when they discovered the 8,000 year-old pottery remains of wine jars (https:// www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709).
The only evidence of wine older than wine from grapes was found in China and was composed of rice, honey, and fruit from around 7,000 B.C. Wine is a vast wonderland that can get very complicated very fast, so we’re going to stick to the basics. We’ll guide you through some of the most popular varietals and explain a little bit about how wine gets its various tasting and aromatic notes.
Most Common Varietals
First things first: what is a varietal (https://www.wines.com/wine-varietals/ )? A varietal wine is a wine made from a single variety of grapes which will typically be displayed on the bottle label. For example, a pinot noir wine is made from pinot noir grapes. You get the idea. Different varieties bring with them different flavors and smells which we call notes. It’s just a fancy word meaning a hint of a flavor or smell. Let’s go through some of the more common varietals and the tasting and aromatic notes that are associated with them.
We’ll get started with the reds.
The most obvious distinction of red wine is its color. You guessed it. It’s red! The colors range from a light ruby to a deep opaque purple and even a brownish hue with every shade in between. As a wine ages it will typically become darker.
The color comes from the fermenting process and the types of grapes used. Red wine comes from grapes with dark skins. After the grapes are pressed the skins are left in to macerate, which just means they are softened or broken down by the liquid, while the wine ferments. Not only does this process add the color, but it also adds a lot of the flavor to the wine.
Another characteristic or red wine is tannin. When the grapes are macerated with the skin, and seeds, and sometimes stems, polyphenols are extracted and infused into the profile of the wine. The tannins give the wine structure and an ability to age gracefully, softening over time. The biggest indicator of tannins is the feeling of dryness in your mouth when drinking the wine.
The third major characteristic of red wine is the wide array of flavors. When drinking a red you can get everything from bright ripe fruits to tobacco and licorice. The veritable cornucopia of flavors and aromas seems to be never ending, especially when discussing wine with a wine snob.
With this plentiful and absolutely delicious grape you may experience notes of currant, plum, black cherry, spice, and to a lesser degree olive, vanilla, tobacco, cedar,
anise, pepper, and herbs. Cabernet tends to have what a wine connoisseur might call great depth that improves with age. It spends between 15 and 30 months in American & French Oak barrels. This creates a softer mouthfeel, a.k.a. feels like velvet on your tongue. If you just ordered the 20oz Ribeye at your favorite steakhouse, go with their fullest bodied Cabernet.
This beauty tends to be smoother than Cabs and perhaps even richer at its best, with less tannin...you know, that stuff that makes your mouth feel kinda dry and watery at the same time. The grape itself produces more sugar than other varietals, making it more fruit forward and even sweeter in some cases. It finds its origins in Burgundy and is quite difficult to grow. With the pinot noir you will notice hints of raisin and black cherry, raspberry and spice. If you find yourself lost in the wine list just go for the moderately priced Pinot, and you can’t go wrong.
Merlot is one of the most underrated grapes on the menu. Delicious and velvety with few tannins, it’s a wine that doesn’t need as much aging before drinking. Merlot ages beautifully in oak and presents flavors of chocolate covered cherries, green olive, and herbs. And because it’s a medium bodied wine and tends to be softer, it’s often used in blends. If you’re looking to enjoy a glass or two by the fire this Fall then look no further. And don’t forget the charcuterie...or s’mores for that matter.
Now that you’ve learned a little bit about the more popular reds, let’s take a gander at some of the more popular whites.
Straw yellow, yellow-green, or yellow-gold in color, white wines are made by fermenting white or red grapes without having contact with the skins...but mainly white grapes. Most white wine producing grapes are yellow or green in color and mostly produce dry whites, and they’ve been doing so for at least 4000 years.
For the most part dry whites are aromatic and tangy. Sweet whites are made by interrupting the fermentation process before all the sugars are converted into alcohol in a process called Mortage, or fortification.
White wines are great to pair with charcuterie, crudités, salad, lighter dishes, and deserts because of their light and refreshing profiles. White wines are also great for cooking with because of their acidity, aroma, and ability to soften meats and deglaze cooking juices.
Lots of people sleep on white wines in favor of the big robust reds. But just try them, I promise you that you will find the perfect refreshing dry Riesling to sip on the porch on a hot summer day, or the perfectly balanced Chardonnay to pair with your cheese board. For every red that tickles your fancy, there is a white counterpart if you just give it a try.
Chardonnay is one of the least fickle grapes. This green-skinned beauty grows in many climates, and so it produces large amounts of wine every year from many vineyards around the world. The most popular region in the US is of course Napa Valley, CA. With big buttery and oaky notes, the California Chardonnay is hands down the most ordered Chardonnay in the country.
But Chardonnay is much more versatile than what Napa Valley presents. Depending on the soil and the type of oak in which it’s aged, Chardonnay will present fruit notes such as pear, apple, peach, pineapple, fig, melon, citrus, and grapefruit, and other tasty notes like butter, butterscotch, honey, spice, and hazelnut. If you’re having a light pasta dish or a nice piece of grilled fish, a Chardonnay is sure to pair well.
Pinot Grigio, or Pinot Gris, is a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape. They are so similar genetically that the only thing differentiating the two is the color of their skins. Pinot Grigio is typically mildly acidic giving it a refreshing zing that will wake up your palate and dance on your tastebuds, although that could also be due to its higher alcohol content. This spicy varietal is widely grown around the world and is currently grown in ten US states.
Sauvignon Blanc is considered one of the fruitier white wines. This varietal is herbaceous and bright with grassy aromas, hints of gooseberry and black currant, and a typically light to medium body. It’s wonderful for cutting through a salty bite like oysters on the half-shell, or a simple Caesar salad.
White Zinfandel is actually a blush white that comes from the Zinfandel varietal, and is the most popular wine sold in the US. In this form, the Zinfandel grape is slightly sweet with bright cherry, plum, and wild berry flavors. Zinfandel is the most widely grown grape in California and a large portion of it is turned into White Zinfandel. There’s nothing better than a perfectly chilled bottle of White Zinfandel on a breezy summer patio with the sea salt air blowing through your hair.
Now that you know a handful of wines, let’s take a look at some general information to help you better understand the life-altering elixirs you are about to try. Having some general knowledge about what you are drinking will help you appreciate it more, and make you sound super smart on a date.
Where Does Wine Get Its Flavors?
The simple answer is that wine gets its flavors from aroma compounds that are released during fermentation. As the alcohol evaporates, the wine molecules float up into your nose and VOILA! You’ve got aromatic wine notes!
The more detailed answer is a bit more complicated. Here are the three causes of flavor you should be familiar with if you are embarking on a more in depth wine journey.
-The grape itself-
The grape variety is the first factor when talking about flavors and aromas. Each varietal has its own unique flavor profile. Some are sturdier than others, some produce more sugar than others, and some are more delicate, or particular about soil and climate, or they are fermented with the skins incorporating all the flavors held in the skin.
There are many characteristics of each variety that lend flavors and aromas to the wine profile, but more than the variety itself, the climate and soil also dictate the flavor profile.
-The soil and climate-
Known as “terroir” the soil and climate play a huge role in the development of flavors and aromas in wine.
For example, the more sunlight a grape gets and the longer the growing season, the more sugar a grape will produce which translates into more alcohol during fermentation. If there is an abundance of minerals in the soil, you can actually taste the minerality in the grape! How crazy is that!? If there are other fruits cross pollinating, you can taste those. If the wind is blowing in off the sea...YEP, you guessed it! You can taste it!
The temperature and sunlight exposure from one grape to the next is unique, and subtle differences in each tiny grape blend together to produce a flavor profile for that particular variety.
So, besides the type of grape and where it’s grown, the third and most important factor in developing the flavor is the fermentation process.
-The fermentation process-
Unless you are a chemist or a wine expert, the full explanation of how fermentation flavors wine is a bit confusing. Most simply put, the yeast flavors the wine. Yeast eats sugar and produces alcohol. When all the sugar has been eaten or enough alcohol has been produced the yeast can’t survive and it dies. Simple enough, yes?
Okay, let’s go a little further. Macerated grapes and yeast aren’t the only things present in the fermentation vat. Air is also hanging out in there. What happens when you mix oxygen and alcohol? It’s converted into acid. This acid combines with compounds from the grapes or with the alcohol and forms what really smart people call “ester.” All you need to know about esters is that they are the flavor compounds.
Whatever you smell or taste is all because of the yeast activity and its residual compounds mixing with oxygen and alcohol. Boom! There’s some knowledge for ya!
We all know wine is delicious, and now we know several varietals and how they get their tastes and aromas. So let’s finally take a look at the most popular region specific wines for your drinking enjoyment.
Most Popular Region Specific Wines
When it comes to producing wine some countries are just more efficient and some are more experienced. The more experienced countries in the top 4 are Italy, France, and Spain, while the newcomer to the group is just plain efficient...that would be the good ole USA.
Without further adieu, the top 4 wine producing countries and their most popular grapes!
Italy- Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Merlot, Trebbiano Toscano, Nero d’Avola, Barbera, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Nebbiolo
France- Merlot, Grenache, Trebbiano Toscano, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sauvignon Blanc
United States- Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc
Spain- Tempranillo, Airén, Garnacha, Monastrell, Bobal