The Basics of Wine for any Gentleman

Partially stocked wine rack

It is more than likely that at some point in your life you will have a bottle of wine present for an important meal (or even every day meals for some). If you’re the inquisitive or detail oriented type, you’ll be quick to notice that there are many different things to consider about the selection of any bottle of wine.

How is Wine Made?

In its simplest form, wine is nothing more than grape juice that is fermented with an adequate yeast for alcohol production that matches the style of wine being produced. Once the alcohol has been produced in the oak  barrel (or steel vat), it is bottled (and sometimes aged) before sale and consumption. 

In more depth, the wine goes through more intricate processes:

  • First, the grapes are harvested from the vines
  • Second, the grapes are crushed in order to break their skins. Pro tip- all grapes used in winemaking have clear juices; it is only because of the skins of the grapes that your wine has color.
  • Third, the grapes are fermented between 72 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Fourth, the grapes are most typically matured (or aged) in either oak barrels or steel vats (though some other techniques may be used).
  • Finally, the wine is (typically) clarified and then bottled.

While the process is somewhat different for white and red wines, the process is more or less what is listed above. Maturation in oak barrels allow tannins to be imparted into the wine. Additionally, since wooden barrels can be penetrated by air, it causes a light oxidation; which also helps age the wine more quickly. Barrel sizes and other factors come into play as well- but that is a topic for another day.

Types of Wine

Red wine: a Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Red wine: Wine made from any variety of red grapes that are of wine-making quality. There are a massive number of grape varieties that fit the bill, but some of the most common are:
    • Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Sav
    • Pinot Noir
    • Merlot
    • Syrah (also denoted as ‘Shiraz’)
    • Malbec
    • Grenache
    • Petite Sirah
A white wine from Lost Creek in Virginia
  • White wine: Wine made from any variety of white grapes that are known to excellent for the purpose of wine making. Some of these grapes include:
    • Chardonnay
    • Chenin Blanc
    • Gewürztraminer
    • Muscat
    • Pinot Blanc
    • Riesling
    • Sauvignon Blanc
    • Sémillon
  • Rosé wine: A true rosé wine differs from a red wine in that the fermenting juice is kept in contact with its skins for a shorter time, thus allowing fewer tannins to be extracted and allowing for a small amount of color to be drawn. The skins are typically removed after only a few hours of exposure.
    • Less expensive rosés are made from blending together a little red wine or some fermenting juice with a white wine
A Sauternes dessert wine from Suduiraut in France. Sauternes are revered for their sweetness and their affiliation with Noble Rot.
  • Dessert wines: The greatest dessert wines are left on the vine until the regular harvest season has ended. Due to the additional time on the vine, the sugar is concentrated further than traditional grapes. In certain regions, the grapes can become afflicted with Botrytis cinerea- also known as Noble Rot. This condition causes the skins to break so that much of the liquid in the grapes evaporates- allowing an EVEN FURTHER level of concentrated sugars.
A 2010 Port from Lakewood Vineyards. Like other fortified wines, this is a potent and flavorful drink.
  • Fortified Wines: A classification of wine that has brandy or other grape spirits added to increase the alcoholic content of the wine during or after fermentation.
    • Port: A wine made by adding grape spirit to stop fermentation and maintain high sugar and alcohol levels.
      • Vintage ports (only made from years where grape quality was excellent) are aged in wood for two years.
        • Ruby and tawny (non-vintage) ports will receive varied times in wood depending on the style that was desired.
    • Sherry: A Spanish wine that is made in two styles
      • Oloroso – Dark, rich, and dry
      • Fino – Pale, light, and dry 
A Madeira wine, aged 5 years.
  • Madeira: A wine with a range from dry to sweet that is made using a unique heating technique that causes the wine to not change flavors or mature further regardless of the conditions it is kept in. Often used as an aperitif or dessert wine.

What Wines are Good Wines?

The best part about wine is that there are almost unlimited choices. Between all of the grapes, the aging techniques, the ability to make a wine sparkling, and all of the various terriors (growing soils/environments) in all parts of the world, wine is rather incredible. Whether from the Old World or the New, wine is simply wonderful to experience. That being said, what constitutes as a ‘good wine’ to some, may be ‘terrible’ to another drinker. You’ll have to go out and experience bottles from different regions and of different grape varieties in order to know what works best for you.

Old World vs New World

In the world of winemaking, there is a division between the so-called ‘Old World’ and the ‘New World’ of wineries. Every winery is different, and every vineyard is different as well. Even if properties butt up against each other, the final product will be invariably different.

  • Old World: most simply put, these winemakers are in the countries that are considered to be the ‘birthplace’ of wine- namely Europe and the Middle East. Some Old World wine examples are from countries such as:
    • France
    • Spain
    • Italy
    • Germany
  • New World: More or less countries that used to be colonies. Typically these wines are from countries with hotter climates- giving the characteristics of fuller bodies and bolder fruit flavors. Often these wines also have a higher alcohol content than their counterparts. Some countries from this style of wine include:
    • The U.S.
    • New Zealand
    • Argentina
    • Chile
    • Australia
    • South Africa

Wine Rating System

Since many people don’t know much about wine, there are often books, magazines, and articles online whose soul purposes are to offer insight about certain bottles to the general public. Often times these sources use (or are written by) Sommeliers (wine aficionados and experts) who will give the wines ratings or scores based upon their experience consuming the wines in question. The PA Wine and Spirits stores use “Chairman’s Selections” and other various markers on their wines to give the average buyer an insight into what they’re buying. Whether it’s merely point scores or the tag has specific tasting notes that accompany it, it helps guide the way for what to expect from the bottle.

Keeping/Cellaring Your Wine

If you’re planning on building up your wine collection (or want to have some extra bottles around for friends or special gatherings), you could consider getting a wine rack for your house. Whether it’s a small four bottle metal holder, a moderate sized wooden rack, or your entire wall- a wine holder or wine rack of any variety can be useful to help stow your bottles while they’re not being served.  What’s important, however, is that the bottles should be kept a certain way regardless of your storage unit or its capacity.

  • Temperature: If you have the ability, your wine should be kept between 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit. Many wine experts say that between 52-55 degrees is ideal; though being a little lower or higher won’t hurt.
  • Sun Exposure/UV light: If at all possible, your wine should be stored in a location that protects the bottles from additional sun exposure. Sunlight will degrade your wine and cause it to have a shorter shelf life than wine that is stored properly.
  •  Turning Bottles (riddling): While it is often said to turn your bottles a quarter turn every three months, many experts now advise against riddling your bottles. As the bottle rests, the sediment in the bottle also settles out and builds up at a certain point. If you turn your bottle, you are mixing that sediment back into the bottle- and thus it is more difficult to keep it separated when serving. 

    While riddling does have a practical application in winemaking, it is not necessary to do so for a personal cellar after the bottle has already been corked and sold.

Glassware

Some red wine glasses.

If you’re planning on drinking wine with any consistency, we recommend using proper wine-centered glassware. Whether it’s a low cost glass or a premier-level glass, the style of vessel plays a part in the overall experience of your wine. Typically you can get by with only buying a red wine and a white wine glass- though port glasses and many others are also available (sometimes you can even see glasses sold by grape variety…). A decanter is an option, but is not a necessity. Typically I’m happier using a quick run though my aerator than trying to decant a beverage for a guest; but that’s my preference.

Enjoying your wine

Now that you have all of the basics, the only thing left to do is select your wine, grab the proper glass, and uncork it with your preferred variety of opener (whether it’s a corkscrew, an automated opener, etc.) to enjoy it with your friends and family. Remember- a night with wine makes an evening fine!

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