Wine Basics Part One: The Grapes

Introduction To Wine Part One: The Grapes

In our multi-part wine guide, we are going to give you  a basic understanding of picking the right wine, how to drink wine and giving wine as a gift.

You’re in a liquor store looking for “that special wine” to serve at a dinner party. Before you walked in  you had an idea of what you wanted (at least you thought you did). But now, as you scan the shelves, you’re overwhelmed. “There are so many wines,” you think to yourself, ”…and so many prices.” You take a deep breath, impetuously pick up a bottle that looks grand, and buy it. Then you hope your guests will like your selection.

You’re in a restaurant with family, friends or business associates. Somehow, you are the one to select the wine. Unless you are already fluent in “sommelier” the words and phases in a wine list can read like gibberish to you. To compound this problem, few restaurants have wait staff that know enough about the wines in question to be of any help.

For many, ordering wine in a restaurant is like playing the old childhood game of pin the tail on the donkey. We usually set the bar low for ourselves when it comes to defining success, and often we’re content to just hit the board, thinking that hitting the tail is probably out of the question.

You’re sitting at a bar and want to have a delicious glass of wine. Yet, do you normally fall back to the familiar and comforting wine terms and pick a “safe bet?” The same-old, same-old…Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot.

Wine should be an enjoyable experience

Does all this sound far-fetched? For some of you, yes. But the truth is, it’s a very common occurrence for the wine beginner and even for the intermediate. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Wine should be an enjoyable experience. We’re here to help you understand the wine world. In a series of articles, we’ll show you how to buy from a retailer with confidence and to navigate a restaurant wine list.

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This is not a guide so that you can impress people with your wine knowledge. We want to do something more important and rewarding. We want you to drink far better and more interesting wines at fair value than ever before. With a little savoir faire you will enhance your wine drinking experience.

But first, we must start with the basics, the foundations of your wine knowledge. Read carefully, because you will find this article to be critical as you try to understand and move forward with your wine knowledge using the articles that follow. You may even want to refer back to this article to strengthen what you learn.

For the purpose of these articles, wine is the fermented juice of grapes.

grape juice turns into wine

What is fermentation?

Fermentation is the process in which the grape juice turns into wine. Sugar is present naturally in the ripe grape. Yeast also occurs naturally, as the white blooms on the grape skin. However, this natural yeast is not always used. Instead, laboratory strains of pure yeast have been isolated, each strain contributing something unique to the style of the wine. The fermentation process ends when all the sugar has been converted into alcohol or the alcohol level has reached 15 percent, which kills off the yeast. Carbon dioxide dissipates into the air, except in the case of Champagne and other sparkling wines where it is retained through a special process.

The major wine grapes come from the genus Vitis vinifera

Why do the world’s fine wines come only from certain areas?

A combination of components are at work here. The areas with a reputation for fine wines have the right soil and favorable weather conditions, of course. But, additionally, these areas look at winemaking as an important part of their history and culture.

Is all wine made from the same kind of grape?

The major wine grapes come from the genus Vitis vinifera. In fact, both European and Californian winemakers use the Vitis vinifera which includes several varieties of grapes, both red and white. However, there are other grapes used for winemaking.

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The native grape variety in America is the genus Vitis labrusca which is grown widely in New York state. Hybrids (a cross between Vitis vinifera and Vitis labrusca) are sometimes planted, and this occurs primarily on the East Coast of the United States.

What are the three major types of wine?

  • Table wine: 8 percent to 14 percent alcohol
  • Sparkling wine: 8 percent to 14 percent alcohol  + CO2
  • Fortified wine: 17 percent to 22 percent alcohol

All wine fits into these categories.

Where are the best locations to plant grapes? 

Grapes are an agricultural product that require certain growing conditions. Just as you wouldn’t try to grow oranges in Maine, you wouldn’t try to grow grapes at the North Pole. There are many impediments to grape growing which narrow down the areas in which grapes can be grown. Some of these environmental factors that can cause an impediment are: the growing season, the number of days of sunlight, the angle of the sun, the average temperature, and the amount of rainfall. Soil is also of primary concern, and proper drainage is necessary. The right amount of sun ripens the grapes properly to give them the sugar/acid balance that makes the difference between the fair, the good, and the best wines.

Does it matter what types of grapes are planted?

Yes, it does. Traditionally, many grape varieties produce better wines when planted in certain locations. Most red grapes need a longer growing season than white grapes and are usually planted in warmer, more southerly locations. In the colder, northern regions (Germany and northern France, for instance) most vineyards are planted with white grapes. On the other hand, in the warmer regions of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal the red grape thrives. Vines are planted during their fallow periods, usually in the months of April or May. A vine does not usually produce grapes suitable for winemaking until the third year. Most vines will continue to produce quality grapes for up to 40 years.

grape varieties produce better wines when planted in certain locations

When is the harvest?

Grapes are picked when they reach the proper sugar/acid ratio for the style of wine the winemaker wants to produce. Go to a vineyard in June and taste one of the small green grapes. Your mouth will pucker because it’s so acidic and tart. Return to the same vineyard – even the same vine – in September or October and the grapes will taste sweet. All those months of sun have given the grape sugar.

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What effect does weather have on the grapes?

Weather can interfere with the quality of the harvest, as well as its quantity. In the spring, as vines come out of dormancy, a sudden frost may stop the flowering, thereby reducing the yields. Even a strong windstorm can affect the grapes at this crucial time. Not enough rain, too much rain, or rain at the wrong time can also wreak havoc.

Rain just before the harvest will swell the grapes with water, diluting the juice and making thin, watery wines. Lack of rain will affect the balance of the wines for those years. A severe drop in temperature even outside the growing season may affect the vines.

Weather can interfere with the quality of the harvest

Can white wine be made from red grapes?

Yes. The color of wine comes entirely from the grape skins. By removing the grape skins immediately after picking no color is imparted to the wine and it will be white. In the Champagne region of France, a large percentage of the grapes are red, yet most of the resulting wine is white.

What is tannin and is it desirable in wine?

Tannin is a natural component that comes from the skins and stems of the grapes and even from the barrels in which certain wines are aged. It acts as a preservative and without it, certain wines could not be aged. In young wines tannin can be very harsh and make the wine taste bitter. Red wines have a higher level of tannin than white.

Is acidity desirable in wine?

All wines will have certain amounts of acidity. Winemakers try to have a balance of fruit and acidity. In general, white wines have more acidity than reds. An overly acidic wine is usually described as tart.

What is meant by “vintage”? Why is one year considered better than another?

A vintage indicates the year the grapes were harvested so every year is a vintage year. A vintage chart reflects the weather conditions for the various years. Better weather results in a better rating for the vintage.

Winemakers try to have a balance of fruit and acidity

Are all wines meant to be aged?

No, No, No! It’s a common misconception that all wines improve with age. Over 90 percent of all the wines made in the world are meant to be consumed within one year, maybe two.

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Blair Witkowski
Author: Blair Witkowski

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